Why mental health matters in business

Mental health is a crucial issue for employers of all sizes. With workplace culture, occupational health and safety, the pressure to be productive and even discrimination affecting staff, it has never been more important for business owners to do their part in providing happy, healthy workplaces.

It used to be the case that when someone seemed depressed, you would tell them to ‘smile’ and ‘cheer up’, or point out that ‘life’s not that bad’.

Yet mental health has attracted more attention in recent years (sadly all too often due to high-profile cases of depression or suicide), and this is helping to deliver a better understanding of mental illness and the effects it can have on an individual.

Why is this relevant to employers?

Patrice O’Brien, head of workplace engagement at beyondblue, says she is encouraged by the fact that business owners are increasingly coming to understand the role that mental health plays in their workplaces.

“Broadly speaking, the question used to be more like: ‘Is this really our business? We’re a workplace; do we really have to worry about mental health here? Can’t people leave that at the door?’ – which we don’t think they can!” Patrice tells My Business.

At the most basic level, everyone wants to work in an environment that stimulates collaboration and is conducive to delivering results. But consider the further benefits of a mentally healthy workplace, such as:

  • Productivity – lower absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’ (being physically present but with low engagement and productivity).
  • Culture – attracting and retaining skilled staff is enough of an issue for most SMEs, without having a culture in which no one wants to work.
  • Compliance – meeting and even exceeding legislative requirements around health and safety.

If those points don’t make you sit up and take notice, consider these facts from workplace mental health organisation Heads Up:

  • An estimated 6 million working days are lost in Australia annually as a direct result of untreated depression.
  • $10.9 billion is the annual cost of poorly managed mental health practices in Australian workplaces.
  • Worker’s compensation claims for psychological conditions make up just 1 per cent of this figure – low productivity and earnings make up the majority of the losses.
  • Research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggests businesses generate an average return on investment of $2.30 for every $1 they invest in creating a mentally healthy workplace for their employees.

“Working is really, really good for mental health. So good work … can be a really good protective factor.”

Duty of care

Of course, there is a legal element to most aspects of running a business, and you may be surprised to learn that this includes the mental health and wellbeing of employees.

Particularly relevant are discrimination laws within the workplace, notes Kerryn Tredwell, a partner at Hall & Wilcox, and mental health is considered by law to be a type of disability.

“Disability is a really broad concept, and I think it’s easy for some people to think that it’s what we have historically thought of as a disability – a learning disability or a physical disability of some kind. But these days depression, for example, is a mental condition but it is a disability,” she explains.

Failing to accommodate an employee with a disability poses the risk of legal and financial penalties under the federal Disability Discrimination Act.

This presents a challenge for employers, and highlights that an active approach to the issue is the best policy business owners can take to protect not only their employees, but also themselves.

“Let me give you an example,” Kerryn says.

“If you have an employee who is having excessive sickness absences, it’s quite common in my experience that employers will treat that as an absence problem, so almost like a disciplinary issue. “If … they don’t put two and two together and work out that those absences are the result of a disability, then they might not recognise that the obligation to make a reasonable adjustment has arisen.”

How you can help

As Patrice points out, it is often SMEs that struggle most with meeting the needs of their employees.

“Usually small businesses don’t have anything like EAPs [employee assistance programs], so who is it [employees] can go to, to talk to, and where can they get support from?” she says.

Thankfully, even without a large budget to devote to staff welfare, there are many things that you, as the leader of a business, can do to develop a mentally healthy workplace:

Create transparency: Having an open forum where employees can feel free to discuss stresses or concerns they may have, as well as raising awareness of mental health more broadly, goes a long way towards reducing the stigma around mental illness and facilitates better identification of specific issues that may need to be addressed, or of individuals in need of help.

“What that means is that people are going to put their hand up a lot earlier, and you’re not going to have that heartache of trying to deal with a really complex situation [down the track],” Patrice says.

Develop formal policies: It can be all too easy to overlook these issues simply because they are in the back of your mind, rather than written down and easily accessible by everyone within the company. Having policies in place on health and safety, bullying and harassment, overtime and other stress factors can be a good way of ensuring everyone stays on the same page.

Adopt a flexible approach: In addition to influencing the company’s overall culture, flexible working arrangements can be helpful to employees suffering mental
illness – measures such as flexible hours and days, duty rotation and so on.

Stay alert: As Kerryn points out, ignorance is far from bliss. Being alert will help you identify risks to your employees’ mental wellbeing, and can also help to identify individuals who may be struggling.

Use available tools: Don’t feel that you have to do it alone. Services like Heads Up, a partnership between beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, have plenty of resources and advice for supporting and training employees and business owners, as well as phone services to discuss particular

“The old adage: ‘You don’t bring outside life stresses to work and you don’t take work stress home’ doesn’t apply any more; our lives are integrated.”

Lead by example: It’s only natural for employees to look to their leader for inspiration, and that can include guidance on mental health and wellbeing. Ensuring your own mental health is in check will serve as a positive example for those working alongside you to follow.

Say something: “One of the worst things to do is not having the conversation,” says Patrice. “Saying anything is [almost always] better than not saying anything at all … it’s about really listening to them, listening to where they’re at, and showing them that authentic care and support. Often that’s the main thing that people need, and that in and of itself is a really good first step.”

Playing your part

As Patrice points out, the role of business owners in the battle against mental illness is a crucial one – affecting not just the health of individuals, but also the broader economy.

“Working is really, really good for mental health. So good work … can be a really good protective factor.

But then, the stresses associated with work can also be negative in relation to people’s mental health,” she says.

“The more mentally healthy you can make a workplace, then the more protective it is for everyone – not just people with mental health conditions, but for everyone. You’re trying to create a healthy environment for everyone in the workplace so that everyone can really thrive and do their best.”


Case study: Catherine Gillespie, Managing director at WPCR

As the managing director of Melbourne-based organisation Workplace Conflict Resolution (WPCR), Catherine Gillespie has a fairly unique take on the importance of managing mental health in the workplace.

Of course, given that the company specialises in resolving issues surrounding conflict in the workplace, its clients have a particular interest in the issue.

Yet mental health is also a prominent issue for Catherine and her staff, given the often emotional and stressful situations they discuss with their clients on a daily basis.

“I didn’t believe it posed any issues to my mental health, so I never thought about it posing issues to my staff’s mental health either. [But that was] until we had a situation where we were doing an investigation for a client and [a staff member] was working with the person who booked in the complaint, and then the respondent, who receives the complaint and has to respond … took his own life,” she explains.

“That was quite a shocking experience for the staff member to go through. That then led us to talking about the risks that our consultants face in working with external clients – more fully recognising the impact [of] the situations that the external clients are in when they are participating in our program, but also what risks our own staff face.”

Catherine engaged with beyondblue and its workplace site Heads Up to formulate an action plan, which involved on-site training about recognising and discussing mental health issues. She says the impacts were immediate, and believes she is seeing a return on investment through the level of repeat business WPCR is generating.

“It put the clients at ease, and I think it also put our consultants at ease, because previously they might have noticed it but not known how to address it or what to say, and that was a form of discomfort for everybody in the room,” she says.

Her advice to other business owners – small and large alike – is clear:

“I think it’s imperative that [employers] do address mental issues in their workplace,” Catherine says.

“The old adage: ‘You don’t bring outside life stresses to work and you don’t take work stress home’ doesn’t apply any more; our lives are integrated.”

Quick facts: mental health at work

  • 1 in 5 – proportion of employees likely to be experiencing a mental illness at any time
  • 45% – proportion of Australians who will experience a mental illness in their lifetime
  • 6 million – number of work days lost each year due to undiagnosed mental illness
  • $10.9bn – annual cost of poorly managed mental health in the workplace
  • $2.30 – return on investment for every $1 businesses invest in mental health strategies
  • 50% – proportion of employees who feel their workplace is a mentally healthy space

Source: Heads Up / beyondblue


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