Is it possible to remove the stigma of people with mental illness in the workplace?

Young group of people working together

Over the past year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has estimated that one in five Australians – approximately 4.8 million people have experienced a mental or behavioural condition. This significant increase from 4 million Australians in 2014-2015 has been predominantly linked to the surge in anxiety and depression afflicting 13.1% and 10.4% of the population respectively. Whilst the causes of anxiety and depression in the workplace are varied, they are commonly linked to stressful jobs, workplace injuries and people having to work in an unsafe workplace.

The workforce still has a negative preconceived notion towards people experiencing mental distress and many have reservations on working with a colleague who may be experiencing depression or anxiety. Adding onto that, progress in removing the stigma of mental health within the workplace has been slow and this has prevented people from seeking help.


What do the statistics on mental health mean?

According to the National Health Survey 2017-2018, about three out of five employed people within the 15-64 age group have experienced a mental or behavioural condition. In addition the State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report that has been published by global research company TNS and non-profit organisation Beyondblue, stated that a further one-sixth of the population may be suffering from symptoms associated with mental ill health such as worry, fatigue and sleep disorders. These in turn may affect people’s productivity at work. It is therefore imperative that employers recognise signs of mental health conditions and provide a mentally healthy workplace to their employees. In fact, 91% of Australians would agree that mental health in the workplace is important. Yet, only 52% of Australians believe that their workplace is mentally healthy – meaning that 48% of the workforce consider their workplace to be detrimental to their mental well-being.


What happens when a workplace is not mentally healthy?

If left untreated, mental health could potentially cost Australian companies an average of $10.9 billion per year – namely $4.7 billion due to absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presentism and $146 million in compensation claims. The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report identified a significantly higher prevalence of avoidance behaviour in mentally unhealthy workplaces such as people choosing not to disclose symptoms of anxiety or depression when applying for a new job or promotion. Employees demonstrating avoidance behaviour are subsequently less likely to seek out help from their manager or human resources for a mental health condition. This is reflected in the increase in the number of presentism jumping to 21% over the past 12 months due to employees experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in a mentally unhealthy workplace.


Is there an expectation from employers on assisting those with mental health conditions?

Research findings have indicated that 75% of the Australian workforce currently believe that their employers should provide support to an employee who is experiencing depression or anxiety. Fundamentally, most Australian employees believe that employers are more ethically – rather than legally obligated to support an employee who is experiencing a mental health condition. This could be due to the strong work culture that focuses on employee welfare in Australia. It is therefore encouraged for employers to provide support to their employees by creating a workplace that is mentally healthy. In many cases, a mentally healthy workplace is known to be more easily achieved in small to medium companies and provides readily available workplace policies and procedures to support employees’ mental health.


What can employers do to help employees who need support?

Most of us spend the majority of our day at work, thereby making the workplace an ideal platform to start raising awareness about mental health. At Progressive Recruitment, we took the initiative to raise awareness about mental health on R U OK day and invited Alexa Towersey from LIVIN – an organisation that focuses on breaking the stigma of mental health, to share her story on mental health with our team. We firmly believe that raising mental health awareness in the workplace is a great place to start as we are most likely amongst the firsts to notice if our colleagues are behaving out of character or demonstrating signs of depression or anxiety. In such situations, employers could help by detecting the causes of mental health conditions that are specific to their workplace and tailor solutions to further assist employees accordingly. Employee feedback from the State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia indicated that progress on removing the stigma of mental health in an organisation should also be top-down as they believe that senior management have the ability to positively influence workplace culture.


A few examples of how to remove the stigma of mental health in the workplace:

  • Train the management team with people skills so they can identify the signs and symptoms of mental distress amongst people in their team;
  • Raise awareness about mental health through workshops, presentations and community programs, especially if your organisation does not have current policies in place;
  • Make people understand that seeing a therapist or psychiatrist should be no different to seeing a General Practitioner. Mental illness can be treated – just like a physical illness.


Contact us for further information

At Progressive Recruitment, we take an active role in contributing to the mental health of our employees as well as all the candidates that we place with our clients. We are also proud to partner with clients who support mental health awareness. If you are a candidate looking for your next opportunity with a company that offers great mental health benefits or if you are an organisation looking for your next hire; please visit feel free to contact us at +61 02 9285 1000.

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