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3 ways companies can support employee mental health during a recession

By Shandel McAuliffe | |8 minute read
3 ways companies can support employee mental health during a recession

Back in 2018, before our lives had been transformed by a pandemic, as many as one in five Australians had suffered from some kind of mental health illness. 13% had experienced an anxiety-related condition and 10% had or experienced feelings of depression. All of these figures were on the up compared with previous studies conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Skip forward to today. We’ve had a pandemic cause a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and now there are signs pointing to a global recession and further economic uncertainty. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) recently warned of a global “regime shift” that could lead to a repeat of the economic turmoil of the 1970s. Stagflation, an economic nightmare where inflation and unemployment are both at high levels, is a real possibility for our country. And as a result, Australia may be about to face its biggest mental health crisis.

Let’s assess where we currently are with mental health.


According to HiBob research in May 2022, nearly half (49%) of Australians said their mental health over the past year significantly affected their productivity.

And according to a whitepaper from the Black Dog Institute, higher levels of job insecurity and the shift to working from home created additional stress for workers, particularly those under 25 and working mothers.

The proof is in the pudding — the ABS revealed a few months ago that 15% of Australians were found to have experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress (19% for women), and young people were more than twice as likely to experience distress than older Australians.

Those numbers are only a snapshot of how people felt during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the bigger picture is even greater cause for concern — almost half of all Australian adults will face mental health challenges at some point in their lives.

Those working in HR and people management know only too well the impact poor mental health has at work — firstly on the individual involved, and secondly on the business. For the individual, productivity can plummet while absenteeism can rocket. And for the business, profit margins can get squeezed through low productivity and high churn.

The question now, more than ever, is what we can do as business leaders and people leaders to support those going through a tough time. There’s no shortage of advice out there, but it can seem a bit overwhelming. So, here’s a neat summary of some of the practical things we’re seeing our customers do (and the things we’re doing ourselves) to make a difference.

  • Talk about it

Many people who have suffered from mental health conditions have developed a way to hide how they’re truly feeling — especially at work. Unfortunately, a lot of people may believe their colleagues may view their mental health condition as weakness, so discussions around mental health might not happen.

Heads of HR and culture can turn this around by setting up employee resource groups dedicated to mental health. Giving people the time and a safe space to talk openly about their experiences can help people understand their triggers for anxiety and stress, and learn healthy coping strategies. Not to mention that these resource groups can be an excellent way for people to find each other and create support networks at work.

On top of this, actively supporting wellbeing is imperative. At HiBob, we created a wellbeing initiative for our staff around the globe called Bob Balance Days. Our staff are now entitled to a long weekend (which doesn’t come out of their holiday allowance) once every quarter to refresh, relax, and rejuvenate. No emails, no Slack messages, no Asana tasks, no nothing.

  • Train your managers

Heads of HR and people may have had lots of training on how to support mental health, but how confident do line managers feel when supporting their direct line reports with mental health issues?

Many line managers receive basic training about how to conduct annual appraisals and support their reports through specific work challenges. But mental health training is often left to the side. This is strange considering managers are there to support both wellbeing as well as professional development.

Getting in an external trainer for mental health training is always a good idea. They’re specialists in the area and know what they’re doing. To measure the success of a training session, assess how comfortable your employees feel approaching their managers about mental health and asking for help, and assess their wellbeing after they’ve sought help.

  • Keep people engaged

Research into mental health during the pandemic shed a light on many different causes of deterioration, but one telling issue is how much loneliness went up. More than one in 10 Australians felt isolated during COVID-19.

How many companies have decided to stick with some kind of hybrid or remote working? That’s great news in terms of flexibility, but it doesn’t always solve the loneliness issue — especially if on the majority of days people are working from home.

Technology is so important here. The wrong communications platform, the wrong support system, and the wrong feedback software can make remote workers feel…well…even more remote. The right system that keeps them engaged, gets their feedback regularly, flags potential issues to heads of HR early, and keeps employees feeling connected to their colleagues results in better productivity all round.

A call to HR

As head of HR, people or culture, you can always do more to care for your team’s wellbeing and mental health. The more we talk about mental health, train people in it, and keep people feeling together and tightly knit, the more we can make real change.

It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to get the ball rolling. Learning along the way is no bad thing and you might surprise yourself with what you can achieve.

Damien Andreasen is ANZ country manager for HiBob



Training is the process of enhancing a worker's knowledge and abilities to do a certain profession. It aims to enhance trainees' work behaviour and performance on the job.

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel McAuliffe

Shandel has recently returned to Australia after working in the UK for eight years. Shandel's experience in the UK included over three years at the CIPD in their marketing, marcomms and events teams, followed by two plus years with The Adecco Group UK&I in marketing, PR, internal comms and project management. Cementing Shandel's experience in the HR industry, she was the head of content for Cezanne HR, a full-lifecycle HR software solution, for the two years prior to her return to Australia.

Shandel has previous experience as a copy writer, proofreader and copy editor, and a keen interest in HR, leadership and psychology. She's excited to be at the helm of HR Leader as its editor, bringing new and innovative ideas to the publication's audience, drawing on her time overseas and learning from experts closer to home in Australia.

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