A recent case at a major Australian airport saw an employee of one of our infrastructure utilities suddenly leave work in a distressed state, get into his car, drive through a carpark barrier, and pile into a bollard. The worker then abandoned the car, ran into a security area, setting off most alarms, only then to be apprehended by guards.
The worker reported experiencing a psychotic attack in which he believed he had to escape being chased by evil pursuers. Later interviews of his co-workers revealed he had been acting strangely prior to the incident, but no-one knew what to do about it.
That situation could have ended up much worse, and possibly been avoided altogether with a few hours of mental health training designed to assess symptoms of anxiety and an emerging psychosis. Dare it be said, but greater mental health training for the Germanwings co-workers of Andreas Lubitz may have prevented what happened on board Flight 4U9525.
The statistics on mental illness should be enough to make any manager sit up and take notice. But the dominant reactions within organisations seem to be knee jerk or tick-box in nature, rather than reflecting a wake-up call that comes from an understanding of the incidence of mental illnesses already occurring on the job and how to deal with them.
Twenty percent of workers suffer a mental health illness each year, three million experience moderate anxiety or a mild depressive state, while another 650,000 experience a severe episode stemming from schizophrenia, bipolar or severe depression. A further 65,000 experience a severe psychosocial disability.
Adding up the last two means there is a good chance that your workplace will experience a serious mental health episode. Over a working lifetime from 15-65 years, those touched by some form of mental illness is in the magnitude of 40 percent, which means all of us will share in knock-on impacts. Half of mental health conditions emerge by the age of 14, and three quarters by 25. So mental illness is present from the beginnings of a working life, and developing a pervasive response capability can’t be left any longer in the too hard basket.
My Institute has evidence from focus groups on workplace health and safety, but most is directed to detection and training of physical and operational risk issues. A psychological or mental condition usually leads to a ‘hands off’ delayed referral to an offsite employee assistance counsellor, or a clinical psychologist.
In fulfilling their fiduciary duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace, boards and senior executive groups risk being blindsided by the physical side of work, and miss its mental malfunctioning dimensions.
In the last ten years there has been much progress on alerting us to mental health issues. Inroads have been made on stigma directed at anxiety, but less so with psychosis and depression. The primary response to a psychotic event in most workplaces is to call the police rather than an ambulance. That is regrettable because most responses could be handled internally on the spot.
The evidence is that most businesses are running on empty with their mental health response capabilities. Our government highlights the need to dob in a potential terrorist, but too little attention goes into helping those who suffer from mental illnesses to deal with the sudden outbreak of terror in their own heads.
This article was first published in The Australian. Peter Wilson AM is chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute.