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Strategies for Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

Strategies for Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

Key points 

  • Mental wellbeing among New Zealanders is a significant concern, with approximately one in four individuals experiencing challenges. 
  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) employs a comprehensive scale to assess mental wellbeing, revealing a particularly low mean score among individuals aged 35-44. 
  • Poor mental health not only affects individuals but also imposes substantial costs on employers and the economy, amounting to 4-5% of New Zealand's GDP annually. 
  • Workplace factors, including stress and toxic environments, significantly contribute to mental health issues among employees, leading to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism. 
  • Disparities in mental health outcomes exist, particularly affecting marginalised communities such as the LGBTQ+ and Māori populations. 
  • Mental Health Awareness Week serves as an important mechanism for employers to integrate mental health into organisational culture, fostering open dialogues and support networks. 
  • Employers can prioritise mental health by creating supportive environments, implementing policies, and offering resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). 
  • Investing in employee wellbeing yields significant returns, including reduced stress levels, improved morale, enhanced productivity, and increased staff loyalty and retention. 


Mental wellbeing encompasses various aspects including good mental health and an individual’s overall sense of contentment. Approximately one in four individuals residing in New Zealand have encountered challenges related to their mental wellbeing, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO utilises a multifaceted approach to gauge mental wellbeing, with findings indicating a notably low mean mental wellbeing score among individuals aged 35-44 in the previous year.   

While several factors ultimately contribute to this decline in mental wellbeing, the work environment emerges as a key determinant. For some, the workplace may be a contributing factor to the development or persistence of their mental health difficulties. Conflicting and excessive work demands, a lack of job control and poor collegial support have all been identified as primary sources of work-related stress that can impact on employees’ wellbeing. Given that approximately 60% of a person’s waking hours are spent at work, it is important to prioritise the management of mental wellbeing in the workplace.  

The Economic Impact of Poor Mental Health  

The repercussions of mental health difficulties extend beyond individuals to impact employers, their families, and communities. Annually, poor mental health exacts a toll equivalent to approximately 4-5% of New Zealand's GDP.

Depression, anxiety, and similar mental health difficulties result in considerable financial burdens on employers. Estimates from the Center for Prevention and Health Services in the United States suggest that mental health difficulties and substance abuse collectively cost employers between $79 and $105 billion per year in indirect expenses.  

Research underscores the escalating role of job stress and other psychosocial factors in contributing to the burden of occupational illness and injuries. In New Zealand, The Health and Safety in Employment Act of 2015 mandates employers to adopt a systematic approach to identifying and mitigating workplace hazards, including stress-related risks. Notably, mental health difficulties result in more days of work loss and diminished work performance compared to several other chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis.   

Living with mental health difficulties 

Individuals living with mental health difficulties encounter double the unemployment rates compared to those without. Furthermore, due to New Zealand's means-tested benefits system, individuals experiencing mental health difficulties receive relatively fewer social benefits compared to counterparts in other OECD countries. This employment and income disparity amplifies the risk of poverty among New Zealanders living with mental health difficulties.

Within this demographic, certain communities such as the LGBTQ+ and Māori populations face heightened vulnerability to discrimination and disproportionate challenges related to mental health and inadequate resources. The discernible inequities in health outcomes, particularly among Māori individuals, underscore the necessity for mental health and employment policies to be culturally sensitive and community driven.

Mental health: Employer’s Action Plan  

In today's work environment, prioritising employee mental wellbeing is not just an ethical imperative but also a strategic necessity. With mental health issues on the rise globally, it is crucial for employers in New Zealand to take proactive steps in supporting their employees' mental wellbeing. The following are some effective strategies that employers can implement to support employee mental health in the workplace in New Zealand:   

Recognise mental health challenges at work 

Managers may benefit from specialised, evidence-based interventions and training to promote understanding of mental health difficulties experienced by their workers. Ideally this would include addressing barriers within the workplace which often prevent employees seeking support. For example, fear among employees that their role may become untenable if they voice concerns about their mental wellbeing.  

Encourage regular breaks and physical activity 

Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the workday to rest and recharge. Provide access to recreational facilities or organise group activities such as yoga or team sports. Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, reducing stress and improving mood. 

Promote work-life balance 

Encourage employees to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life. Wherever possible, offer flexible work arrangements which recognise that employees have different needs and circumstances such as job sharing, part-time options, flexible work hours, remote working, and generous leave allowances. Accommodating individual preferences can help reduce work-related stress and improve overall job satisfaction. 

Support access to mental health care 

Provide comprehensive mental health benefits as part of the employee benefits package. Ensure that employees are aware of these benefits and how to access them when needed. This can include Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer confidential counselling services and resources for employees facing personal or work-related challenges as well as offering stress management workshops. Encourage peer support networks and initiatives that promote inclusivity and belonging. For example, establishing a ‘wellbeing committee’ that can organise wellness initiatives and activities that enhance physical and mental health. This can serve as a platform for employees to voice their suggestions related to workplace wellbeing and foster a culture where employees feel safe to discuss their mental health concerns openly.   

Regular check-ins and feedback 

Schedule regular one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports to discuss workload, goals, and any concerns they may have. Encourage open communication and provide constructive feedback. Managers play a crucial role in supporting employee wellbeing and should be approachable and empathetic. 

Implement mental health policies  

Establishing documented policies and procedures for managing mental health related issues, including return-to-work plans and rehabilitation initiatives, enhances organisational preparedness and promotes employee support. For example,  

employees experiencing excessive workplace stress may require sick leave. Employers should adhere to standard sick leave policies and consider additional leave options tailored to address stress-related difficulties. Negotiations regarding the duration and compensation for such leave should be conducted in consultation with the employee.  

Leading by example

Demonstrate a commitment to mental health and wellbeing at all levels of the organisation, starting from senior leadership. Coping with the stress of management requires self-awareness and proactive self-care strategies. Encourage leaders to share their own experiences with mental health challenges and the strategies they use to cope. Through leading by example, employers can create a culture where mental health is valued and prioritised.  

Observing Mental Health Awareness Week  

Mental Health Awareness Week serves as a crucial juncture for employers to embed mental health and wellbeing into their organisational culture. Since its inception in 1993, the Mental Health Foundation has utilised this week to promote open dialogues on positive mental health among New Zealanders, spanning conversations within friend circles, workplaces, and families.  


Fostering a culture of mental wellbeing in the workplace requires a holistic approach that addresses both the individual and organisational levels. Employers in New Zealand have a responsibility to prioritise the mental health of their employees and create a supportive work environment where everyone can thrive. Employers can expect substantial returns on investment in wellbeing initiatives, including reduced stress levels, improved morale, enhanced productivity, increased staff retention and overall organisational success. 

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