The workplace mental health conundrum

The conundrum of workplace mental health in three parts (or why 1+ 2 can’t equal 3):

1. Mental health awareness campaigns abound

From RU OK? Day to Mental Health Week to beyondblue’s Man Therapy promotion, mental health awareness campaigns are ever present. For example, this year the ABC launched its inauguralMental As initiative to coincide with Mental Health Week, saturating mental health content across all its platforms: TV, radio, online and mobile. These campaigns are having an impact.

The results from beyondblue’s Depression Monitor survey show that community awareness about depression and anxiety has improved over time. More people now recognise that mental health is a major health problem in Australia with numbers doubling since 2004.

2. Investing in mental health makes economic sense

Mental health disorders account for 13.3% of Australia’s total burden of disease and are estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion annually in lost productivity and labour participation (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2007). Recent PwC research for beyondblue found mental health conditions cost Australian businesses $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in unwell workers still at work, and $146 million in compensation claims. 

The same research found organisations who implement mental health initiatives can expect a positive return on investment of 2.3. That is, for every dollar spent on investing in mentally healthy workplaces, an organisation can expect, on average, a $2.30 return on investment.

3. Two in five Australian employers won’t hire someone with a mental illness

McNair research conducted for WISE employment found that two in five employers won’t consider employing someone who has a mental illness citing unpredictable and changeable behaviour, possibility of a breakdown and too many sick days as the biggest barriers. In fact, employers preferred to hire someone without a higher education degree rather than a candidate with a mental illness, even if they were qualified for the role. I guess my depression outweighs my two Masters degrees when it comes to the workplace

So here’s the conundrum. If there is evidence of increased community awareness, if investing in mentally healthy workplaces delivers productivity and economic returns, why does stigma still persist? How can negative perceptions of people with mental illness in the workplace be addressed?

Perhaps the answer lies in C – the C suite, an organisation’s senior leaders and managers.

It is always illuminating to ask which area of an organisation has responsibility for workplace mental health. In an unscientific straw poll I conducted, the answer was invariably HR although in some instances it was seen as an OH&S responsibility while for one organisation, it was located in risk management. As someone who lives with mental illness, it didn’t inspire confidence that I was viewed as a risk that needed to be mitigated. 

Workplace mental health is rarely seen as a leadership responsibility. Yet the role of an organisation’s leaders is crucial to drive the change needed to smash the stigma around mental illness in the workplace, to increase the number of employers who will employ someone with a mental illness. Without deep cultural change and leaders stepping up to the challenge, the workplace mental health conundrum will continue.