Engagement and Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

The Health and Safety at Work Act defines health as both mental and physical health. Organisations have a duty of care for people’s mental health while they are at work –  eliminating or minimising risks to it. Worksafe’s position statement goes further than just minimising risk:

Mentally healthy work is where risks to people’s mental health are eliminated or minimised, and their mental wellbeing is prioritised.

What can you do to prioritise people’s mental wellbeing and eliminate or minimise the risks to people’s mental health? The answer has to be more than free fruit Fridays and resilience training. We can apply the hierarchy of controls in the same way we would for other hazards.

We need to eliminate things which are unnecessarily impacting on people’s mental health or recovery time. A lot of companies (and countries) are eliminating emails after hours to give people time to rest and recuperate. The purpose of the Holidays Act is to “… promote balance between work and other aspects of employees’lives and, to that end, to provide employees with minimum entitlements … for rest and recreation”. If people are clearing emails on holiday – have they had a holiday under the Act?

Some organisations are substituting or adding to their financial goals with purpose or meaningful goals. Helping people see how their work contributes to the bigger picture or the community improves mental and physical wellbeing and results in higher performance. Am I selling spa pools or am I helping save marriages and families through creating family and relationship time away from devices? Even those achieving stretching financial targets feel more anxious and are more likely to be depressed.

Are their controls in place to ensure people are taking breaks, having leave, and are not working excessive hours? Are we minimising dual reporting lines and other structures that are known to cause stress and conflict. Do we create time and spaces so people can complete high intensity cognitive tasks without interruptions?

Are we measuring and managing the behaviour of people in the organisation and actively looking to reduce incivility/create inclusive cultures, increase leadership support and development of people and addressing of poor performance and behaviour.

Lastly, do we have mechanisms in place to treat the problems if they are not addressed earlier – EAP, massages, free fruit, mental health day leave options, good mechanisms for addressing bullying and harassment – these are expensive and much less effective than preventing the problems in the first place.


Managing the behavioural climate is where we find the tight link between mentally healthy workplaces and engagement (the McLeod report on Engagement provides a great summary) – burnout is at the other end of the scale to engagement. This is where health and safety and organisational development can come together to create organisations that not only perform better but also have less accidents and are mentally healthy. The drivers of engagement and of wellbeing fit into the following four categories:

  • do I feel a sense of community and am I supported by the people I work with. There are number of studies showing that peer support helps moderate stress. Synergy Health’s recent research in NZ found that 46% of people would talk to a trusted colleague about mental health issues (26% to their manager, 24% to EAP and 4% to HR). This also links to Chris Burt’s research on hazard reporting – we are more likely to report hazards where we know and like the people we work with.
  • does the organisation respect my skills, through respecting my opinion and actively helping me develop. Learning and growing seem to be fundamental to our wellbeing and resilience. Gallup research found that 40% of people that were not being developed were disengaged. 22% of people whose manager was working in their weaknesses and only 1% of people who were developing their strengths were disengaged.
  • does my work matter to the organisation and/or my community. Helping people see how their work links to the bigger picture, either through creating a line of sight to team or organisational goals or helping them see how their work impacts positively on their community helps build their sense of purpose and wellbeing.
  • people want to work in a high performance culture, with systems and tools that are effective, were poor performance and behaviour and managed and good performance is recognised. Research shows where there are high performance systems people are more engaged and trust their managers more – these systems also lead to higher levels of organisational performance.

So if that is the behavioural climate we need to create – how do we do it? Research indicates that 80% of engagement is created by a person’s direct line manager – the Team Leader or supervisor who interacts with people on a regular basis. Fifteen percent is created by senior leaders talking about vision and values and what is important to the organisation and 5% is about the organisations brand – are people proud of working for the organisation and the impact it has on their community.

Leadership that creates high performing, engaged and mentally healthy workplaces

There are a number of things you could do to build the leadership capability of your front line leaders. Getting them to focus on the four things above is the key – are they building a team that works well together, do they respect and grow the skills of their people, do they help people see how their work is important and are they creating a high performance environment. How do they do that? Two things that have proven impact on engagement, productivity and mental health at work are:

  • Leaders looking after themselves – getting exercise, sleep, recreation time, and eating properly – and being more positive and energised as a result. Research shows positive and energised leaders have staff who are more satisfied, have higher wellbeing, are more engaged, perform better, are more cohesive as a team, innovate and learn better and have better family lives – this is called the ripple effect where the impact of positivity can be felt at two degrees of separation. If you are engaged at work you are 80% less likely to be involved in domestic violence at home. So – look after your leaders!
  • Leaders coaching their people – coaching people when they come with questions (rather than giving them the answers) builds self esteem and their capability and ultimately reduces the leaders workload and interruptions. The second coaching opportunity is in sitting down with people on a monthly basis to followup on their goals, remind them of what they have achieved and recognise them for that, help them plan what they will do in the next month and agree priorities (not too many otherwise we feel overwhelmed), provide us feedback on progress and help us with over development. Research we have conducted shows the frequency of these meetings is directly linked to engagement and people’s growth mindset, and lower levels of stress. International research also shows coaching positively impacts on individual and organisational performance and actually saves managers a day a month due to reduced time fixing errors, better alignment of efforts, and less interruptions. People who are coached report higher levels of wellbeing – and the people they interact with also report higher levels of wellbeing – the coaching ripple effect.


Creating mental healthy workplaces is about applying the same hierarchy of controls to eliminate hazards with a known impact on people, or substituting systems or approaches that will have a better impact and still achieve the same objective. We need to have controls and to create behaviour that reduces harm. Lastly we need to treat the harm that is still created despite our best efforts. The behavioural controls are driven by leadership and are the same as the drivers of engagement. Getting our front line leaders to look after themselves and coach are two key steps to creating a mentally healthy workplace.