At a glance
According to the World Health Economic Forum, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Patients with depression are absent 4.8 working days in a three-month period and, in the same period, suffer a productivity drop of 11.5 days.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, mental health claims in Australia cost an estimated A$20 billion per year; according to the University of New South Wales (UNSW), A$12.3 billion of that can be attributed to depression alone. Globally, the estimated cost of mental health over the next 20 years is US$16 trillion.
It’s easy to see why employers should be taking note of mental health issues in the workplace.
“The need for immediate action is critical to the future of the global economy,” said Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, in September 2011.
According to the World Health Economic Forum, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
According to Dr Caryl Barnes, a psychiatrist working with The Black Dog Institute, an organisation that focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders, “When people start to realise that [mental health has] such a huge impact economically, people understand that … it makes good business sense to do something because you’re going to save money as well as make yourself a better employer of choice.
“When it’s done wrong and people end up putting in compensation claims … it really adds up and it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt us as a community,” she adds.
“In health we find ourselves asking for extra money to improve people’s health,” says Dr Sam Harvey, who leads a program of research on workplace mental health, conducted jointly by the UNSW and The Black Dog Institute.
“In the case of depression in the workplace it’s a win-win situation: you should be able to help people and save money for the company by doing the same thing.”
Canadian psychological health and safety expert Dr Mervyn Gilbert, speaking at a recent Communicorp seminar on mental health in the workplace, said that “modern work is psychological”, noting that while decades ago workers demanded a lot of their bodies, nowadays it is the mind that feels the biggest strain or “workplace pressure”.
“So when you start writing your physical health policy or your OH&S policy for your entire organisation [it’s important that] you’ve got mental health in there alongside physical health, and then you start setting some goals,” Barnes says.
“Unfortunately, there are organisations that think an EAP [employee assistance program] number is sufficient,” says Communicorp managing director David Burroughs.
“A one-hour talk and an EAP is bordering on negligence in my opinion. Mental health is a complex issue. There’s duty of care, code of conduct issues, confidentiality concerns … you can’t just address it in a superficial way.”
According to Burroughs, companies must begin with a top-down approach.
“You have to have high level, executive-level commitment because they set the tone. They ensure there are the resources for the workplace training to be in place. Realistically, it is managers and work health and safety teams that have to do the implementation of this kind of thing.
"They’re the ones who interact with the staff on a regular basis so they’re the ones that need to have quite a lot of skill and understanding in these areas.”
Therese Fitzpatrick, Workplace & Workforce Program Leader at mental health awareness organisation beyondblue agrees, but states that managers need more than training around mental health.
“[They need] training around communication, grievance management, performance management, how to set KPIs – all those things that have an impact on people’s mental health. You need to be good at all those things that [go into making] a good manager.
“Having a workplace that is really supportive, where it promotes people being generally healthy in terms of their lifestyle, all of these things help mental health as well,” Harvey adds.
In addition to training, Harvey says, “work can be done within organisations to try to reduce the stigma of mental health. It’s about trying to increase mental health literacy across the organisation.”
Get on board
According to Jack Heath, CEO of mental health charity SANE Australia, one of the quickest ways to effect change around mental health, at a society level, is for business to get on board with mental health programs.
“Business can effect change around this faster, I think, than you can through government legislative programs,” he says. “But government needs to be ready for legislation if we’re not seeing [those changes].”
Fitzpatrick agrees that some responsibility sits with business.
“I think employers have [to as a] collective look at their own responsibility,” she says. “If we think of mental health problems the same as we do physical risks in the workplace … OH&S is the responsibility of employers around mental health as much as physical health.”
Heath sees a future for Australia as the world leader in mental health awareness.
“We should give ourselves 10 years or so to get there,” he says. “But I can’t see any justification or any rational argument that says Australia should have anything but the best mentally healthy workplaces in the world. How dare we not aspire to do that? It’s going to build sustainable businesses, it’s going to increase levels of productivity and it’s going to reduce mental health bills.”
5 steps to better mental health plans
At a recent Communicorp seminar on mental health in the workplace, psychological health and safety expert Dr Mervyn Gilbert suggested the following five-point action plan:
- Define who’s in charge of developing your mental health plan– it should not be left to someone junior in HR, and should have executive support and attention
- Put a blueprint together and develop a business case
- Plan your initiatives, and ensure you have the resources in place
- Do something! Make sure your initiatives are always from a workplace perspective. A “stress-free” day in the park may sound like a good idea, but how does it help long-term?
- Celebrate your successes … and keep them coming.
If you’re experiencing mental health issues, contact: Lifeline on 131 114; beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or SANE Australia on 1800 18 SANE (7263).