Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 26 September to 2 October 2022.
In 2021, the theme of Awareness Week was “take time to kōrero”, which encouraged connection through conversation, and promoted openness about our mental wellbeing.
For employers and employees, it’s important to understand that mental health plays a significant role in the workplace. For businesses, the mental wellbeing of their teams is a great asset. Research shows that businesses who invest in the mental health of their staff reap the benefits of increased productivity and overall business efficiency. But mental health is tricky to isolate. Almost half of all New Zealanders will be categorised as struggling with a mental illness at some stage in their lives, and what is considered as encouraging of mental wellbeing is different for everyone. Setting rigid guidelines in the workplace may not be as effective as fostering a supportive work environment overall – one which encourages employees to kōrero openly about their mental health. Encouraging mental wellbeing is not just a sentiment – it is the law.
The focus on mental wellbeing continues to improve in New Zealand’s legislation, with a variety of statutes designed to facilitate the improvement of mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Some examples include:
■ The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990;
■ The Privacy Act 1993; and
■ The Employment Relations Act 2000.
A significant example of fostering mental health in employment law includes the Human Rights Act 1993, which creates an obligation for employers to meet the needs of employees who struggle with disability. These are called “workplace accommodations” and can be useful for employees who may have ideas about how businesses can better accommodate mental wellbeing. Another example is the duty of care which obligates employers to protect, as far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of their workers under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. “Health” in this context is defined as both physical and mental health. Finally, under the ordinary legal rules of sick leave, employees are entitled to use their annual sick leave for mental wellbeing purposes.
The regime for mental health sick leave operates exactly as it would for any other kind of sick leave from the workplace. For example, should an employee opt to take three consecutive days of sick leave for mental health, the employer is entitled to request a doctor’s certificate in support.
So how can a business go about using mental wellbeing as a valuable tool for their company? The Mental Health Foundation provides great resources for businesses wanting to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace. The most consistent theme is that employers and employees are in communication with one another. “Connect”, “give” and “take notice” are among some of the core themes encouraged by the Foundation.
Another key theme in research around workplace mental prosperity is flexibility. For example, the Employment Relations Act 2000 includes the right to request flexible working arrangements, which may be useful when assisting an employee to shape their workday in a way that encourages their mental health. There is also great information available for workplace mental health standards at employment.govt.nz.
Employers are best to keep in mind that sometimes it is the smallest gestures that make a big difference for the team. It might just be where a team member’s desk is located or the fact they lack clarity on part of their role, maybe they want to start a little earlier in the day so they can get off earlier in the afternoon to pick up the kids. Be creative and be ready to talk.
Bramwell Bate looks forward to celebrating mental wellbeing not just in September but throughout the year. Collectively, we recognise the value of mental wellbeing as an asset of our firm, and we encourage our clients and our colleagues to consider how you may be able to promote mental wellbeing in your lives and businesses. Our employment team – Christine Symes and Tayla Westman – are happy to help and provide advice on flexible working agreements, ensuring your sick leave and family violence leave policies are up to date and fit for purpose, and that you have policies in place for data protection and privacy when team members are working remotely.