The importance of creating mentally healthy workplaces

by External01 Jul 2013

Despite immense goodwill and genuine interest in the area, there is a need for more practical guidance and support around mental health in the workplace. Sam Mostyn outlines why it's so important.

Mental illness is a serious issue for Australian workplaces. Every year, one in five adults, or 3.2 million Australians will have a mental health difficulty, and 45% of the Australian adult population will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime.

Mental disorders account for 13.3% of Australia’s total burden of disease and injury and are estimated to cost the Australian economy $20bn annually in lost productivity and labour participation. The cost to businesses for depression alone is $12.3bn a year, including costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Right now, many are unsure about how to respond to mental illness in the workplace. In fact, recent research from SANE Australia highlights that the majority of people feel unsupported when mentally unwell, and less than half of managers (43%) have an understanding of mental illness. Many people are also worried about losing their jobs and can’t or won’t disclose their illness. They are fearful of being discriminated against, and not being offered the promotion they deserve. We also know that similar concerns affect the many carers of people with mental health difficulties.

In the 18 months of the National Mental Health Commission’s life, and from our travels around Australia, this issue of mental health at work comes up time and time again. Despite their being immense goodwill and genuine interest in the area, there is an obvious need for more practical guidance and support.

At most of our community forums I am asked by many people whether mental health had been a priority for the companies where I had worked. As I reflect on my years in HR and cultural change areas in large companies I am disappointed to say that while the physical health of employees had always been a priority, I could not recall many discussions on policies and practices designed to support people with mental health challenges, or their carers. This is a real challenge for our workplaces.

Today (July 1 2013) marks the launch the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, a new collaboration between government, business and the mental health sector. Led by the National Mental Health Commission, the Alliance aims to provide the business sector with practical guidance about mental health that will help drive sustainable changes in business culture and practices. Significantly, it is also developing an evidence-based business case for promoting mentally healthy workplaces.

Founding members of the Alliance include the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Psychological Society, beyondblue, the Black Dog Institute, the Business Council of Australia, Comcare, the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, the Mental Health Council of Australia, Safe Work Australia, SANE Australia and the University of New South Wales.

Mentally healthy workplaces prevent harm to the mental health of their people, make sure people who experience mental health difficulties are supported, and have positive cultures that are conducive to mental wellbeing. Businesses that invest in mental health are also more productive, innovative and likely to recruit and retain the best and brightest people.

That’s why this project and the support of the business community is so important.

Working together, we need to improve understanding of the benefits of creating mentally healthy workplaces, and gain a clearer picture of what’s working and what’s not, as it will be people not policy that drives meaningful change.

The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance recognises that many businesses have already incorporated good practices regarding mental health and wellbeing into their operations, and a key part of the Alliance’s work is learning from and promoting these approaches so that other organisations can implement strategies relevant to them, and their workplace culture.

If you are proud of the work your organisation is doing, and are interested in participating in the work of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance I strongly encourage you to visit to see how you can get involved.

I hope that together, we can help create Australian workplaces that are mentally healthy ones.


About the author

Sam Mostyn is Commissioner - National Mental Health Commission


  • by De Backman-Hoyle 3/07/2013 9:00:14 AM

    Sam the intent of the alliance is worthy, however a critical factor missing from the alliance is the voice and experience of those with the lived experience, the real stories of returning to work and the stigma and discrimination. Please ensure you dont miss this out of the equation, as someone who advocates for such individuals I feel compelled to remind you of the mantra of the lived experience, nothing about us without us.

  • by Ingrid Ozols 4/07/2013 4:02:51 PM

    Thank you De, the lived voice is central to all such work and the most powerful way for us all to learn what works and doesn't. That we can role model to employers that people with a mental illness can and do need to work and that work is critical for wellness and connectedness comes from rolemodelling.
    The alliance is a starting point but there is no silver bullet to any of this, there are many other providers in the mental health/business sectors who also do great evidence based work with businesses from helping employee's with a mental illness gain employment to nuturing workplaces to retain staff with a mental health issue. One fabulous organisation that deserves accolades is CleanForce Australia - here in Melb. A commercially successful business founded over 11 years ago, 80% of the workforce has a severe mental illness and the average time they stay in the organisation is about 2 - 5 years and then they are ready for the open market! These are the inspiring stories we need to share. Working together collaboratively is key to success in this critical public health issue that touches us all one way or another.