OPINION: Work mental health issues cost billions

THE workplace in Australia and around the world is a constantly changing environment.

Many regular practices that were considered routine and acceptable 10 or even five years ago are now consigned to history.

One area that still needs to move with the times and catch up to the modern world of 2013 is the way mental health issues are handled within the working environment.

Change is necessary.

It needs to happen more rapidly than is currently the case and if done properly, the changes will benefit employees and employers.

Mental illness in the workplace costs Australian businesses a staggering $6.5billion every year.

Statistics show that one in four Australians will experience a depressive episode within their lifetime.

This means mental health conditions, far from being isolated are, in fact, common.

The cost of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness can have a devastating effect on an individual and their family, as well as costing an employer a significant amount in lost productivity.

Ignoring the problem and believing it doesn’t exist, or is too complex,  is counterproductive.

By implementing a more structured plan to educate and support all employees in the mental health area, I believe  employers would reduce their overall costs and increase productivity.

There is still a perception that workplace mental health training and things like conducting information sessions on site are costs businesses can’t afford.

I would argue that businesses cannot afford not to invest in them.

When I experienced clinical depression in 2000, while working for the ABC, I felt unable to tell anyone about it. 

I was embarrassed and felt as though I was the only person who could be experiencing the feelings I had.

I did not give the ABC an opportunity to support me initially because I kept it to myself that I simply wasn’t coping. 

I continued to work through the months I was experiencing severe depression but it was very much a case of “presenteeism”: I was turning up for work every day while in fact I was achieving very little.

When the full extent of my illness (bipolar 1 disorder) was diagnosed, the ABC was fantastic and that support has enabled me to recover, manage the illness and become a productive member of the workforce again.

One of the biggest problems is that within many organisations, there is a fear that once mental illness is discussed and moved on to the mainstream health agenda,  it will open the floodgates on a raft of new workplace compensation claims, leaving businesses vulnerable.

I believe the opposite will occur.

Those people who genuinely need assistance will get it and feel supported as they begin the recovery phase. Those who are not dealing with a mental health problem will be better educated, more understanding and empathetic towards others within the workplace.

An informed workforce will have greater confidence that their employer genuinely cares about their well-being.

All this will add up to a more, not less, productive workplace with better overall morale.

According to Comcare, Australia’s federal work health and safety regulator, claims associated with mental stress have risen 23per cent since 2009-10. 

Work-related mental stress is of concern in the Comcare scheme, especially in the Australian Public Service. 

The number and proportion of worker’s compensation claims as well as the cost of psychological injury claims, has increased over recent years.

Clearly, something’s not working.

I realise how fortunate I have been to receive that unconditional support at work. Many others are not so lucky. 

This needs to change.

Reducing stigma around the issue of mental illness is still the No.1 problem in implementing change.

Individuals are on the whole, reluctant to admit to anyone that they have a mental health problem, let alone an employer.

As a result, employers get an impression that there are no mental health issues in the workplace that may affect the employees’ well-being and at the same time have a real impact on productivity.

People recover from mental illness every day. 

It does not have to be a permanent disability.

The time has come to change the way we view mental health in our workplaces.

Craig Hamilton is an ABC broadcaster, speaker, author and mental health advocate.

EXPENSE: Mental illness costs Australian businesses $6.5billion yearly.

EXPENSE: Mental illness costs Australian businesses $6.5billion yearly.


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