Opinion — 05 September 2013
Open up jobs for the mentally ill

I thought you might be interested in some numbers that are having a direct bearing on your company and Australia’s profitability. According to the statistics, if you work in a large organisation, 20 per cent of your colleagues are dealing with mental health issues right now. This lost productivity and labour participation due to mental illness is estimated to cost the Australian economy $20 billion every year. It is a waste of human potential, and true leadership is needed if we are to improve productivity and participation.

Given that 45 per cent of us will experience mental illness at some point in our life, this is an enormous issue for all businesses. However, it is also represents a significant opportunity for us to reduce human wastage and productivity leaks, and build stronger and more resilient organisations.bigstock_Business_handshake_2537479

Australia’s unemployment rate is among the lowest of all OECD nations, but we lag behind when it comes to employing those with mental health difficulties. Australian workers with job-related stress and mental illness are absent from work for 10.8 weeks a year on average, and more workers are absent from work because of stress and anxiety than because of physical illness or injury. Many people are also withholding their mental health issues from their employers and colleagues, for fear of being discriminated against.

This is simply not good enough, and we can and must do better. Employment, in my view, must be judged as a prime outcome of our investment in mental health, because no amount of welfare or support can replace the benefits of having a fulfilling job.

Mentally healthy workplaces prevent harm to the mental health of their people, they make sure people who experience mental health difficulties are supported, and they 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 the National Mental Health Commission recently launched a new collaboration between business, government and the mental health sector called the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance. Our founding members are heavy-hitters including the Business Council of Australia, the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, SANE Australia and beyondblue, among others.

We will be working together to provide practical guidance to help businesses create mentally healthy workplaces, for the benefit of the whole community. This includes developing tools and resources for release later in 2013. As a starting point, we have issued a Call for Good Practice, seeking information from business on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.

If your organisation has taken steps to bring good practices regarding mental health and wellbeing into your operations, I encourage you to get involved. Submissions take less than 20 minutes to complete at workplacementalhealth.com.au.

In the end, our economy and businesses are paying too high a price for not paying more heed of mental health. This is no longer an issue we can afford to ignore. Whether it is improving productivity, or employee satisfaction and retention, significant benefits are there for those that that invest in creating mentally healthy workplaces.

Written by Allan Fels – Chair of the National Mental Health Commission.

As first appeared in The Australian, 2 September 2013.

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