The best way to improve employee’s mental health

In Australia, more than six million employees take sick leave every year due to mental illness. Moreover, untreated mental health conditions are resulting in $10.9 billion being lost every year due to absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims.

A world-first study published in Lancet Psychiatry, led by researchers at the Black Dog Institute and University of NSW, suggests that basic mental health training for managers can result in significant benefits for employees.

The research looked at the effects of a four-hour mental health training program delivered to Fire & Rescue NSW managers.

It found that the training was associated with a return on investment of $9.98 for each dollar spent on training and major reductions in work-related sickness absence. It is also the first study to show that training managers about mental health can have a direct impact in improving occupational outcomes for workers.

‘Having a supportive manager can make a huge difference to a person’s mental wellbeing, and as this study shows, giving basic mental health training to managers can bring significant changes to both confidence and behaviour among staff,’ says Samuel Harvey, who leads the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the Black Dog Institute.

A strategy for workplace mental health

According to a survey of more than 2000 NSW businesses, less than one in 10 employers had an integrated approach to mental health.

Using a benchmarking tool, it was found that about one in five employers had a basic awareness of mental health issues but thought it was ultimately an individual’s responsibility.

The scientific, professional and technical sectors were the worst performing industries.

It is estimated that the cost of mental health issues to NSW employers is about $2.8 million a year. Research also suggests that businesses that invest in workplace mental health programs could reap more than $4 for every $1 invested as a result of improvements to productivity and reductions in absenteeism.

Mental illness is now the leading cause of long-term sickness among Australian workers, overtaking back pain as the most common cause of work incapacity.

Our six-year work health and safety roadmap includes a commitment to reduce serious injuries and illnesses by 30 per cent by 2022, with a focus on serious mental health disorders.

A Mentally Healthy Strategy of NSW incorporating initiatives designed to raise awareness and improve business capability to prevent and manage poor mental health in the workplace will be developed in consultation with stakeholders, along with
a range of compliance and enforcement measures.

In this short video, Sam Harvey, Associate Professor at the University of NSW and Professor Nick Glozier from the University of Sydney share their thoughts on the importance of creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Help us shape the future of mental health in small business

According to the NSW Mental Health Commission, 17 per cent of people in NSW will experience mild to severe mental illness each year and a further 23 per cent are believed to have an undiagnosed mental health problem. With 1.51 million people working in small business in NSW, approximately 600,000 may be affected each year.

The opportunity to change the mental health and wellbeing of the NSW community by targeting small business is great.

Despite the availability of effective treatments for mental health conditions, evidence suggests that many people either do not seek treatment at all, or seek treatment following lengthy delays, during which the health, social and work consequences can accumulate.

Evidence also suggests that current workplace mental health programs tend to focus on larger organisations and industries and are not addressing the unique nature or the specific needs of small business.

Researchers at Everymind are developing a workplace mental health program for those who work in small business. They will work in partnership with the Priority Research Centre for Brain and Mental Health Research at the University of Newcastle, the icare Foundation, and other health, mental health and business partners in NSW and nationally.

If you own a small business or have worked in a small business (20 employees or less), tell us what you think about mental health!

A range of mental health resources are also available from our website or call 13 10 50.

Improving mental wellness in the workplace

Travis Dillon is chief executive of agribusiness giant Ruralco, with responsibility for 2000 staff spread across regional and remote areas of Australia, where one suicide affects 135 people or, in many cases, the whole population.

‘I have seen firsthand the impact suicide has on workmates who have lost family and friends to suicide. It is devastating and we can do something about it,’ Dillon says.

Ruralco has partnered with Lifeline to ensure its workers are equipped to deal with conversations about suicide and mental health, and know how to recognise, respond and refer those people to Lifeline services.

‘Once the taboo is broken,’ Dillon says, ‘something unexpected happens.’

‘People forget to be embarrassed and they share. They talk about their personal experiences, their worries and their hope that they can help others who might be suicidal.’

That fits well with a volunteer corps of mental wellness champions, according to Alan Stokes, a Lifeline telephone crisis supporter and training facilitator.

‘They can be called ‘mental wellness wardens’, just as your office might have a safety warden or first-aid officer,’ Stokes says.

Dillon says he thinks the idea has merit.

‘Schools and universities have counsellors, pastoral care and other support professionals. Needing guidance is not something we grow out of once we leave the education system – if anything, it probably increases. From a corporate governance and responsibility perspective, it makes sense.’

  • Lifeline suggests corporate leaders adopt a proactive approach: •Seek executive support to develop a suicide prevention strategy.
    Call for expressions of interest among staff to complete an accidental counsellor course. To find out more about accidental counsellor courses, contact Lifeline Northern Beaches on 02 9949 5522 or Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury on 02 9498 8805.
  • Appoint accidental counsellors as mental wellness wardens across the organisation.
  • Incorporate accidental counsellor training in every orientation program for new workers.
  • Support efforts to develop world best practice in suicide prevention and support for sufferers of mental illness among your staff.
    If you need support with a crisis or suicidal thoughts, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Resources that can assist you managing mental health in your workplace can be found on our website.

Remember, a conversation could save a life. So, ask RUOK? on 14 September.

An untapped resource: mental health champions

Every year Kevin Figueiredo is responsible for keeping 190,000 Australians safe. That means reducing the usual physical, chemical and environmental hazards.

Increasingly, though, mental illness is becoming a focus.

Figueiredo is not running a psychiatric ward or crisis centre. As general manager of safety, health and wellbeing at the Woolworths Group, he is on the frontline of a workplace battle that’s been lost for too long.

But Woolworths, like a number of companies, has now made mental wellness its number one safety priority.

One in five Australians has faced challenges with mental health, according to widely accepted research. Eight Australians every day take their own lives. Suicide Prevention Australia estimates that 370,000 Australians think about ending their life every year.

Executives like Figueiredo see the anguish of suicide and its ramifications in the workplace. They see how mental illness can be hidden yet eat away insidiously at workmates and friends until often it is too late to save someone.

The one-in-five figure for mental health issues is one thing, but many people across the community also know someone who has taken their own life.

At Woolworths, that’s potentially tens of thousands of people with firsthand experience of the pain as well as the ways to survive life’s challenges. And, given the chance, they are ready to help others.

‘We need to change the conversation and celebrate those with lived experiences,’ Figueiredo says.

‘To my mind, they are champions of mental wellness.’

Woolworths has begun to appoint mental health first-aiders in some business units. It will soon offer online training for team members and leaders in mental health first-aid and suicide prevention.

Lifeline is working with the corporate sector and other mental health groups to develop a template for mental wellness in the workplace. It is not only the right thing to do but, especially for businesses big and small operating in higher risk communities, it is a central part of company culture.

Lifeline is developing these action plans to empower staff and managers across a range of suicide-safe skills, from having open discussions to spotting the signs in workmates and fellow executives/owners, to supporting those in crisis or at-risk, to following-up with colleagues impacted by suicide death. Accidental counsellor courses are a key part of the approach.

To find out more about accidental counsellor courses, contact Lifeline Northern Beaches on 02 9949 5522 or Lifeline Harbour to Hawkesbury on 02 9498 8805, or visit

* If you need support with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, ring Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Depressed? Tell someone.

Almost 50 per cent of Australian workers who take time off work due to depression keep the reason hidden from their employer.

This was a key finding of a national study, Impact of Depression at Work: Australia Audit, released recently by SANE Australia.

The research found that almost 1 in 2 (48 per cent) did not tell employers about their depression as they felt that being truthful about why they were off work could put their jobs at risk.

Depression has a variety of symptoms and will affect everyone in different ways. Symptoms include: feeling extremely sad or tearful; disturbances to normal sleep patterns; loss of interest and motivation; feeling worthless or guilty; loss of pleasure in activities; anxiety; changes in appetite or weight; loss of sexual interest; physical aches and pains; impaired thinking or concentration.

Treatment can do much to reduce and even eliminate the symptoms of depression. Treatment may include a combination of medication, individual therapy and community support.

Workplace mental wellness expert and RUOK board member, Graeme Cowan, says mental health issues don’t discriminate.

‘Employee mental wellbeing must be at the top of every CEO’s agenda,’ icare CEO Vivek Bhatia says.

Get everything you need to develop a simple, effective and sustainable workplace health program.

1 in 5 take stress sickies

One in five of us take a mental health ‘sickie’ every year.

Findings also suggest almost half the nation’s workforce believe their workplaces are mentally unhealthy.

That’s half of the people you work with – or maybe even you – who feel their mental health is compromised by their working environment.

These workers, and you, are three times more likely to take sick days due to mental health problems.

Statistically speaking, a staggering six million-plus working days are lost in Australia every year due to untreated depression.

National organisation beyondblue, which commissioned the research, said the results showed too many workers faced an unacceptable risk of developing depression and anxiety from job stress.

Situations that might lead to psychological injury are stress, fatigue, prolonged or excessive work pressures, harassment, bullying, exposure to traumatic or violent events at work, or a mixture of these things.

We are all aware of the effect that bullying and stress has on our state of mind, however often overlooked are the physical factors in the work environment that can push us over the edge.

For example, constant exposure to unhealthy or unsafe work environments may cause stress and strain over a long period of time and make us feel, not just bad about where we work and what we do, but lead to a mental injury.

Data from SafeWork NSW shows 15,902 people made mental injury claims for workers compensation in the three years from 2011 to 2014, at a cost of $250 million.

Ron Keelty, Director of SafeWork NSW’s Specialist Services said employers can encourage good mental health and reduce absenteeism at the same time by understanding the value in creating a mentally healthy workplace.

‘Healthier, happier workers create a better, more productive work environment, and employers are responsible under work health and safety obligations for making improvements to minimise psychological risks,’ Mr Keelty said.

‘We spend large amounts of our time at work, so it really needs to be a place where we can be supported to function properly.

‘There are resources available to help you set up an environment that people want to be in and feel good about.

‘It’s in everyone’s interest to recognise and take action on psychological injury – mental illness costs people their wellbeing, but doing nothing also costs business.’

Visit the SafeWork NSW website for resources to help businesses and individuals plan and manage mental health in the workplace.