Health and safety at work includes mental health. This page outlines why mentally healthy work is part of health and safety, what is meant by mental wellbeing, and why it is a work issue.
Find out more about the connection between work, mental health, and the law.
Understanding mental wellbeing
To support mental wellbeing and prevent mental harm it is important to clarify what mental health is and how it is linked with all aspects of hauora (health/wellbeing).
Mental illness is not the same as mental health. Everyone experiences mental health, just as we all experience physical health. It can affect how people feel, function, develop, and interact. Mental health changes; it can improve or decline, changing daily, weekly, and over our lifetime.
Positive mental health allows people to feel good, function well, work effectively, have strong relationships, and to thrive. Poor mental health also impacts a person’s thinking, emotions, and behaviours but in a negative and unhelpful way. It can impair a person’s ability to realise their potential.
World Health Organization definition
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Mental health is defined as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Sir Mason Durie’s Māori health and wellbeing model, Te Whare Tapa Whā, outlines a holistic view of hauora (health/wellbeing), which includes mental health.
It helps us see how mental health relates to other areas of our wellbeing. It is made up of four areas that interact to support each other like the walls of a whare (house). The whare rests on the whenua (land), or environment. There is a direct connection between where we live and work, and our health and wellbeing.
- Taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing): the experience and expression of thoughts and feelings, including how we see ourselves in the world.
- Taha tinana (physical wellbeing): how your body grows, develops, moves, and how you care for it.
- Taha whānau (family and social wellbeing): the capacity to belong, to care, and to share as part of a wider social system and community. Whānau provides us with the strength to be who we are. This is the link to our ancestors, our ties with the past, the present, and the future.
- Taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing): the spiritual essence of a person is their life force. It gives us meaning and a sense of purpose.
The model helps us see how things that happen in one area of our lives can affect other areas. Mental health interacts and is connected to our physical, social, and spiritual health. It is impacted by the world we live and work in. The external factors in our lives are strong influences on all aspects of our health. Our overall wellbeing is influenced by how well we are doing in each of these four areas.
The more support we have across the areas, the more likely we are to manage challenges, be productive and experience good mental health. If risks are not prevented or minimised then harm in one area is likely to impact other areas of our hauora.
Mentally healthy work
Mentally healthy work is work that prevents harm and supports mental wellbeing.
Work can have a positive or negative impact on people’s mental wellbeing.
Good work enables people to thrive; people are more productive at work and are more likely to stay in the job they have.
Unhealthy work can cause harm and significant health issues; poor mental health, illness, and/or physical injury.
For example, anxiety, depression, musculoskeletal disorders, and impaired immune systems are all associated with unhealthy work and work environments.
It is important for businesses to talk about how work impacts mental wellbeing. Businesses should identify and address risks to health and safety, protecting people from harm.
Mentally unhealthy work is measurable at a high level by businesses right now. Sickness absence, productivity, intention to resign, and employee turnover can be indicators of poor culture in a workplace.
The benefits of mentally healthy work
- 2021 research by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER)(external link) calculated a return on investment (ROI) of 5:1, and up to 12:1 for businesses that invest in creating a wellbeing culture that supports the physical and mental health of teams.
The costs of ignoring mental wellbeing
- New Zealand lost 9.95 million working days and 2.86 billion dollars in 2022 because of work absence.
- WorkSafe calculates the impact of work-related illness, injury, and harm in the workplace costs Aotearoa New Zealand 2 billion dollars per year.
Mental health is covered in the Health and Safety at Work Act
The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) defines health as “physical and mental health.” HSWA requires businesses to provide and maintain a work environment that is without risks to safety and health, including mental health, so far as is reasonably practicable.
Having a mentally healthy work environment can reduce the likelihood of mental harm. It can also reduce the likelihood of injuries and musculoskeletal disorders.
WorkSafe is committed to supporting businesses create mentally healthy work as well as manage risks associated with unhealthy work.
WorkSafe’s position on mentally healthy work: Supporting mentally healthy work
- Te Whare Tapa Whā(external link) | Te Aka Whai Ora (Māori Health Authority)
- How we kōrero about mental wellbeing matters [PDF, 288 KB]
 Workplace wellness report 2023(external link) | Southern Cross Health Insurance & BusinessNZ