Is work a safe place for our minds? Let’s talk about how we can bring mental wellbeing in the workplace up to speed with physical health and safety – Tony Stevens, Mental Health Advocate.


I didn’t feel like going to work the other day.

It was Monday and I was feeling acutely depressed. In the last few years I’ve lost a brother to suicide and my partner and mother of my two little kids decided she wanted to separate, throwing my life upside down.

Unsurprisingly this has had a severe, sometimes paralyzing effect on my mental health. Most of the time I manage it okay and live a fulfilling life, but sometimes I feel crippled by anxiety and depression.

So I took a ‘mental health day’.

I know my reasons for taking the day off are perfectly justified, but I still felt guilty, and I couldn’t shake the nagging sensation that I was being dishonest.

I’m not alone.

In New Zealand, across the world, the cultural response to mental health in the workplace is troubling. Broadly there’s been a lot of progress tackling the mental health stigma in recent years, but workplaces have not caught up to the important discussions happening in wider society.

Workers typically don’t communicate their mental health needs with their employer – they often don’t feel like they can safely do so – and many employers do not attribute the same respect to mental safety as they do to physical safety.

The concrete pill culture is alive and well in our workplaces. Mental health issues are still not seen as legitimate alongside the more visibly obvious physical health.

The World Health Organisation warns that mental illness will be the primary cause of disability and absence in the workplace by 2030 if we don’t act now.


It’s well documented that we spend approximately one-third of our lives at work. This is an enormous amount of time to be immersed in an environment that is damaging to your mental health.

So what can we do about it? I have a few suggestions:

Sick days and more of them

Guilt-free mental health days should be an accepted practice in our workplaces. Employers should encourage (verbally and contractually) their staff to take a sickie when their mental health isn’t flash. Employees should ditch the she’ll-be-right-harden-up attitude and use their sick leave when things are tough.

While we’re at it, five sick days per year as a minimum entitlement is simply not enough. Five out of 365 days in a year for physical and mental afflictions!? This is especially relevant for parents who must use their sick days to care for their kids when they fall ill, and then are left with none for themselves when they need it.

Good employers should offer more paid sick leave contractually. The government should help by legislating a higher minimum entitlement and explicitly reference mental health in the appropriate legislation to provide clear legal grounds for using sick leave for sick minds.

Less time at work and flexible hours

Recently New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian trialed a four-day working week with a full-time salary for their staff and reported increased happiness, lower stress, and higher productivity – a win all around. So much so that the CEO wants to implement it permanently. This type of mentality, with a focus on productivity rather than a dogmatic set of specific hours, gives people more work-life balance and increased mental energy to be productive at work.

We all want our time spent at work to be productive, and for employers productivity equals profit. But a rigid working hours and times is not a fertile structure for productive workplaces. Increasingly, research and experimentation is showing that a flexible approach to working hours where employees have more work-life balance and potentially work less overall hours than the traditional 40 hour format for the same pay, actually get more done and to a better standard.

Flexibility around working times should also be embraced where possible. Some people are more productive at different times of the day, some people have to drop off their kids to school in the morning, and others work better from home or at a café. Having flexibility in our working arrangements allow us to live our lives without the anxiety a rigid workplace can cause.

More mandatory public holidays wouldn’t hurt either. How about a Matariki holiday? In New Zealand the culture is ‘live to work’ when it should be ‘work to live’.

Mental health and safety

We need to evolve the way we think about and manage health and safety to emphasize mental wellbeing to the same extent we do physical safety. Workplace leaders should receive training about mental health wellbeing and employers should establish policies and guidelines to manage the mental health needs of employees. These guidelines would outline recommendations and responsibilities for everyone who occupies the workplace.

Sponsoring employees’ access to EAP (Employee Assistance Programme), or alternative counselling services is an excellent mechanism for supporting workers. As is offering discounted gym memberships, introducing voluntary mindfulness training and optional workplace mediation practices. These are all valuable tools that can help cultivate mentally dynamic workplaces.

Taking bullying and discrimination seriously and having distinct, well-communicated processes to address these toxic problems is vital. We don’t deal well with bullying in our workplaces and it is a massive contributor to stress and mental illnesses.

Our state health and safety regulator, Worksafe, needs to take a more proactive approach to combat bullying too. They’ve investigated only 10 complaints of bullying since their inception in 2013 despite 30 per cent of New Zealand employees reporting feeling bullied. Not good enough.

Growth and development

Providing pathways for all workers to progress through an organisation or develop more skills can help them feel more motivated and purposeful. Having well-communicated opportunities available for all employees to advance is excellent for staff morale. Similarly, the opportunity to attend conferences and work-related events is also invigorating and can contribute to making workplaces an exciting environment to be in.

Give workers power

Workers who feel like they have an active say in workplace decisions are happier and more fulfilled when they are at work. Employers who provide their workers with more agency and treat their relationship more like a partnership will contribute to higher mental wellbeing and as a result increased loyalty and productivity.

Employers should embrace worker organisations like unions rather than treat them like an enemy. Unions give workers a voice and that voice is an asset to any workplace when it’s not viewed as a hindrance. Workers know the job and their ideas can help improve the workplace for everyone – even the shareholders.

Ultimately we need to build a culture of supportive mental wellbeing in our workplaces and the suggestions I’ve mentioned are part of the package, tools to make that culture a reality.

Can you help? The YWRC is actively researching workplace mental health. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think would make workplaces safer for our mental wellbeing.

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