“Stress is like beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Dr Kym Jenkins, a medical director at Victorian Doctors Health Program (VDHP), a support service for stressed out or ill doctors.
“Some doctors thrive under pressure. Most of the time that is fine, but you have to be on your guard for that five per cent of the time when it isn’t okay. And for those who can’t handle pressure.”
But being on one’s guard can be a challenge for small business owners, especially when it comes to understanding mental health issues or being across intra-office relationships.
“They are often so busy trying build a bigger business … that they don’t have enough time to get help or understand how good organisation practice can help their businesses,” says Medibank’s national specialist services manager for workplace health, Dr Melissa Lehmann.
“They go about their day and then something happens, and they feel out of their depth,” adds Lehmann, a clinical and organisational psychologist involved in Medibank’s workplace health clinics and retail centres, which often operate like small businesses.
Here are the top 10 tips from Lehmann and Jenkins on how you can ensure your staff feel happy and supported in the workplace:
1. Get help
“Some coaching or training on how to manage risk and people will help you and your managers better understand good management practices and how to deal with difficult situations or struggling individuals,” says Lehmann. Not only will this boost productivity, it should help create a better work environment where people like each other.
2. Understand and manage risk
“Depending on the issue, Medibank has well determined procedures that are practiced regularly,” says Lehmann. “Everyone is trained to assess the situation and its risks and then in what protocols to apply.”
For small businesses, having clearly communicated procedures in place to help identify, manage and mitigate risks is important for staff welfare, and helps to solve issues before they become problems.
3. Have clear workplace policies in place
Examples include policies on conduct, email behaviour, social media usage, drugs and alcohol, bullying or harassment. Don’t let them collect dust. Discuss them at meetings and during employee orientation, as well as ensuring they’re covered off in contracts.
4. Cleanse your culture
A 2013 beyondblue study estimates that 45 per cent of all Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetimes and that in any one year, around one million adults have depression and over two million have anxiety.
“A lot of the culture in a workplace trickles down from the top and if the culture isn’t one that encourages seeking help or admitting one is struggling with an issue, you won’t solve anything,” says Jenkins.
The lesson is clear for small business owners: While you’re likely to be busy, being approachable will ensure your staff know they can come to you with anything they may be struggling with, and help foster a more understanding work environment.
5. Have clear reporting lines
“When people are anxious at work, it’s often because they are feeling a bit out at sea and don’t know where to go with an issue. Do they take it to that person who does their performance appraisals and who then might think they are incompetent and shouldn’t be doing the job? It’s a catch 22,” says Jenkins.
Businesses should clearly identify multiple people available to help staff with problems, and the ways to engage them when they have an issue. Having multiple avenues for staff and clear reporting lines ensures accountability, and removes any potential for bias.
6. Communicate often
“I’m a firm believer in regular meetings,” says Jenkins. “Even if there is nothing major on the agenda, it’s important to check on how everyone is travelling. This shows staff that they are being supported and you actually care.
“It also enables you to be proactive and talk about things that might be brewing and which can cause stress. Staff then feel that they are kept in the loop and this reduces feelings of insecurity. Rumour mills and Chinese whispers can cause a lot of stress.”
During these meetings, Lehmann believes you should quarantine time to talk about your policies and protocols, or raise topics such as: Why work/life balance or taking your leave is important? Or, how do we expect people in this workplace to behave?
“Each meeting becomes a reminder of the policies that keep your organisation safe,” says Lehmann. “You also signal that these issues are important to you and give employees the chance to speak up. In this way, you can pick up small issues before they become big. When things do go wrong, you already have a structure in place to discuss issues.”
7. Introduce support programs
Some hospitals have peer support groups and mentoring programs. Jenkins believes a buddy system and a proper induction for new employees will also help. Having a ‘buddy’ also gives staff a starting point for issues in the initial weeks, and helps assimilate them into the team.
8. Know your external support systems
Have a list of who to contact externally when problems arise, such as the nearest clinic, doctor or an HR service that can advise on particular issues. Most crucially, have a list of resources employees can use – for example, an employee assistance program, a recommended psychologist and leaflets about or links to helpful information provided by organisations such as beyondblue, SANE Australia, Lifeline and so on. Having these available reduces the stigma and shows you recognise that people can have problems, says Jenkins.
9. Have a “go to” person
Consider having an “on staff welfare” person, someone people can go to with issues or health concerns that may not need reporting through formal channels. This person could do a mental health first aid course in the same way as others do first aid courses. “But when people do help others, it’s vital they have boundaries, know their limits and don’t get caught up beyond what is reasonable in the workplace,” says Jenkins.
10. React immediately when issues arise
“The first five minutes really count in how successfully people get back to work,” says Lehmann. “Also, people become more uncertain and fearful when they are off. So it’s also vital to communicate with them while they are away so that they stay connected.”