It's the Office - But not as we know it

Published June 23, 2022

As many employees transition back into the office after prolonged lockdowns, the challenge is to retain some of the beneficial aspects gained from working at home to positively transform our workplaces into more flexible, and most importantly, mentally safe environments.

Recent reports from Allianz Insurance and Black Dog Institute offer evidenced-based recommendations to promote and protect mental health at work, as well as flagging the potential consequences for organisations that don’t make the shift.

The incidence of workplace mental health injuries is rising.

The cost of mental illness is indisputable. According to the 2020 Productivity Commission report, psychological injury in the workplace costs the Australian economy $39 billion each year in lost productivity and participation.

Leading workers’ compensation insurer, Allianz, has reported workplace mental health injuries are on the rise – with active psychological claims increasing by 12% since the pandemic began. Allianz Australia’s 2021 report, Finding the Balance in the Modern Workplace, is Allianz’s third annual online survey of 1,050 Australian employees, from middle managers, down.

Chief General Manager of Personal Injury at Allianz Australia, Julie Mitchell, says the loss of routine during the pandemic has affected people’s recovery and holistic wellbeing. ‘What’s more, the pandemic hindered some injured workers’ return to work, with their treatments and appointments delayed due to lockdowns.’

As of June 2021, the Families in Australia Survey: Towards COVID Normal conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found two thirds of employed respondents were sometimes or always working from home, compared to 42% pre-COVID.

For those fortunate enough to have the option of working from home, the benefits and drawbacks were mixed. In 2021, Allianz Australia’s research revealed an alarming 70% of employees felt the space between their professional and personal lives had blurred and they found it difficult to switch off.

Black Dog Institute’s recent report on how modern work is affecting our mental health, found that flexible work arrangements come with a price. Technology means employees are always ‘available,’ yet feel more disconnected from their colleagues without face-to-face interactions.

‘Employees are feeling the weight of expectation to work beyond set hours to ensure the business thrives,’ said Allianz’s Chief General Manager, Julie Mitchell.

Whilst 69% of Allianz’s survey respondents said they had not had a discussion with their managers about their mental health since the start of COVID, at least 74% of the nation’s employers say they intend to put a mental health strategy in place, and 34% aim to express more empathy and emotional intelligence.

One of the silver linings from the pandemic is that the stigma around mental health seems to be decreasing and employers are more open to having holistic and supportive conversations with their employees.

Julie Mitchell

So how do organisations turn the rising tide of mental illness incidences?

Fortunately, there are numerous evidence-based solutions available for both managers and their employees. Firstly, it’s essential to have the tools and structures in place to support employees. Secondly, senior leaders can play a powerful role by normalising discussions around mental health and expressing authentic empathy. Managers are not expected to be psychologists, but they should be able to have open and frank discussions. For example, after asking an employee ‘how are you?’ it’s useful to follow up with, ‘how can I help?’

Allianz Australia’s latest research, Crucial Conversations in the Modern Workplace, has explored the current challenges facing both employees and senior managers as many return to the office, and the barriers standing in the way of conducting open and transparent discussions in the workplace.

A crucial conversation is a discussion with high stakes, differing opinions and strong emotions. These conversations are an opportunity to build trust and address critical issues in the workplace. However, when handled poorly or avoided, these conversations can lead to broader mental health issues in the workplace, including strained relationships, decreased productivity, employee dissatisfaction, or extended periods of leave.

Allianz’s research found that while 79% of employees are looking to initiate a crucial conversation with their manager this year, more than 43% do not feel comfortable initiating such a discussion.

“Many Australians approached 2022 with new expectations and a fresh perspective around how they’ll manage work in their lives. Last year Australian employees told us that they are struggling to find balance, with the lines between work and personal time continuing to blur. To that effect, facilitating transparent conversations is critical to ensure expectations are heard and managed,” said Ms Mitchell.

For the benefit of all employees, managers can benefit from completing evidence-based mental health training. ‘For every dollar spent on training, there’s a $10 return on reducing sickness and absence in the workplace,’ confirmed Ms Mitchell.

Training and the right support systems protect employees, as well as assist in attracting the best and brightest recruits. According to research by SuperFriend, 87% of the most attractive places to work have mental health programs and flexible work arrangements.

CEO of Business Council Australia, Jennifer Westacott, recently said ‘I can’t believe it’s taken a pandemic to get us to take mental health seriously in the workplace.’ Let’s not lose those valuable lessons as we return to the office.