Employers investing in mental health can get more out of employees

Click image to zoom Tap image to zoom

Almost 45 per cent of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. That's almost half the population.

"If Australian businesses want to be employers of choice and attract and keep the best and most talented people, they have to create mentally healthy workplaces."
Jeff Kennett, beyondblue Chairman

According to the World Economic Forum, in rich countries, 38 per cent of all illness is mental illness. It particularly affects people of working age, where it accounts for 50 per cent of the total.

“The overall economic cost has been estimated at 8 per cent of GDP, not to mention the massive suffering involved,” WEF research said. “Policy-makers increasingly wonder what they can do about it.”

For any organisation, an issue for nearly half its potential workforce is an issue for the whole organisation. This is especially true at organisations like ANZ.

Whilst mental health conditions can be found across all industries, the prevalence of mental health conditions is highest – at 33 per cent - in the financial and insurance sector, with anxiety conditions being the most prevalent.

Mental health conditions can present in various forms, in a recent report by PwC and beyondblue three main areas of mental health were identified: Substance use conditions, anxiety conditions and depression. 

Wise Employment found that negative perceptions about mental illness - whilst being addressed in the wider community - are still a problem in the workplace.

Wise Employment’s research found that mental illness was seen as a bigger barrier to employment than physical disability. One in three would consider employing a person who has a mental illness compared to close to one in two for someone who has a physical disability.

The 'business case' for mentally healthy workplaces

Just as the value for business – and hence stakeholders, including shareholders and staff – from better diversity and operational risk policies have become clearer and clearer, the 'business case' for a more inclusive approach to mental health is clear.

According to, 18 million absentee days are attributable to untreated mental health problems every year in Australia. Implementing effective workplace mental health programs can assist in supporting staff in the workplace.

The ‘Creating a mentally healthy workplace’ report by PwC highlights that mental health conditions present substantial costs to organisations. The report also emphasises the financial benefits of making investments into the mental health of their employees.

Employers implementing mentally healthy workplace policies or associated activities could expect reduced absenteeism, an increase in productive hours and also a reduction in the number of compensation claims.

Through the successful implementation of an effective program to create a mentally healthy workplace, organisations can expect a positive return on investment (ROI) of 2.3 per cent on average. That is, for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate action, there is on average $2.30 in benefits to be gained by the organisation.

This tangible benefit to organisations – and of course people – is recognised at government level too. In September, Victorian minister for mental health and community services Mary Wooldridge, speaking at the Lifting the Lid mental health political forum, said "we are starting a mental health employer of the year award and it has been quite hard to find businesses to say 'yes we are doing a good job' for people with mental illness.”

But she stressed part of the idea behind the award was to showcase businesses that do well.

“And to do this requires a bit of commitment - all work places have people with mental illness,” Wooldridge said.

This year’s winners for of the Mental Health employer excellence awards were CitiPower and Powercor, Clean Force Property and Lend Lease.

Speaking to The Australian Financial Review, Lend Lease’s Steve McCann said that “things like the topic of mental health and depression are going to be so much more accessible going forward, that every organisation needs to absorb it, they can’t turn a blind eye to it.”

Research conducted by Great Place to Work found maintaining a healthy workplace often comes down to the policies and procedures implemented by executives and managers in hiring, inspiring, speaking, listening, thinking, caring, developing, celebrating and sharing – ensuring employees are happy and motivated.

Whilst there are various rewards and perks that can be offered to employees, Great Place to Work’s research found companies considered to be the best places to work had one shared trait – open communication between managers and employees.

At ANZ there has been a program in place for the past seven years, to address subjects of mental disorders, stress-related burnout and depression.

Head of health safety and wellbeing Judy Smith said "our mental health programs start with the idea that a healthy workforce is a productive workforce. So you ensure healthy buildings, practices and environments and that employees are supported with their medical problems.”

Jeff Kennett, beyondblue chairman and former Victorian Premier said “it makes good business sense to have people look forward to going to work in a place where they are respected, treated well and are not overloaded with work and expected to meet impossible deadlines. This leads to ongoing stress which can develop into depression and anxiety.”

Great Place to Work also found for a company to achieve a high ranking, there were three key attributes: trust, pride and camaraderie – all of which help contribute to a more mentally healthy workplace. Throwing lots of money at employees doesn’t necessarily make a business an employer of choice.

Small IT companies topped Great Place to Work’s annual list of the best places to work in Australia. Large national or multinational companies were absent from the top of the list.

“If Australian businesses want to be employers of choice and attract and keep the best and most talented people, they have to create mentally healthy workplaces,” Kennett said.

The criteria to attract and retain talented employees are changing as expectations are changing to include more than just financial compensation. Employees are increasingly seeking out employers with attractive working environments, including appropriate mental health policies.

“This may seem obvious, but unfortunately too many workplaces still lack adequate mental health policies, which are the backbone of a workplace environment which supports the mental health of its staff,” Kennett said.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

editor's picks

20 Jun 2014

Refugee programs deliver economic as well as humanitarian dividends

Tony Nicholson | Executive Director, Brotherhood of St Laurence

Despite the intense focus on productivity and developing a smarter workforce, many companies in Australia are actively undermining their efforts to attract the best skills.

14 Jul 2014

What’s friendly about the assumption you’ve forgotten something?

Felicity Costigan | Journalist and Not-For-Profit Consultant

I have a polite request: can we all just agree to retire the phrase, ‘a friendly reminder’?