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Happy, healthy and working

"It's daunting that up to 80 000 hours are spent at work."

It can be a little daunting to consider that over a lifetime, up to 80 000 hours will be spent at work. 

Because work plays such a significant role in our lives, it’s important to recognise its impact on mental health and wellbeing.

If your workplace isn’t your 'happy place' then that’s a big chunk of life desperately waiting for 5 pm – and Fridays – to roll around. And it’s a scenario that’s likely to make you feel trapped and miserable way beyond Monday morning.

Dr Amanda Allisey is a lecturer and researcher at the Deakin Business School Department of Management and one of her key research areas is improving mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

With degrees in psychology and a PhD in organisational behaviour, she says that when we’re happy and healthy at work there’s spill-over benefits into other domains in life – and it also enables an organisation to thrive.

‘When employees enjoy a happy, healthy work environment, you start seeing exciting innovations in business. It’s the difference between an organisation that’s simply functioning and an organisation that’s capable of making huge leaps. It really comes down to the people who are working within it.’

Dr Allisey’s research in mental health has always been at the organisational level and she believes there are wide-ranging benefits from adapting workplace structures and systems to facilitate a healthy environment.

‘Employees are not just employees – they are also people in our communities.  They are our siblings, our parents, our neighbours. So if we can make organisations healthy, then I believe we can help make communities healthy.  And that leads to a healthy environment where everyone can flourish,’ she explains.

Over the past 30 years, the importance of mental wellbeing in the work environment has slowly gained recognition and Dr Allisey says there’s been a shift in employment expectations.

‘If you ask someone today why they want a particular job, or want to work for a certain organisation, the answer isn’t just “because it pays well”. It’s more about the meaningfulness of the work, or having the opportunity to do something you really love. It’s about tapping into what people care about – and contributing to a sense of wellbeing.’

She explains that the groundswell of interest into workplace wellbeing stems from employers now recognising the impact it has on an organisation.

‘They realise that the organisation’s ability to be innovative relies on the people working for it. We’ve moved from the industrial era where progression was marked by technological or automated leaps. Now we’re looking at the value of knowledge-intensive worker and more than ever before, an organisation’s resources are its human resources – and that’s making a big difference to the way organisations think. It’s realising that they need to look after the people who work for them because the biggest rewards are when employees feel good about their job and are able to fulfil their highest potential.’

Since completing her PhD, the focus of Dr Allisey’s work is designing and implementing organisational interventions to enhance the wellbeing of its employees.

‘It’s very rewarding. We’re able to make some really exciting changes by helping employers implement programs around “leading for wellbeing”, rather than simply leading for performance.  It’s all about developing the capacity to enhance employee wellbeing whilst also improving overall performance.’

She says that ‘leading for wellbeing’ links to the notion of empowerment and encouraging meaningfulness in the workplace.

‘It’s looking at what managers do on a daily basis rather than giving them a brand new repertoire.  It’s also about recruiting people who are good at their job and letting them do it. The paradigm comes from empowerment and encouragement and looks at a whole-person approach. Organisations must ask: what needs to be done to enable each person to reach their highest potential?’

However fulfilling an employee’s highest potential can be a challenging goal when it’s estimated that around one in five Australians will suffer mental illness in any given year and over 25% at some point in their life.

 ‘That’s over a quarter of us,’ says Dr Allisey, ‘and it’s becoming a bigger crisis than major illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.’

While most organisations understand the importance of physical wellbeing, she says that recognising the links between behavioural anomalies and mental wellbeing can often be overlooked.

‘This is where our research is helping organisations. It raises awareness and also provides advice and training for organisations about identifying mental illness – and about having that conversation with an employee and knowing what to do about it. We also know that an employee’s immediate manager is the gatekeeper and usually the first one who is going to pick up if there’s something wrong.’

One of the projects Dr Allisey is currently working on is suicide prevention in the workplace. However rather than developing interventions per se, she says it’s about identifying the level of intervention required.

‘We use an integrated approach to designing an intervention. This is basically recognising that there are many different levels at which you could intervene in the organisation’s system.’

A tertiary intervention might provide WorkCover assistance or return-to-work provisions, while a secondary intervention could link an ‘at-risk’ employee to resilience-training programs or professional psychological help.  

But she says that the most successful outcomes are achieved by combining a primary and secondary intervention.

‘A primary approach is where you try and remove the risk as much as possible … for example, if you’re looking at job stress, you will try and improve the amount of control someone has over their working schedule. There are certain jobs where the demands are constant and unrelenting and others where the demands come in peaks and troughs. So it’s about minimising and managing the stressors as early as possible.’

While most people juggle varying degrees of stress in their home and work lives, she says the tipping point – between mental health and mental illness – can occur when an individual’s protecting buffers start to crumble.

‘Generally it’s when someone’s resources – either personal or at work – are not adequate enough to deal with the demands that are being placed on them. Often, this is around the issue of finding the right balance or dealing with demands to do more with less.’

She adds that the prevalence of 21st century mobile technology can further skew the equilibrium.

‘For example, if the culture of your workplace encourages responses to late-night emails then you’re not going to turn up to work at 8 am feeling refreshed. That’s when an organisation needs to look at how they can remove – or at least mitigate– risks to stress and mental health.’

Prevention strategies are also easier to implement when there is a stronger connection between employer and employees.

‘When managers take the time to get to know their staff, then they’re usually aware of what stresses they’re dealing with. And this makes the early adoption of risk-reduction strategies much easier. We’ve also found that a good primary prevention strategy is to making sure employees have strong knowledge of why their job is important.’

But, Dr Allisey’s work doesn’t only focus on workplace negatives. Recently, she co-authored an industry-led publication promoting positive work environments.

‘There’s a real gap around what organisations need to do to enhance positive mental health.  We gathered experts from across the globe – and also those working in industry – and through a consensus process determined the work place “essentials” to enhance positive mental health. Those combined views helped us form the organisational guidelines for this publication.’

As far as her own job is concerned, Dr Allisey says she finds it ‘incredibly meaningful’ to have the opportunity to work on research that positively impacts workplace wellbeing.  And after ten years at Deakin, she enjoys a work environment that promotes inclusivity and innovation.

‘As researchers we’re encouraged to take risks and to be innovative – and that’s the foundation of a good workplace culture. You employ smart people and let them get on with it.’

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