Black Dog Insitute says all businesses should adopt COVID-19 mental health leave — even after pandemic

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Sick and holiday leave are standard entitlements for many workers, but a new type of leave has emerged during the pandemic.

A number of employers have introduced “lockdown leave” to ensure people take care of their mental health, and in Melbourne, Alex Fulton’s workplace has been offering “Feel Good Fridays”.

The initiative was introduced during lockdown and allows staff at the market research agency to take one day off every month for the foreseeable future, on top of their standard leave entitlements.

“It is aimed 100 per cent at filling our cups,” she said.

The mother of two said staff had always been encouraged to talk about their mental health, even before the pandemic hit, and she was comfortable telling work if she needed to take sick leave for mental health reasons.

“Even without the pandemic, if I said I needed to take a couple of days to sort myself out, they’d say, ‘fine’. There would be no question about that,” she said.

However, many companies do not have the same culture as Alex’s, and the Black Dog Institute has called for businesses and governments to take further steps to ensure all workers feel supported, including by offering additional leave options.

Preparing for post-lockdown life

As states and territories along the east coast prepare to come out of lockdown, the Black Dog Institute has stressed the need for businesses to focus on mental health and not just COVID-safe measures.

The institute’s acting director, Sam Harvey, said now was the time to make significant improvements.

“Workplace mental health is an emerging public health crisis and requires immediate attention from both industry and policymakers,” Professor Harvey said.

According to a Black Dog Institute report on the issue, Australians say their jobs are now “more complex and difficult” than in the previous decade, and they worry about long-term security.

There has also been a steady increase in harassment and bullying claims in the workplace.

The report raised concerns about young people, noting the growing number of casual jobs filled by people in their 20s as likely contributing to psychological distress.

In a submission to the report, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) said mental health must be a priority going forward.

“If there is one positive to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it has lifted the lid on mental health,” the BCA statement said.

“As we prepare for the post lockdown return to the workplace, the psychological safety of our workplaces must be a priority.”

Flexibility, mental health ‘first aid’, among changes needed

The pandemic has forced people to work from home and Ms Fulton says she would like to split her working hours between the house and office in the future.

“Flexibility is a huge factor,” she said.

“And I think everyone being on the same equal playing field in that sense can only help, not only people’s mental health, but making it the norm in businesses.”

Professor Harvey said more control and flexibility over working hours would help make workers more resilient.

“If [workers] have control and flexibility to decide when and how they do their work, that’s a really helpful thing from the point of view of their mental health,” he said.

However, he said businesses would need to introduce measures to ensure people did not feel overwhelmed or isolated.

“The blurring between work and home life; when do you stop taking phone calls about work?” he said.

“And secondly, the lack of that face-to-face support, what’s the equivalent of going out for a cup of coffee with a co-worker just to check whether they’re OK?”

“That’s much harder to do if everyone’s working from home.”

To ensure that managers are looking after the mental health of their staff, the report also recommends further training.

First aid courses are commonly offered to ensure all staff are physically safe, but Professor Harvey says evidence-based mental health training for managers is essential.

“What we know is that just basic mental health awareness is a useful first step, but by itself doesn’t have much impact on workers’ outcomes,” Professor Harvey said.

“Much like first aid, what really matters is teaching key people how to have the skills to do something when they notice there’s a mental health issue.”

Professor Harvey said he hoped the report provided a reminder to businesses and governments there was still more work to be done.

“As we’re trying to improve our mental healthcare system, we’ve also got to be thinking about what we can be doing outside health care to try and prevent problems occurring,” he said.

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By political reporter Stephanie Borys (Original ABC Article)