Your Duty As An Employer For Staff Mental Health

As an employer, you will understand the differing expectations that your workplace must comply with under Health and Safety legislation. It is quite common to have certain Health and Safety practices and strategies in place, whether it is hand sanitiser due to a virus or a handrail down the stairs. However, are you aware that this Act also covers mental strain and stressors caused by the Workplace? This means that workplaces and you, as an employer, have a legal responsibility to manage the risks to mental wellbeing, just like any other physical risk.

So What Is My Obligation?

Under the 2015 Health and Safety At Work Act, employers "conducting a business … [must] keep workers healthy and safe" with the emphasis on health equal to that of safety, this meaning employers must monitor workers' health and working conditions to prevent physical and mental illness as a result of work. Therefore, as an employer, you must take reasonable steps to prevent psychological harm to protect the health and wellbeing of your staff.

Psychological harm can happen in various ways; bullying and harassment, long working hours causing fatigue, a lack of autonomy and poor work culture. For example, in the case of WorkSafe New Zealand v Michael Vining Contracting Ltd, an employee of Michael Vining Contracting Ltd (MVCL) had a fatal crash due to fatigue whilst driving his tractor home from work. Consequently, MCVL was charged with "failing to ensure the safety of workers when they were at work" by "exposing its workers to a risk of death or serious injury arising from fatigue." and faced substantial fines.  

What Are The Risks Of Not Addressing Employee Wellbeing?

As an employer, failing to abide by your duty to protect your employee's health and safety can come with some heavy penalties, as seen above. South-East Asian countries such as South Korea have held managers criminally liable for creating and upholding environments that are damaging to employee mental health, punishments typically meaning jail time. These extreme measures were taken as amendments to the 1995 Mental Health Act to address a worrying trend in workplace suicides.

Looking at examples a little closer to home, in 2016, a woman was awarded $1 million in a negotiated workplace bullying settlement due to her treatment at a NSW Government Agency. The woman faced bullying and harassment from her bosses and suffered 'a psychological injury' due to continued bullying from an initial incident. So, I ask you - can your company afford to pay out settlements due to bullying and harassment? Can it afford the bad press and loss of employees?

If the answer above is a no, then as an employer, you can take active steps to ensure that your company never gets to this position, rather than being reactive.

Where Should I Start?

Improving the practices that protect and prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of your employees doesn't have to be a daunting undertaking. To start, we recommend first reviewing the processes that you currently have in place. Ask yourself, does your company have allocations for 'Mental Health Leave'? Additionally, do you place the same emphasis on mental health and safety within work practices that you do on physical health?

Once you know where your company stands currently, you can design a 'Mental Health at Work' Strategy that is sustainable for your company. There is no 'one size fits all' strategy for all companies, but a good place to start is to lean on established wellbeing models and customise it for your employees. A few examples of models we love that can guide the creation of your wellbeing strategy are; 'Te Whare Tapa Wha' from the NZ Mental Health Foundation or the 'Meihana Model'.

A resource that companies like Auckland University of Technology & OMV utilise to keep track of progress within wellbeing strategies is the chnnl digital platform, a service that anonymises and aggregates employee mental health data to support the making of informed decisions by people leaders. The founder and CEO of chnnl, Dr Berryman, describes it as a tool to "help employers understand workers so management can make changes to improve mental wellness and reduce anxiety". Employees can access a vast range of resources on the app, such as counselling, Facebook groups, and crisis helplines. However, they can also anonymously report on employee peace disturbances, such as bullying and harassment. The ultimate aim of chnnl is to provide a safe and anonymous place for employees to access resources for their mental health and wellbeing and an opportunity for employers to invest in tools that actively support the psychological affairs of their most important asset, their people.

So, why not take the first step in protecting your employees and company by contacting the team at chnnl today? We work with companies at all stages of their wellbeing journey and are happy to guide your company along theirs.