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Germanwings Crash Why Leaders Must Discuss Mental Health Issues

Alexandria Joy - Monday, April 06, 2015

In the wake of the recent tragic Germanwings crash, the working world is reminded of just how far we still have to go to identify, treat and manage employees living with mental illness and experiencing extreme stress or anxiety in the workplace, especially in high-risk, high-pressure professions.

The tragedy raises many questions for leaders and organisations today and not just should we allow pilots with a history of depression to fly passenger planes? Here are some questions you should consider as a leader:

  • Should we promote employees who have required psychiatric care?
  • Should we approach a workmate we suspect of experiencing depression or anxiety?
  • Should someone on medication for mental illness be allowed to drive vehicles or operate heavy machinery on job sites?
  • Should we permit a person with a mental illness to be promoted to a stressful job?
  • Should an employee ask a supervisor or upline RUOK?

This is a complex issue and has no simple answers. When faced with such complexity it is valuable to begin with the facts:

Fact: Smart workplaces provide support. If profitability and responsible business practices are part of your company’s vision, mental health should also be a priority. Your commitment to mental health should be communicated openly and frequently to all employees. For example as part of induction, displayed in tearooms on posters, as policies and procedures that everyone is aware of and visibly reinforced through the practices of management.

It's one thing to have a policy in place to to accommodate employees with mental health issues, but it is another to create a supportive environment where they don't feel inhibited to take advantage of them.

Fact: Healthy workplaces discuss Mental Health openly. Mental illness is a cloak and dagger affair in many organizations, mentally healthy organisations on the other hand start and continue the conversation. A good test of how supportive your organisation is is to ask yourself this question: “How safe is it in your company for an employee to let their manager know that they are on medication for depression and/or visits a therapist?”

Addressing the issue of mental illness in the workplace has to begin with an acknowledgement that it exists and needs to be discussed openly.

Fact: Healthy workplaces promote a culture of respect. Sometimes the greatest help to mentally ill employees comes not from some kind of official policy but from peers or line bosses who are willing to listen and offer genuine support. The fish rots from the head - organisational leaders and business owners need to make visible, long-term commitments to mental health in their workplaces as they are in the strongest position to positively influence the company culture.

Ensuring robust policies around bullying and harassment is also important, as well as encouraging employees to call out or report any inappropriate behaviour they witness or experience.

My heart goes out to the passengers, crew, families and all those affected by the Germanwings crash, especially the family of our two Australian passengers. The loss of life is heartbreaking and yet it may have opened a door to many employers to start having difficult, compassionate discussions about mental illness. As tragic as it has been, let us not waste this opportunity to create more awareness.

PWC research shows $2.30 is the average return on investment for every $1 invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace. Better productivity begins with a mentally healthy workplace

A positive workplace environment and good mental health go hand in hand. Let's honour those lost by beginning this conversation today.

If you are a leader in your organisation have you tackled any of these questions? How have you opened up dialogue? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you would like to read more about the benefits of creating a healthy workplace environment then you may also like the following articles and videos:

How Balanced Leaders Create Healthy Workplaces

How Workplaces Are Making Us Sick

How Toxic Workplaces Are Killing Us


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