The State of Australian Workplace Mental Health

Tuesday, February 18, 2020 - 13:00
AIM Blog The State of Australian Workplace Mental Health

According to the Black Dog Institute, mental illness, beyond causing serious personal harm to individuals, in fact costs the Australian economy as much as $12 billion every year due to lost productivity and sickness absence.

To put this figure into greater context, all work-related injuries and diseases, including those of mental health nature, costs our economy $61.8 billion. Despite being one-fifth of this total expense, awareness for mental health safety has severely lagged behind that of physical health.

For instance, the non-profit organisation Beyond Blue was only founded in 2000, and R U OK? Day, potentially Australia’s largest awareness campaign for mental health and suicide prevention, only became widely known from around 2014.

But with such a significant economic impact, which is a primary foundation for policy-making, why is it only now being addressed on a large scale?

The obvious reason is the stigma attached to mental health problems. Conditions like anxiety and depression have long been dismissed by many as fake or insignificant, at least in comparison to physical injuries and disorders, and if society doesn’t view your suffering as real or substantial then it’s understandable that you would downplay it or even keep it completely hidden. This is especially relevant in Australia as we have a national identity of resilience — think, for instance, how many of us are dealing with recent bushfires — that runs contrary to admitting mental unwellness.

But stoicism, regardless of whether it’s real or forced, does not protect anyone from mental health issues.

Fortunately, the discussion of mental health in the general populace is shifting towards openness and understanding. The downside: this hasn’t necessarily translated to every workplace and this delay stems from their demographics.

Men are known for bottling up emotions, which can be seen as deriving from how they are told as children and adolescents that crying is a sign of weakness and they need to “man up”. In many ways, traditional masculinity is synonymous with behaviours that lead to the exacerbation of existing mental health conditions. Businesses are for the large part inherently masculine, especially when looking at senior staff, and this is important to recognise as it increases the risk of behaviours and ideology that are detrimental to psychological wellbeing.

The other significant demographic factor is age, as there is an obvious correlation with age and seniority. According to the ABC, 24.2% of young people reported experiencing mental distress in 2018, which represents a rise of 5.5% compared to 2012. Interestingly, while “experts say it's not clear what's driving high rates of stress” among young people, when they were asked about their concerns, many responded that it was due to an uncertainty about the future, including their own job prospects.

Ultimately, there are two ways that you can look at this rising trend of poor mental health: either the number of people with a mental health condition is increasing; or, more simply, the number of people reporting that they have a condition is increasing. Not that it must account for the entirety of this trend, but the second option seems far more likely as it suggests that awareness campaigns are effective and the taboo around mental health is at long last being successfully diminished.

As for how this all impacts the workplace, if we understand that most senior staff members are statistically more likely to view mood disorders as something to be dismissed or concealed, it is clear why only half of employees believe their workplace is mentally healthy. For those of you who do feel this way, just imagine how the other half feels working in an environment that is damaging to their psyche.

There is good reason to be optimistic for the future, though, and it all comes to the efficacy of mental health awareness. Consider this one statistic from Beyond Blue research: at organisations where the employees believe their CEO does not value mental wellness, only 8% view the workplace as mentally healthy, while at organisations where they believe their CEO does value mental wellness, that figure skyrockets to 75%.

It is a very encouraging example of how valuable workplace culture is that when leaders are aware of and compassionate towards mental health conditions, the entire organisation benefits, with mentally healthy workplaces reporting reduced absenteeism and greater employee engagement.

As AIM has made it our purpose to help Australians succeed in a tumultuous and often stressful business world, we have joined the mission to raise awareness about and reduce stigma towards depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Our latest short course, Mental Health in the Workplace, is specifically designed to provide an overview of mental health and wellness in the context of work, teach strategies for recognising the negative effects of common mental health conditions, and communicate respectfully with other staff members about their wellbeing.