Mental health disorders, including some of the most common complaints such as depression and anxiety, are now affecting around 20 per cent of the working age population at any one time. This has pushed the issue way up the agenda for business, as Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged recently. Responding to the National Mental Health Commission report in November, the Prime Minister said, “Mental illness gnaws away at participation, it gnaws away at productivity.”
It certainly does. Lost productivity, due largely to absenteeism, is costing Australian business in the region of $11 billion every year, according to new data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Worldwide, workforces in developed nations are succumbing to more stressful lives. In the UK, the Chief Medical Officer’s 2015 annual report asserted that, “More needs to be done to help people with mental illness stay in work, as since 2009, the number of working days lost to ‘stress, depression and anxiety’ have increased by 24 per cent and the number lost to serious mental illness has doubled.”
Meanwhile in the US, clinical depression has become one of the country’s most costly illnesses. Left untreated, depression is equal to heart disease or AIDS in its impact on the US economy, costing over $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity.
In Australia, Beyond Blue research suggests that three million Australians live with depression or anxiety, so the likelihood is there is someone struggling at work who you know.
Kathryn Page is a manager of Human Capital consulting at Deloitte Australia and a researcher at the University of Melbourne. Her research shows that organisational interventions to prevent stress and promote workplace mental health has a significant impact in keeping employees productive.
“For employees, the main struggles relate to coping with poor managerial and workplace practices, excessive workloads, little control over their work, demands to do more with less and interpersonal conflict,” she says.
While many Australian workplaces are taking positive steps to address the effects of stress and anxiety among employees, including hosting mental health programs and seminars, stigma is still a problem.
An Australian study from 2009 found that nearly one in four people felt depression was a sign of personal weakness and would not employ a person with depression. A third said they would not vote for a politician with depression and 42 per cent thought people with depression were unpredictable. One in five said if they had depression, they wouldn’t reveal it and nearly two in three people surveyed thought people with schizophrenia were unpredictable and a quarter felt that they were dangerous.
“Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces” is one initiative aimed to counteract these negative impressions. It’s a report produced through business sector, government and mental health sector collaboration – the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance – and offers advice on how early intervention and promoting resilience at work can help promote recovery and reduce the effects of mental illness.
Investing in good mental health practices also makes economic sense. PwC research shows that for every dollar invested, improved mental health yields a return of $2.30. This isn’t just the case for large multinationals; small organisations have a high opportunity for return on investment with small companies in the mining sector, for example, receiving a $15 return in investment for every dollar spent
Signs are that the message is getting through to organisations that this is an issue that isn’t going away soon. And employees are taking matters into their hands if they find that work is having a negative effect on their mental state. A recent Heads Up survey of 1000 workers showed that people would rather leave a job than stay and suffer in silence.
The arguments are there for HR professionals: taking a proactive approach to mental health isn’t simply the right thing to do for your employees, it also makes good business sense.