Think HBR

How do we attain a mentally healthy workplace?

Kim Elkovich
A Higher Self
‘I was having a lot of emotional difficulties and requested time off or a modified work schedule for medical reasons. My employer demanded a diagnosis so my psychiatrist provided a diagnosis.
My employer denied the request and noted that if I had serious psychiatric issues than I needed to resign’. (Employee Statement, 2011).
The fostering of a mentally healthy workplace and supporting employees with mental health issues is a complex matter.
Although the above example of discrimination is extreme, discrimination towards mental illness is common. However, when its estimated on average 17-20% of workers in any 12- month period [1] present with mental health concerns it does raise the question how do operational managers and HR departments lack such knowledge?
The two primary reasons are mental health stigma and mental health illiteracy. Stigma stops business from prioritising mental health and acquiring mental health knowledge and skills. Fear of prejudice also prevents employees from disclosing mental illness, for example, what is easier to do? phone your boss to say you won’t be in for work today due to a stomach virus or you have just had a panic attack. Unfortunately, when the illness remains invisible its easier for employers to interpret a decline in productivity or increased absenteeism as a performance management issue when in fact the employee needs psychological assistance.
Stigma feeds illiteracy: when we avoid a topic, we fail to learn about it. Beyond Blue [2] estimates as a result 40% of Australians living with depression never seek help. Not being able to recognise mental health issues prevents early detection and intervention which is paramount in treating the illness. In the workplace early detection reduces staff presenteeism which in turn reduces the risk of personal injury.
So, how do we attain a mentally healthy workplace? The research emphasises integration of both individual and organisational strategies are needed. The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance in their 2014 report [3] outlines six key target areas:
1. Designing work that minimises psychological harm-OHS, Anti-Discrimination, Privacy laws provide the minimal requirements.
2. Promoting Protective factors- This includes effective workplace bullying policies and processes. We have 20years of research into workplace bullying and despite this 50 per cent of workers still report experience with workplace bullying [4].
3. Enhancing personal resilience – Employee stress management training. Stress is a trigger for both physical and mental illness.
4. Promoting and Facilitating Early Help Seeking Behaviour – encouraging EAP use and wellbeing checks
5. Supporting worker Recovery from Mental illness- The Australian Human Rights Commission “2010 Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers” [5] is a must read.
6. Increasing Awareness of mental illness and Reducing Stigma – Mental Health First Aid Training reduces stigma.
Fostering a mentally healthy workplace is challenging. It requires a shift in thinking, the adoption of new language, skills and processes. Heightened emotional intelligence is imperative. The call to adapt is clear and yet for some of us it seems we will need to learn the hard way
For more information contact Kim on 02 4399 2435, email or visit
[1]. De Lorenzo, M.S. (2013). Employee Mental Illness: Managing the Hidden Epidemic. Employ Respons Rights J, 25: 219-238.
[2]. Beyond Blue. (2016). What is depression? [Fact Sheet].
[3]. Harvey, S.B., Sadhbh, J., Tan, L, Johnson., A, Nguyen., H, Modini., & Groth, M. (2014). Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature. Retrieved from
[4]. McMillan, L. (2016). Snapshot of the Australian Workplace. Reventure Ltd. Retrieved from
[5]. Australian Human Rights Commission. (2010). Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers. Retrieved from
Kim Elkovich Kim Elkovich
Kim Elkovich is the Managing Director at A Higher Self. Kim’s corporate career began at 22 years of age within the pharmaceutical industry. Across 15 years Kim climbed the corporate ladder to hold both National sales and marketing management roles. Whilst consulting for the Ministry of Health in 2004 Kim commenced her study in the field of psychology. Now at 48 years of age Kim has combined both her corporate and clinical experience – Her company A Higher Self designs and delivers niche workshops/ programs that foster a mentally healthy workplace.