The 20 billion dollar question: mental health risks in the workplace

Global Publication October 2017

We would like to acknowledge the contribution of Amanda Jackson, National HR and Organisational Development Manager, to this article.

We know that 1 in 5 of us will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any one year. Of those, the three most common illnesses are anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and substance use disorders. Just under half of those diagnosed with one of these common mental illnesses in any year will have two or more disorders.

In Australia, it is estimated that 65% of those diagnosed with a common mental illness will not access any professional help. The longer people delay in getting appropriate professional help, the more difficult their recovery can be. A delay in treatment also increases the likelihood that an individual will develop another mental illness later in their life.

As companies race to boost profits and brand equity, many overlook the importance of improving the mental health of their workforce.

While improving the mental health of your workforce can deliver increased engagement, efficiency and productivity, it also brings other financial benefits.

Mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden, with workplace related costs including absenteeism, presenteeism, workers’ compensation claims and disability insurance claims.

Losses in productivity due to ill mental illness are estimated at AUD20 billion. However, each dollar invested in effective action brings another $2.30 in return on investment and ultimately increased profits to organisations.

Mental health problems and illnesses can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from their relationships to their engagement and enjoyment at work. Each of us have a unique set of predisposing factors and attributes and various precipitating events, both within and outside the workplace, can also have an impact on mental health. 

Mental health graphic 

The various legal obligations to provide a workplace free of discrimination and one that is physically and psychologically healthy, together with the financial incentives of having a healthy and engaged workforce, have resulted in organisations having an increased awareness of the need to do more for the wellbeing of their workplace.  In order to manage the risks and build an inclusive and resilient organisational culture, it is essential to make workplace mental health a strategic priority. 

In a recent reputational risk survey conducted by Norton Rose Fulbright Australia, business leaders selected higher standards of ethical corporate behaviour as a key trend set to affect their organisations’ reputations. Poor mental health risk management, and repeated instances of abusive or discriminative behaviour in the workplace, can lead, if made public, to significant brand damage when it comes to consumers and potential employees alike.

However, where to begin? Our view is that the workplace is uniquely placed to have a positive impact on mental health outcomes for workers, in part because so many of us spend so much of our day at work.

The importance of increasing mental health literacy in the workplace, to reduce stigma and increase the likelihood that a worker will seek help or be referred to appropriate sources of help by a supervisor, manager or peer is critical. There are a range of different actions that organisations can implement to increase mental health literacy in the workplace and to build an inclusive, resilient and healthy workforce.

We have been having a number of conversations with our clients about doing just that: understanding how the prevalence of negative individual life events and the organisation itself can be impacting on employees’ mental health and what can be done by the organisation to better support and proactively manage those risks.

If you are interested in being one of a growing number of organisations working to increase the mental health literacy in your workplace and take proactive measures to improve the engagement, efficiency and productivity of your workforce, please contact us.


Global Head of Compliance

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