Definition of ‘mentally healthy workplaces’

definition mentally healthy workplaces

Definition of ‘mentally healthy workplaces’.

Recognition and management of workplace mental health is a relatively new concept in many countries around the world, including Australia. Given that about 971 million people live with a mental health disorder[1] equating to slightly less than one in eight people globally (12.9%),[2] this is surprising. In Australia, the figure is closer to 18% of the population[3] or almost one in five people. Considering that there are about 12.2 million[4] Australians in work, this translates to approximately 2.2 million workers with mental health disorders in workplaces around Australia.[5]

At least, this was the status quo before the recent Australian bushfire disasters, floods, and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the substantive longer-term impact of these events on the mental health of workers may be uncertain, change in the way that business responds to work-related psychological health and safety is an inevitable consequence.

The recent Australian bushfire disasters yielded a heightened state of anxiety within the nation. They exacerbated the fears of people struggling to manage the uncertainty surrounding the possible spread and impact of COVID-19. In response, the Australian Government has allocated $74 million over the next two years[6] in expanded mental health care measures. This funding commitment is in recognition of the anticipated flow-on effects that these recent events are expected to have on people with existing mental health conditions, those experiencing isolation or compulsory quarantine under COVID-19 social restriction and virus containment initiatives, and front line workers[7].

Research shows that anxiety and panic, depression, anger, confusion and uncertainty, and financial stress, are common consequences of disease outbreaks with estimates of between 25% to 33% of the community experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety during similar pandemics[8]. According to the Black Dog Institute, there will be “a significant minority who will be affected by long-term anxiety as a result” and “health care workers, people placed in quarantine, and individuals with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 are at increased risk of long-term mental health problems.[9]” Indeed, in past pandemics, patients who experienced severe and life-threatening illnesses were at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, months to years following their illness.[10]

Developing, implementing and maintaining a ‘mentally healthy workplace’ may, therefore, develop into one of the most important challenges facing business owners, company directors and managers over the next few years as people eventually return to work and the real impact of these disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic on people as workers begin to materialise. Workplaces employing workers with increased risk of long-term health problems are likely to be required to give special consideration to how they respond to this challenge.

Definition of ‘mentally healthy workplaces’?

The WHO defines a ‘healthy workplace’ as one in which “workers and managers collaborate to use a continual improvement process to protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of all workers and the sustainability of the workplace by considering the following, based on identified needs:

  • health and safety concerns in the physical work environment;
  • health, safety, and well-being concerns in the psychosocial work environment, including organisation of work and workplace culture;
  • personal health resources in the workplace; and
  • ways of participating in the community to improve the health of workers, their families and other members of the community.[11]

In formulating this definition, the World Health Organisation reflected on the evolution of occupational health from an almost exclusive focus on the physical work environment to the inclusion of psychosocial and personal health practice factors[12].

Workplace health and safety is not a new concept in Australia and most western countries around the world. Indeed, most have well-established systems underpinned by legislation, regulation, policy, and planning measures which are consistent with international human rights and covenants[13]. Typically, these systems provide clear guidance on the requirements for businesses to establish, implement, and maintain workplaces which promote the health (physical and psychological), safety, and welfare of workers, together with consequences for failing to adhere to these obligations and practices[14].  

However, finding an established and readily accepted definition of what precisely constitutes ‘mentally healthy workplaces’ is a more complicated and inherently uncertain task. A survey of the literature on the definitive elements that comprise a ‘mentally healthy workforce’ introduces views that are widespread and contradictory in attempts to define its most critical aspects[15].  

After identifying five key groups of factors contributing to a mentally healthy workplace, Harvey et al. (2014)[16] offer one possible elucidation of the concept describing it as a workplace in which “[r]isk factors are acknowledged and appropriate action taken to minimise their potential negative impact on an individual’s mental health whilst at the same time protective or resilience factors are fostered and maximised.[17]” A simplified definition of a mentally healthy workplace was proposed by TNS Social Research (2014) as “one that protects and promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for depression and anxiety, for the benefit of the individual, organisation and community.[18]”  The limitation of this definition is that there are other mental health disorders apart from those specified, albeit those mentioned may be the most commonly experienced in the workplace environment.

Like any business problem, it is the translation of this theoretical interpretation into practice that is often problematic, and which becomes most salient. As an illustration of the complexity of the issue, one study identified 114 unique components of a mentally healthy workplace[19], many of which required individual assessment and were, therefore, incapable of universal application by businesses. This distinct absence of guidance might explain research outcomes suggesting that while 91% of Australian employees consider mentally healthy workplaces important, only 52% regard their workplace as mentally healthy compared to 76% for physical safety[20]

It is uncertain whether a generally accepted definition of ‘mentally healthy workplaces’ will develop over time. While it seems logical that the concept is based on a subjective assessment and views are likely to vary significantly between individual people and businesses[21], it is highly improbable that a one-size-fits-all model will ever evolve for the common benefit of businesses struggling with the task of implementing systems to respond to it.

A consideration of core principles relating to workplace culture, organisational commitment and leadership commitment and style[22] from which each organisation may consider individual elements through a process of employee consultation and the adoption of a holistic approach and assessment of these elements to the direction, key objectives and deliverables of the business[23] is likely to be the starting point to establishing and enabling a definition for ‘mentally healthy workplaces’.

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© 2020. Robert Nicholls. All Rights Reserved.

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[1] Figure as at 2017. See GBD Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators, Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, Lancet 2018; 392: 1789–858, DOI: A mental health disorder is broadly defined within the study and encapsulates commonly referenced mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and other diagnosed disorders.

[2] Figure as at 2017. See United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects 2017 – Data Booklet (ST/ESA/SER.A/401).

[3] Figure relates to 2016. See Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “Mental Health”. Published online at Retrieved from: ‘’ [Online Resource]

[4] As at June 2017. See ABS 6202.0 – Labour Force, Australia, Jun 2017, Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved on 20 May 2020 from:

[5] This assumes a percentage of affected workers correlating with the general population, that is, 18% of the working population in June 2017.

[6] Australian Government, Department of Health, Coronavirus (COVID-19) National Health Plan, Fact Sheet, 29 March 2020.

[7] For a description of the symptoms to look out for in front-line workers see Robert Nicholls (2020). 9 Depression Symptoms to Look Out For in COVID-19 front-line workers at

[8] Bults, M., et al., Perceptions and behavioral responses of the general public during the 2009 influenza A (H1N1) pandemic: a systematic review. Disaster Med Public Health Prep, 2015. 9(2): p. 207-19; Lau, A.L., et al., The SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic in Hong Kong: effects on the subjective wellbeing of elderly and younger people. Aging Ment Health, 2008. 12(6): p. 746-60.

[9] Black Dog Institute, Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19: The Australian context, 19 March 2020.

[10] Chua, S.E., et al., Stress and psychological impact on SARS patients during the outbreak. Can J Psychiatry, 2004. 49(6): p. 385-90; Mak, I.W.C., et al., Long-term psychiatric morbidities among SARS survivors. General Hospital Psychiatry, 2009. 31(4): p. 318-326.

[11] World Health Organization (2010). Healthy workplaces: A model for action for employers, workers, policymakers, and practitioners, WHO Press, Geneva.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Mental Health Atlas 2017. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2018. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

[14] In the Australian context, while the Commonwealth, states and territories of Australia are responsible for implementing, regulating and enforcing workplace health and safety (WHS) laws in their respective jurisdictions, the model WHS laws (comprising of laws, regulations and model Codes of Practice) developed by Safe Work Australia have been implemented (with some slight localised variations) in all jurisdictions except Victoria and Western Australia. Other laws which may also be relevant are those relating to worker’s compensation, criminal law, anti-discrimination, and fair work laws. For further information, go to

[15] ANZSOG Work Based Project Team 7 – What core elements could Australian public sector organisations adopt to provide a mentally healthy workplace, November 2018. Retrieved on 19 May 2020 from:

[16] The five key groups of factors contributing to a mentally healthy workplace identified were: (1) design of the job; (2) team and group relationships; (3) organisation factors; (4) home and work conflict; and (5) individual biopsychosocial factors: Harvey, S. B., et al. (2014). Developing a Mentally Healthy Workplace: A review of the Literature. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from: source/resources/developing-a-mentally-healthy-workplace_final-november- 2014.pdf?sfvrsn=8.

[17] Harvey, S. B., et al. (2014). Developing a Mentally Healthy Workplace: A review of the Literature, p.12. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from: source/resources/developing-a-mentally-healthy-workplace_final-november- 2014.pdf?sfvrsn=8.

[18] TNS. (2014) “State of workplace mental health in Australia” [Online]. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from:—tns-the-state-of-mental-health-in-australian-workplaces-hr.pdf?sfvrsn=2.

[19] ANZSOG Work Based Project Team 7 – What core elements could Australian public sector organisations adopt to provide a mentally healthy workplace, November 2018. Retrieved on 19 May 2020 from:

[20] TNS. (2014) “State of workplace mental health in Australia” [Online]. Retrieved on 25 May 2020 from:—tns-the-state-of-mental-health-in-australian-workplaces-hr.pdf?sfvrsn=2.

[21] ANZSOG Work Based Project Team 7 – What core elements could Australian public sector organisations adopt to provide a mentally healthy workplace, November 2018. Retrieved on 19 May 2020 from:

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

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