Workplace mental health: making changes with meaning

It's Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand and I've loved seeing the positive coverage of it. But I have wondered - are businesses making meaningful changes to create a safe working environment for their people?
I’ve seen the enthusiastic corporate support of workplace mental health and it’s awesome! But I also know people in those workplaces who are being bullied or are feeling unsupported with their mental health challenges.  And, early results of my little happiness survey show that work is the greatest cause for unhappiness*.

Something isn’t working.

Massey University’s Dr Bevan Catley is running a series on workplace mental health and he says that many workplaces don’t realise they have a problem until it’s too late. Like the Housing New Zealand case where a man felt bullied by a manager. He went through the proper channels to raise the complaint, was told to suck it up and took his own life 10 days later. They’re promising to investigate and make changes but it is far, far too late.
I’ve heard that ‘suck it up’ line when raising concerns about toxic behaviour before. And it is happening in workplaces all over New Zealand. NDAs are signed, the culture remains the same and the bullying behaviour isn’t addressed in a meaningful way. Those with the toxic behaviour stay in positions of power without facing consequences or receiving training to support staff with mental health issues.
So how do we create safer workplaces where people feel supported? Here’s what I’ve been thinking:

1. Leaders and Managers must set the example:

Leaders need to show their team that they are cared for. Notice what is happening with their people. Taking note of regular absences, changes in attitude or if their performance is dropping. Rather than punishing, it’s worthwhile having a chat about what is going on.
Leaders need to display what excellent self-care and wellbeing looks like. Being a martyr and working ridiculous hours sets a dangerous precedent for the team. They need to lead the culture shift and give permission.
While my Dad was passing, I had a wonderful manager called James. He gave me permission to just spend time with Dad without feeling guilty. When I came back to work he stayed in close, I knew he was watching out for me. He would notice when I was getting a little teary, trying to hide in my corner and take me for a cuppa then give me permission to go home.
I have also had the opposite – disconnected leaders who didn’t care enough to lean in and ask why this is happening to their employee. I know which one made me happier and more engaged at work.

2. Employees need to look out for each other:

We spend a huge chunk of our lives at work. For some, our workmates see us more than our families. So why is it that our families notice mood changes, out of character behaviour, unexplained absences but our colleagues don’t? I think it’s because we haven’t been given permission to talk about it. So here it is…
Talk to your workmates and notice change. Get to know when you need to be a shoulder to lean on.  I love this little video on  helping a grieving friend and the idea of not solving problems but sitting with them in their sadness:

3. Make it okay to talk about mental health:

We joke about having a mental health day off, but it should be a thing. In the same way we have a day of rest if we’re injured or sick, if your brain is feeling under strain it needs a rest. If you’re struggling at work, a mental injury is much more harmful in the long-term than a sprained ankle.
I always felt like I had to hide my emotions at work so that people would listen to me and not judge me for being ‘an emotional woman’ (yes, this is an actual quote). I didn’t feel that the environment was safe for me to acknowledge how I was feeling. This manifested as anger, stress and all sorts of other unhealthy things.
So, creating an environment where people can feel comfortable sharing and asking for help is vital.

Meaningful changes:

We have the tools and the ability to make small changes that will have a huge impact. It’s not enough to wear a pink shirt on Stop Bullying day or post about supporting Mental Health Awareness Week. It’s time to make long lasting cultural changes. I think Tom Oxley sums it up nicely:
“Give your people permission to speak and be prepared to listen”

Good reads and listens:

Good Genes are Good, but Joy is Better  – Harvard’s longest study on happiness
Worksafe – Work-related health (legal guides)
*Survey is of 60 participants, New Zealand based. 80% have responded that work is the leading cause of their stress.
[Photo: Friend and ex Trade Me colleague, Pia Steiner and I having a chat about diversity and inclusion. And of the importance of having good people to lean on.]


  1. Yep, definitely. I’ve been at my new job a week now, and I’m remembering how awesome it is to WANT to go into the office! No toxicity here! yay! :-). And, it also makes me a bit sad for my previous place of employment because it used to be pretty great there too, but bring in a few bad apples and your awesome sauce gets tanked!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If more people realise a happy team or staff member is a high performing one, we’ll have more success with developing people and improving performance. I agree, it’s time to really see the person and look wider than the job. You care and you reach out, that makes you such an amazing person.


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