Andrew* worked in construction when he suffered his workplace injury. But while construction sites are notoriously physically hazardous and follow strict safety inductions and protocols, he was unprepared for the psychological toll his work took.
After suffering a physical injury and returning to work, Andrew developed post-traumatic stress disorder that began to impact his work and his life. “I didn’t know how to talk to anyone about the thoughts I was having, and why I wasn’t the same person I had been”.
In 2020-21, one in five people in Australia (21.4% or 4.2 million) had a 12-month mental disorder.1 Workplaces are of course not the only cause of mental injury, but neither are they free from hazards that can lead to mental ill-health, and that fact is posing real problems for workers and workplaces. In Victoria mental health injuries make up 17% of total claims, represented 9.3% of all serious Workcover claims and cost almost 3 times as much as physical claims. More importantly, they forever change the lives of the workers who suffer those injuries.
Human Resources departments like to talk about building “resilient” workforces and supporting positive mental health through initiatives like “R U OK? Day”. Employers’ traditional approach to mental health injuries has been reactive and individualistic, responding to incidents after the fact and treating them as isolated. They are less willing to address the actual causes of mental illness and injury in their workplaces; issues like understaffing, poor workplace cultures, low recognition and reward, job demands, poor environmental conditions, low job control and intrusive workplace surveillance.
But Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) – elected by their workmates in union – are eagerly taking on the work of learning to support coworkers experiencing mental health issues, and they’re changing workplaces for good.
Dom leads the Health and Safety team at Trades Hall. He says they’ve noticed a “Psychological Health Premium” whenever the team holds seminars or events that touch on mental health, with events typically attracting hundreds of participants. “HSRs are really keen for training and support in psychological health, because these are the injuries and the issues that members are raising with them now.”
The team’s Mental Health Conversations Training sessions have oversubscribed twice now, and more sessions are planned. In the training, participants discuss psychological health hazards and risks, effective controls, the impact of psychological injury, and, of course, how to start conversations about mental health.
How to have a conversation about mental health
- Break the ice by talking about something neutral, make sure you're talking to them in a quiet place. You could talk about something funny or interesting that's happened at work, the footy, the weather – whatever. It is also possible these conversations may also start organically with a co-worker mentioning stress, sleeplessness, anxiety or depression.
- Start with an expression of care, followed by an observation, like: "I care about you and I've noticed you haven't been yourself lately. You seem more frustrated than you've been in a while, and I’m wondering how you're doing.”
- Normalise mental health by talking about it directly, you could ask something like; "I wonder if what's happening at work these days is stressing you out."
- Listen without judgement and let them know that it's okay and normal to go through tough times. You could bring up that you've had times where you've felt the same, or an anecdote about a friend. But importantly, don't make it about you. Don't go into detail about your own problems.
- Encourage the person to take action. Share support numbers and services with them, but importantly, also discuss how you can address psychological safety issues at work together. Let them know that as an HSR, you have the power to push to change workplace structures and investigate psychosocial hazards atwork. You can raise any workplace issues they might be having with management, anonymously, and push for a change management plan, conduct inspections etc. You can also represent them in any conversation they need to have with management about health and safety.
Beyondblue: www.beyondblue.org.au, 1300 22 4636
Youth beyondblue: www.youthbeyondblue.org.au
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78
SANE: 1800 18 SANE (7263) www.sane.org
Multilingual Resources on Mental Health for CALD Communities -https://embracementalhealth.org.au/
*The details of this story have been changed to protect anonymity.