The Role of EI in Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces

While organisations have used emotional intelligence to develop leadership, sales and customer service competence for decades, the potential efficacy of emotional intelligence development in another, possibly more important aspect of organisational life, is becoming evident.

Businesses now are grappling with a problem that has significant financial, ethical and societal ramifications. The concept of a mentally healthy workplace, or Corporate Well-being, now rivals the importance of a physically healthy workplace as a key corporate responsibility.

The rise of Occupational Health and Safety has ensured that we are all consciously competent when it comes to physical safety at work. However, mental health conditions have generally been neglected as an equally important element of a positive work environment.

The subject of mental health has evolved and gained significant traction in recent years and many have devoted significant resources to raising awareness about mental health. The very concept itself has slowly been de-stigmatised through the work of organisations such as beyondblue, the Black Dog Institute, SANE Australia and Heads Up. Yet the importance of a greater focus on mental health and safety and pro-actively promoting a mentally healthy workplace environment seems to be ramping up.

In our world of ‘do-more-with-less’, where financial pressures abound, job complexity is high and constant change is the new certainty, we experience elevated stress levels and a greater daily experience of negative emotions. This, in turn, causes our thinking to be narrowed, our perspective to be limited and a greater preponderance of reactionary behaviour. We become more easily defensive or aggressive in our responses, more problem-focused and we more readily forget the bigger picture. Interpersonal conflicts arise. These are ripe conditions for causing a rise in mental health and stress related issues at work.

Prolonged stress (stress that lasts for a few or more months) has a lasting, negative impact on the brain and this is a significant threat to life enjoyment, work performance and is detrimental to well-being and health.

When you consider that the ABS 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing reported that in a given 12-month period, 20 per cent of Australians experienced a mental health condition, the size of today’s mental health statistics are likely to be quite alarming.

In addition to the human cost, this stress is costing the Australian Business economy dearly.

A recent study by PwC for the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance estimates that mental health conditions have a substantial impact on Australian workplaces - approximately $11 billion per year. This comprises $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims. The true cost may very well be much higher when you factor in the direct cost of employee turnover as well it’s associated loss of productivity. No industry in the Australian economy is immune to this issue.

An investment in a mentally healthy workplace has a demonstrable return on that investment.

To their credit, many organisations are taking proactive steps to create a mentally healthy workplace. This typically involves an integrated approach that is designed to increase positive affect for the organisation and the job role as well as reducing the stress exposure inherent in the role itself. Most organisations have implemented a well-developed mental health policy, on-going mental health education and a support infrastructure often known as an Employee Assistance Program. These are a good starting point.

The PwC report purports that “through the successful implementation of an effective action to create a mentally healthy workplace, organisations, on average, can expect a positive return on investment (ROI) of 2.3. That is, for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate action, there is on average $2.30 in benefits to be gained by the organisation”.

The key actions identified to create a mentally healthy workplace include creating a positive working environment, building individual skills and resilience and supporting staff with mental health conditions. Further, seven specific mental health actions have been used to calculate the ROI – these actions span the intervention continuum – from prevention to early intervention and rehabilitation/return to work.

These actions are designed to have a positive impact on employee mental health thereby reducing the impact of absenteeism, presenteeism and resulting in a decrease in compensation claims. In addition, other benefits are likely. These include reduction in turnover, lower management costs, reduced incident costs and lower income insurance costs for the organisation.

Develop Emotional Intelligence as an action to create a sustainable mentally healthy workplace.

What if these organisations addressed the very heart of the matter? What if we enabled our employees to become happy and productive at work and in their lives? What if we could help those who are already burdened with unmanageable stress and also take a pre-emptive strike to ensure that those are not – don’t become so?

What if the development of emotional intelligence skills right across the workforce was a priority to ensure that we are creating mentally healthy workplaces?

Emotional Intelligence is a set of skills that help us identify and respond to emotions within ourselves and others. As we’ve written about and presented on recently, these skills generally underpin success in the various domains of life including the amount of stress we report feeling at work (Gardner, & Stough, 2003). Purposeful development of emotional intelligence skills within the workforce (and creating an emotionally intelligent culture within the organisation) cuts right to the core of emotional capability in the workplace. Becoming emotionally intelligent arms us with what is perhaps the key weapon in our war against crippling stress – the ability to be resilient.

Genos International measures thousands of individuals’ emotional intelligence. More specifically, we measure how often people demonstrate emotionally intelligent workplace behaviour. As we’ve reported recently, our findings both in our assessment data and the applied work we do are showing that emotional intelligence in the workplace is declining.

In a mentally healthy workplace, as the demands of the workplace increase, so to should the resources that workers have to manage those demands. Emotional intelligence is one of those resources. Emotional intelligence should be increasing in the workplace, not declining.

Emotional intelligence could very well be the missing piece of the puzzle in creating and sustaining a mentally healthy workplace.

By Madeline Carter, Geoff Carter and Dr Ben Palmer


Workplace prevention of mental health problems: Guidelines for organisations. Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne; 2013

Creating a mentally healthy workplace - Return on investment analysis, PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), 2014

Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature. A report for the National Mental Health Commission and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, November 2014.

The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia, BeyondBlue/TNS Social Research

Exploration of the relationships between' workplace Emotional Intelligence, occupational stress and employee health. Gardner, L., and Stough, C. The Australian Journal of Psychology, 2003



Dr. Ben Palmer, BAppSci (Hons) PhD, CEO

View posts by Dr. Ben Palmer, BAppSci (Hons) PhD, CEO
Ben has a background in psychology having a finished a PhD at Swinburne University in Melbourne Australia where he developed the first Australian model and measure of emotional intelligence. He has an extensive publication list in the area, has been invited to contribute chapters to books and guest edit special issues of journals on the topic. Together with Swinburne University’s commercialization arm Ben founded Genos International in 2002 to bring his model and measure of emotional intelligence to the market. The first major customer of Genos was ANZ Bank where Ben and the Genos team worked together with McKinsey & Company on transforming the culture of the organisation to be more customer centric. The Genos model and measure of emotional intelligence was used as one of the mediums for this transformation that resulted in the Bank doubling its share price in 18 months and winning Bank of the Year 8 times in a row. Genos, and the model and measure of emotional intelligence that forms its core business, is now a national and Australian export success story. Genos has operations in Australia and Europe and distribution partners servicing clients in the USA, India, China, South Africa, South East Asia and New Zealand.
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