Why a mentally healthy workplace really matters

Mar 6th, 2017

Australia's National Mental Health Commissioner Lucy Brogden has visited a lot of workplaces in her career. It's part of her job.

And she has had her fair share of unexpected walk-ins.

"I walked into a law firm once and someone said to me, 'halfway down that corridor, a man has been sleeping under his desk for a few days. Should we do something?" Brogen told The Huffington Post Australia at an ABC-led conference on Thursday.

"I said, 'do you care that this person is sleeping under their desk? Did you offer them a pillow?"

'It is a balancing act. But laying everything else aside, we are all human. And we should care for each other'.

Lucy Brogden

We all know that mental ill health in Australia is on the rise -- for many of us, it is a lived experience. And yet statistics that count three million Australians currently being affected by anxiety or depression do not disappear at the office door.

"I speak to organisations who say, 'we don't have anyone with mental illness in our company. We're fine.' If you look at the data, this is highly unlikely. I challenge them to take a minute to think about how these numbers fit into their organisation," Brogden said.

With a background in banking and organisational psychology, Brogden has always been a firm advocate for mental health. She too has lived through its tight grasp, through the public struggle of her husband and former NSW Liberal Leader John Brogden.

The National Mental Health Commission builds mental health conversation around a 'Contributing Life Framework' -- a "whole-of-person, whole-of-life approach to mental health and well being" -- that suggests enabling people to live contributing lives produces a more economically-stable and socially-thriving society.

According to Brodgen, this comes down to "having something to do each day that brings meaning". Enter your workplace.

"The connection to work is very powerful -- particularly for someone in distress. We don't want to let concepts of privacy and confidentiality artificially get in the way of connecting with each other as people."

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

In 2013, The Commission established The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance to conjoin business, community and government and widen awareness about mental health issues at work.

And their approach certainly goes beyond free yoga and fruit bowls.

"Too often I get to workplaces and they'll say to me, 'we give them free yoga. We have fruit in the kitchen. They're still not happy,'" Brogden said, also referring to those bi-annual engagement surveys (you know the ones).

"So many companies roll out the same survey, do nothing, roll it out again ... and they wonder why the greatest correlation they have to engagement is the job market. There are some good products out there, but if they're not used well, they're really upending with the yoga and fruit bowl mentality."

While the impact of work on a person's well being is complex, Brogden's analogy is simple:

Good work is good for people.
At the core of this is a refocus on workplace design and culture.

"This doesn't necessarily involved bringing in high-paid consultants.You need to be prepared to sit down and look at the way people are doing their work," Brogden said.

Ah, the token fruit bowl.
From this comes an understanding of the systems required to support and counsel a person in distress.

"It's about enhancing personal and organisation resilience as well as promoting and facilitating early help-seeking and prevention," Brogden said.

"One of the things that we know about mood disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, is that your self-awareness is one of the first things to go. The man sleeping under the desk may not see that as a problem," Brogden said. "For the rest of us, that's an opportunity to say, 'is something going on for you? Can I help?"

Mental ill health is costing our workplaces.

This framework is something we are not doing enough.

In 2015, the Commission completed a national review of mental health programmes and services in Australia.

"We were spending $10 billion. And the biggest numbers come from disability support pensions and carer's pensions. These are incredibly important safety nets in our society, but from a mental health perspective, this is a sign that we are failing," Brodgen said.

We know how to prevent it, we know how to treat it, but our systems are failing us.
The OECD estimates the average overall cost of mental health to developed countries is about four percent of the GFP. This equates to more than $60 billion in Australia -- or about $4,000 a year for each person who lodges a tax return.

And these are big issues for business. Mental ill-health generates considerable absenteeism and presenteeism, with mental health conditions resulting in around 12 million days of reduced productivity for Australian businesses each year.

On the flipside, investing in mentally healthy workplaces can draw significant return.

"Our research has showed us that for every one dollar of investment, there is a $2.30 return on investment," Brogden said. "If your organisation responds to that, take the data and run with it."

HuffPost Australia

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