We need to talk about mental health in the workplace

Preventable working conditions like long working hours, low autonomy or job control, low social support at work, excessive job demands, and job insecurity increase the risk of several mental health conditions, writes the Institute’s Professor Anthony LaMontagne.

Written by Professor Anthony D LaMontagne

There is growing awareness of the strong relationship between work and mental health among workers, employers, healthcare providers, government actors and others.

Work can be great for mental health: a source of purpose, pride and self-esteem, social connection, income and more. But it can also be demotivating, dehumanising, and even downright dangerous.

We’re now all painfully aware of the more the blatant forms of bad work –experiencing bullying or sexual harassment at work; and these, shamefully, remain quite common in Australian workplaces.

Even more widespread are the more subtle aspects of work that can erode mental health over time: long working hours, low autonomy or job control, low social support at work, excessive job demands, job insecurity, to name just a few.

These preventable working conditions increase the risk of several mental health conditions, ranging from burnout, to depression and anxiety, and even to suicidal thoughts and behaviours. We also know that these same working conditions reduce productivity and increase the risks of cardiovascular disease and premature mortality.

So where’s the balance landing now – between the good and the bad aspects of work in relation to mental health? At present, our society tolerates a substantial preventable burden of work-related mental illness. From my own research, we have shown an estimated 15% of depression among working people to be caused by low job control in the face of excessive demands.

In another study, we estimated that 5% of deaths by suicide among men were linked to those same job stressors: low job control in the face of excessive demands. Note that these estimates are for two job stressors – whereas there are many job stressors that affect mental health, and they estimate relations with a single mental health condition – whereas most job stressors affect multiple mental and physical health conditions. In other words, this is just the tip of an iceberg. This is unacceptable, and it’s fixable – given the political will.

Our work health and safety laws were conceived in relation to the adverse impacts of work on physical health. And those laws have gone a long way to reducing the toll of work-related injury and traumatic fatalities on the job. Why should mental health be any different? The short answer is that it shouldn’t.

Indeed, an extensive review of our national model Work Health and Safety Laws, the 2018 Boland Review, recommended that regulations be amended “to deal with how to identify the psychosocial risks associated with psychological injury and the appropriate control measures to manage those risks”.

Some fear that this means employers are being asked to be responsible for their workers’ mental health – not so. Employers are being asked to provide work that is safe from recognised hazard to mental or psychological health: the same as the existing responsibility in relation to physical health.

More than two years later, it’s finally time for Boland’s recommendation to be acted on. This week, on May 20, work health and safety ministers from the states, territories and the federal government will vote on this and other changes to our work health and safety laws.

I urge the ministers to vote in favour of protecting mental health at work. It would be a vote in everyone’s interest – workers, employers, governments and more. And it would be a vote for a shift towards sustainable work, for jobs that we can sustain over our ever-expanding working lifetimes, a vote for better and safer jobs for all.

 Anthony LaMontagne is Professor of Work, Health & Wellbeing at Deakin University and Director of the Institute for Health Transformation’s Determinants of Health research domain.

 Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au).

This article was originally published in The Age. Read the original article here.

Update 24 May 2021:

On 20 May 2021, State, Territory and Federal Work, Health and Safety Ministers met to consider changes to the Work, Health and Safety Act with regard to these changes as well as other proposed amendments.  A majority of Ministers voted to improve psychosocial hazard control as well as responses to psychological injuries.