Almost half of all Australians experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. Mental health issues have a significant, real and lasting effect on us as individuals, our family and friends, colleagues and communities. The impact of mental health on the economy is also staggering, with the National Mental Health Commission reporting that eight million working days are lost in Australia each year due to mental illness.
Efforts to promote awareness and reduce stigma alone are insufficient in reducing the burden of mental health on society and we have a long way to go before we see this burden reduced. The Productivity Commission has called for ‘a generational shift’ in the way we approach mental health care, including the recommendation that “psychological health and safety should be given the same importance as physical health and safety in workplace health and safety laws.” The Commission’s current inquiry into mental health has the potential to lead to the most significant mental health reform agenda our country has ever seen.
The economic burden of mental illness
For the first time, the Government has committed to rate mental health equally alongside physical health, a commitment that is long overdue. Australian businesses can no longer afford to contribute to mental ill-health. In 2015-16, mental illness cost the Australian workplace $12.8 billion, an average of $3,200 per employee with a mental illness, and up to $5,600 for employees with a severe mental health condition. Improving workplace responses to managing psychosocial risk factors will produce significant downstream cost savings for employers, organisations, the government and in turn the economy. Strengthening the psychological health of employees will deliver significant labour market productivity benefits due to improved employment outcomes and increased productivity. Considering the direct and indirect cost to the Australian economy of mental illness is in excess of 3.5 percent of GDP, the Australian Government needs to follow through with their commitment to uplift mental health to be on par with physical health by strengthening workplace responses.
Building and supporting healthy workplaces
We have been urging the Australian Government to put programs and supports in place to help employers foster mentally healthy workplaces, through effective approaches to identifying and managing psycho social risks in the workplace. Psychologists are engaged as experts within work health and safety regulatory agencies, as consultants to regulatory agencies, and within strategic human resources and health and safety functions.
Businesses need incentives and support to not only develop effective workplace policies and procedures that promote healthy workplaces, but to implement strategies to manage the psychological health of their employees. There are a number of factors to create an organisational culture that supports a healthy workplace. Accepting that stress and mental ill-health are both an individual and organisational problem is the starting point. Mental health strategies must be seen as core business, rather than add-ons to physical health and safety strategies.
Not surprisingly, evidence shows that people who are employed generally have better mental health than those without a job. However, the extent to which employers have influence and control over the impact of the working environment and organisational culture on their employees is not sufficiently recognised. As a result, their role in preventing mental health problems is often underdeveloped and they require more incentives and support to uplift the importance of their employees’ mental health and well being.
The most effective way to reduce mental ill-health in the workplace is to examine how the organisations practices contribute to the mental health and well being of their employees. This includes identifying organisational practices that may cause harm, such as job strain (which occurs when there is a combination of high work demands and intensity with low autonomy), inadequate supervisor support, job insecurity, non-standard or long working hours, and workplace bullying. Currently businesses tend to focus on programs designed to change individual employee behaviour and reduce stress responses through training, information and counselling, such as by offering an Employee Assistance Program. The over-emphasis on stress education and resilience building interventions may reflect the common, flawed belief that mental health is an individual issue, and if employees are stressed, they need assistance to cope. While these strategies are important responses to make available for employees, they are not enough to improve the mental health and well being in the workplace.
The role of organisational psychology
Australian businesses are increasingly recognising the value of evidence-based approaches to workforce management and people strategy, under-pinned by the discipline of psychology. Psychologists, particularly those trained in organisational psychology, base their practice on science, drawing on psychological research and tested strategies to influence how people act, think and feel at work. The strategies used by organisational psychologists produce measurable, replicable outcomes with a strong return on investment.
Psychology has also contributed to the design and implementation of many human resources practices, such as employee assessment, management, development and engagement. Leadership and executive team development leverages social psychology practices of strengths-based, to inform both the content and process of learning and growth. Staff engagement considers and assesses which key organisational and leadership practices drive increased satisfaction, motivation, retention and loyalty.
Organisational psychologists are extensively trained and have expertise in areas such as employee wellbeing, organisational culture, leadership, job and organisation design, and human factors, all of which are relevant to managing risks to the mental health of employees. They provide advice about understanding and implementing evidence-based strategies, such as organisational diagnostics, identifying risks to employee wellbeing, determining root causes, assessing potential solutions that will be fit-for-purpose for the organisation’s context, and implementing and evaluating solutions.
In Australia, employers are required to provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risk to the mental health of their employees, however we believe much more can be done to ensure Australian businesses are providing a healthy workplace for their employees. Psychological health and wellbeing needs to be elevated and supported across the community and regulatory requirements will incentivise employers and substantially contribute to the cultural change required to reduce the burden of mental health to the Australian businesses, governments and our community.
Frances Mirabelli GAICD is the CEO of Australian Psychological Society (APS), www.psychology.org.au.