Positive Mental Health at Work (March 2016)

Eleven years ago I was nearing the end of participating in a 22-week virtual Authentic Happiness Coaching Program (AHC). From March 2003 to May 2005 Dr Martin Seligman and a host of other leading positive psychologists trained 1,000 professionals from 19 nations in the theory, assessments, interventions, and exercises of Positive Psychology. It was soon after AHC finished that the first Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program was created, and as many readers know, Positive Psychology News (PPND) was brought to life by MAPP graduates.

toxic-emotions-at-work-and-what-you-can-do-about-them_121354I discovered AHC in early 2004 after attending a “Toxic Emotions at Work” workshop run by Professor Peter Frost (who sadly passed away in late 2004). We were introduced to Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Organizational Scholarship. Exploring these fields led me Positive Psychology, and then AHC. Having worked for a large international organisation for 20 years I was excited about the potential for all three fields to be applied in the workplace.

Positive Psychology’s aim is to build strength, well-being, and optimal functioning. This focus gained momentum in the late 1990s and resulted from a reaction to psychology’s then predominant attention to what is wrong, how to fix it, and how to remove damage and weaknesses. A number of psychologists noticed that removing weakness did not build flourishing.

“Psychology has, since World War II, become a science largely about healing. It concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community. The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities.” (Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

This expanded attention to building strength and well-being has important implications for organizations.


Well-being at Work Strategies

Here in Australia, happiness and well-being strategies in the workplace were almost unheard of 11 years ago. The predominant focus back then included cultural imperatives such as employee engagement.

Mental illness and mental health are now at the forefront of attention. Organisations are implementing strategies to reduce mental illness at work and to support employees who suffer from mental illness. Do you notice the focus here on weakness correction? However, some organisations are also promoting positive mental health at work and are implementing strategies to strengthen well-being and flourishing (not just minimising ill-health).


Examples of Workplace Well-being Strategies

What resources are available to design an organisational well-being strategy? To become informed you could read countless articles and books that are available on this subject and you could find the threads that you could weave into your strategy.

Or you could kick start your work by referring to the strategies that others have designed. To get the ball rolling, here are some Australian examples of reusable strategies.


Example 1: SuperFriend

In 2015 SuperFriend published guidelines for organisations, Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace. (I participated in one of their reference groups)

“Positive mental health refers to positive emotional, psychological and social wellbeing that can enhance functioning in life.”SuperFriend-Workplace-Programs-Delphi-Final_Page_01

“An approach that focuses solely on the dysfunctional elements of work in order to prevent illness does not adequately capture the elements of the workplace that engage employees; nor does it explain why some organisations develop environments where employees can flourish and reach their optimal potential”.

“Keeping in mind the distinction between positive mental health and mental illness, organisations should develop an integrated and holistic approach to mental health. An integrated approach will: protect employees from mental illness to the extent feasible …. promote positive mental health …. and address mental illness regardless of cause.”

The guidelines are laid out in a clear and readable format, making it easy for organisations to kick-start the process of developing their own strategies.


Example 2: Heads Up

Heads Up is an organisation developed by beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, which was established by the National Mental Health Commission. The website has a wealth of tools, templates, resources, information, tips, and advice to help individuals and businesses to create more mentally healthy workplaces.

“Taking a proactive approach to mental health helps to build your reputation as an employer of choice, helping you recruit and retain the best and brightest people.”


Example 3: Australian Public Service Commission (APSC)

In 2013 the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC), in conjunction with Comcare, an Australian Government Agency, published a 128-page document Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work.

“This guide recognises the World Health Organisation’s approach that good mental health is much more than the absence of a diagnosed condition.”

The guide provides good practices, practical information, advice, information sheets, and resources. It is organised around four principles:

  1. Effective people management and leadership
  2. Fostering workplaces and cultures that promote health and well-being and minimise the development of mental ill health.
  3. Early recognition and support
  4. Rehabilitation and return to work


Example 4. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

CSIRO “is a place where all our people are healthy, flourish and want to work. Our strategy is explicitly focused on the effect of our culture and operating conditions on the psychological wellbeing of our people, and its interplay with their physical wellbeing.”

One of the inputs into its 32-page Wellbeing At Work Strategy 2014-2018 was report from the APSC (see above). CSIRO was guided by the APSC’s emphasis on the influence that organisational culture has on well-being.

“The APSC recommends that organisations: take more responsibility for employee wellbeing at work; don’t assume it’s an employee’s responsibility alone; and place more focus on optimising conditions to enhance employee wellbeing and reducing factors that cause stress. This is the approach that CSIRO is taking with this Strategy.”


Example 5. Ernst & Young (EY)

“Putting Our Minds To It” is a guide published by international professional services firm EY (happy memories, I worked with EY for 20 years). Six actions are suggested which organisations can take to improve mental health and well-being:

  1. Address mental health as an economic and business improvement driver.
  2. Redesign work to establish a mentally healthy environment.
  3. Set a longer term strategy: there is no magic bullet or short term fix.
  4. Have courage to remove barriers to change.
  5. Act on unique organisational demographics and mental health risk profiles.
  6. Introduce meaningful measures for mental health risk.


Just the Tip of the Iceberg

These examples are a drop in the ocean of resources that organisations can use to develop their well-being strategies. Do you know of resources and examples that you can share? I’d love to hear from you.



Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Frost, P. J. (2003). Toxic emotions at work: How compassionate managers handle pain and conflict. Boston: Harvard Business School Press


This article was originally posted on Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) in February 2016.


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