Mental health in the workplace.


3rd March, 2020

Why we need to keep talking about mental health in the workplace

In today’s non-stop work culture, stigma related to mental health is costing us more than money. To prevent long-term harm to our workforce, attitudes still need to change.

In a 2019 report, the Productivity Commission revealed negative mental health costs Australian workplaces up to $17 billion a year.

Only five years prior, a report released by Beyond Blue in 2014 estimated the cost of negative mental health in Australian workplaces as being $10.9 billion.

With a cost increase of over $6 billion in 5 years, it’s clear that the mental wellbeing of Australia’s workforce has never been worse.

So why then, with so many unhappy employees and so much money needlessly circling the drain, aren’t employers finding value in mental health initiatives?

READ: How to create a positive workplace culture

It pays to invest in your staff’s wellbeing

Despite the failure to support workplace mental health initiatives, evidence suggests that directly investing in the mental wellbeing of employees makes good business sense.

In a 2015 report, Beyond Blue found that every dollar spent by an employer on mental health initiatives provides a return of $2.30. Yet even with this impressive ROI, business leaders are continuing to ignore the psychological needs of their employees.

Employers shouldn’t just consider the remarkable financial benefits, though – the vastly improved customer and client experiences made possible through a mentally healthy workplace improves brand awareness in ways marketing simply cannot.

In most cases, a happy workforce is the foundation of a happy, sustainable business.

But, with all the other benefits aside, the driving need for mental health initiatives is to nurture the lifeblood of a business – its employees.

MYOB research shows more work needs to be done

More than two thirds (67 percent) of small businesses have not discussed mental health days, according to data reported by MYOB late last year.

The finding, from a survey conducted with 757 Australian small business operators, is compounded by the fact that just half (52 percent) of respondents said they feel able to address mental health issues affecting their staff.

The number of businesses who had not talked about mental health days was particularly high for those with a small number of staff, with 72 percent of businesses with two to four employees saying they had not had the discussion.

Helen Lea, MYOB’s chief employee experience officer, said given MYOB recently reported 43 percent of small business operators had experienced some form of mental health condition since starting a business, a proactive approach to managing mental wellbeing would head nip potential problems in the bud.

“We are extremely cognisant of the pressures running a small business can bring. Having support from the outset to stop any sense of anxiety before it can take hold is an essential step, but it’s perhaps the toughest to fulfil when there are so many demands on a business owners’ time,” Lea said.

Other key findings of the research conducted included:

  • Businesses working in finance and insurance and agricultural industries were least likely to have discussed mental health days with staff (71% said they had not)
  • The likelihood of this discussion taking place declines with age. Seventy-seven per cent of small business operators aged 60 plus had not discussed mental health days with staff, versus 57% of business operators aged under 40
  • Male small business operators were most likely to report they did not feel able to discuss mental health issues with staff (21% versus 16% of women)
  • Business operators under 40 feel least equipped to have that conversation. Thirty-one per cent said they did not feel able to address mental health issues affecting staff

Positive attitudes make businesses better

Mental health initiatives provide simple ways for employees to discuss psychological needs without being scrutinised.

Needs don’t just have to be workplace-related, as the home life of employees can also weight negatively on them at work – it should be made clear that mental health initiatives are in place to open cathartic doors many other businesses are quick to shut.

Even with advertised freedom to discuss, employees may still find issue with private information being leaked.

For this reason, employees should always be given the assurance that mental health dialogue of will not negatively affect career development, and any information shared will not be relayed to managers and other staff.

With stigma-related barriers so deeply entrenched, it should then become the duty of employers and businesses to unpack common complaints and determine where issues lie in the workplace.

Common work grievances that quickly contribute to the deterioration of mental health include job insecurity, bullying or psychological harassment, low social support at work and effort-reward imbalance.

It’s through these small but significant changes that employees can better invest themselves in their work. This can take the form of increased performance, productivity and overall work quality, with the added benefit of less absenteeism and far better talent retention.

Make it clear that you’re here to help

The first step to remedying toxic attitudes towards the psychological health of employees is to promote mental health and safety as being just as important as physical health and safety.

This is despite only a small percentage of the population involved in the risks associated with physical labour, anyone currently employed is exposed to the job stressors that lead to negative mental health.

To encourage help-seeking behaviour in staff, employers must first distance themselves from the idea that an employee’s mental health is none of their business. It shouldn’t seem strange for a work network to also function as a support network.

Helping staff recognise that many people experience mental health struggles – particularly in male-dominated occupations – is the first step in helping them better relate to mental health issues related to stress, depression and anxiety.

A move can then be made to promote awareness as a whole – effective recognition shouldn’t just occur between employer and employee, but should be something employees are familiar with enough to recognise symptoms of ailing mental health not only themselves, but fellow employees.

Employees are more than a resource

At the end of the day, acknowledging the need for good mental health in the workplace is necessary for the health and wellbeing of employees. Plus, employees you care for also positively contribute to a business’s bottom line – look after your employees, and they’ll look after you.

Perhaps most importantly, every little bit of positive reinforcement counts.

Sometimes, all it takes is a caring conversation between an employer and an employee to make all the difference.

For anyone experiencing mental health challenges you can seek support from lifeline on 13 11 14 or at