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Poor mental health causes significant human and economic costs such as increased absenteeism, injuries and workplace conflicts

Wellbeing should be the focus, not just safety - by Kirsten Patterson

Since the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 came into effect nearly three years ago, we have seen organisations, including those in the construction industry, make changes to minimise risks of harm for employees. However, efforts in response to this new law have tended to focus on safety issues and less attention has been placed on the mental health and wellbeing aspects. This should change.

Protecting the mental health and wellbeing of workers is not just the legal and right thing to do, it also has positive impacts on business performance and productivity.

Poor mental health causes significant human and economic costs such as increased absenteeism, injuries and workplace conflicts. On the other hand, improved workplace wellbeing can help build improvements in productivity, reduce risks, and positively impact employee retention and recruitment.

A 2017 Wellness in the Workplace survey by Southern Cross and Business NZ showed lack of wellness had a sizeable impact on the productivity of most enterprises, including the loss in 2016 of 6.6 million working days and $1.5 billion due to absence.

The Mental Health Commissioner reported in 2018 that one in five New Zealanders live with mental illness and/or addiction. We have deplorable suicide statistics, with 606 New Zealanders taking their lives in 2016/17. That’s one New Zealander every 15 hours.

Key factors

We all know the importance of switching off, but these days it’s increasingly challenging to do so. Research shows a range of things affect workers’ mental health and wellbeing, but workload demands are one of the key factors.

According to the Southern Cross survey, workload has historically been the biggest issue for those businesses with more than 50 staff. The latest data shows it is now also a primary issue for businesses with fewer than 50 staff.

Change is another driver. Speed of change often requires organisational change and this can impact wellbeing. There has been a rise in the number of companies using specialised change management expertise, reflecting the importance of managing and communicating change well.

Workplace culture is increasingly on the radar and we have seen a rise in awareness of how behaviours such as sexual harassment or bullying impact the workplace. In 2018, three high-profile cases (Russell McVeagh, the Human Rights Commission and the NZ Football Ferns), all with independent reviews, highlighted the improvements that need to be made in terms of governance.


The Institute of Directors (IoD) has released the guide ‘Sexual Harassment and the Board’s Role – Time’s Up’ to help directors bridge the gap between strategy and culture through better reporting processes.

The results of the 2018 Director Sentiment Survey by IoD and ASB Bank show 63% of boards had discussed workplace mental health issues in the past 12 months. This should increase as focus shifts from hazards and safety risks to broader aspects of wellbeing. Mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is one of the issues identified by IoD that should be top of mind for directors for 2019.

Last year, the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction provided a snapshot of how New Zealand is preventing and responding to mental health and addiction problems. The Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum has also published a guide, ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work’, which offers a framework for organisations to meet obligations to prevent harm at work and help ensure their people thrive.

Prioritising wellbeing

Those in governance have an important role in ensuring their organisation prioritises employee wellbeing. They can ensure there are measures that track organisational culture and highlight risks, incidences and progress. They can lead in reducing the stigma by normalising conversations about mental health. After all, this is a subject we should be talking about all year and not something we can play catch-up with at the start of the year.

Wellbeing is as much about mental health as it is about physical safety. It’s time we shift the dial and move towards a more holistic approach to build health and safety in the workplace.

Kirsten Patterson is the CEO of the Institute of Directors, the professional body for directors, representing over 9000 members drawn from large private organisations, SMEs, state sector and not-for-profit organisations, and charities


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