Mental health at work

mental healthEvery fortnight at the Regional Arts Victoria office we host what we call a Staff Salon. In short, these are facilitated discussions led by staff or a special guest about a topic of their choosing, with the aim of sharing knowledge, resources, and experiences for the benefit of others. The content can be political, personal, practical or creative. Sometimes we talk about art we’ve seen, debrief on industry events, sing, or show each other shortcuts in Outlook. In August I did one on mental health.

The actual doing of said Salon is kind of a blur to me at this stage. I’m told it was impressive. Insecurities about my ability to present difficult topics to groups of people aside, it was perhaps considered impressive because it was unusual; talking about mental health in a personal context is taboo, both in life and at work. As a person who sometimes struggles with the day-to-day I have to say: this doesn’t feel good.

1 in 5 Australians will experience mental health issues at some point in their lifetime. It only makes sense that we be ok with this. It also only makes sense that our places of work – the places we spend the majority of our time – be ok with it too.

“Health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. A healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.” That’s the World Health Organization talking.

We are made healthy or unhealthy by the environments we work in. Doing the presentation was hard, but in this context it was possible. That’s the key difference between workplaces that are supportive and workplaces that are indifferent. People don’t know they can speak up if they haven’t been given the space to speak. A lack of knowledge or understanding can be just as harmful to staff wellbeing as active exclusion.

I feel lucky to work at Regional Arts Victoria with such welcoming, creative people. The atmosphere within the organisation has gone through significant, positive changes in the time I’ve been here. These changes have affected us all in noticeable ways, and have helped us to be more effective arts advocates and administrators.

Some of these changes have been small, others have been powerful. They range from breaking down ‘silos’ between departments (through regular meetings, internal social media, and cross-departmental collaboration), celebrating successes, and setting aside three days a year for a professional development retreat. We talk about the importance of establishing enjoyable routines, moving the body you live in, and emotional intelligence. Although this phrase hasn’t been used during these discussions, what we’re essentially talking about is self-care. Establishing self-care as a priority on an organisational level means that we’re not only thinking about making our individual lives better, we’re also better placed to notice when things aren’t going well for other people. Environments like this make it much easier to broach the topic of mental health when problems arise.

Every workplace is different; solutions to this need not be prescriptive. There are no doubt other strategies I haven’t mentioned here. However, given that anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological distress are now considered commonplace, it’s safe to say: we’re getting this wrong. The hard divide between work-self and actual-self is not only unrealistic, it’s a barrier to these discussions.

I’m going to repeat that statistic: 1 in 5 Australians will experience mental health issues at some point in their lifetime. If we collectively want to make a difference to people experiencing these issues, our places of work need to foster a standard of caring creatively.


IMAGE: The Regional Arts Victoria one-hour hourglass. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.