Leadership

Employers must play a key role in employee mental health: Report

Jaclyn Densley /

Companies across Australia are losing up to $237 million a year due to a lack of focus on the mental health of their employees, according to a new report released today.

The report, called Counting the Cost, which was launched by Minister for Mental Health Mark Butler, says that mental illness costs the Australian economy an astonishing  $300,000 an hour and over nine million working days a year.

Long working hours and gruelling assignments are part of the experience for young law and business graduates beginning their careers at high-profile companies, and the result can be stress and unhappiness.

A young law graduate now working at an international insurance company spoke to LeadingCompany on condition of anonymity. He told us that when he meets with a group of his fellow graduates for dinner, he regularly hears horror stories about the hours his peers are being asked to work.

“One said he had got out at 4am the night before. The rest of them said they usually finished up around 10pm,” he says. The legal profession is known to have one of the highest rates of depression of any professional services sector.

The Inspire Foundation and Ernst & Young assembled the report, which recommends companies improve their understanding of youth mental health problems and work out ways to support their employees.

“It’s good for the bottom line,” says Inspire CEO Jonathan Nicholas. “There’s an opportunity here for businesses to invest in their young staff and there’s a hidden cost to incur by not investing.”

He says young men felt there was a stigma associated with admitting that you were having trouble at work. “There’s a feeling that if they admit that they’re not coping then that will end their career. They will be labelled as that guy who couldn’t cope.”

Charmaine Smith, Project Manager of Mindful Employer, a SANE Australia initiative dealing with mental health in the workplace, says employers don’t really understand mental illness themselves.

“Reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems is very important. Employers need to know that people can still perform in their jobs despite their mental health issues.”

The graduate we spoke to said he had never heard of a manager urging a young employee to seek help or counselling, even though his employer offered a free assistance program.

He says: “You’re made aware of all the potential systems in case you need it, but I’ve never heard of anyone been actively encouraged to use them.”

Often leaders feel uncomfortable raising the question of mental health among their employees. Smith says: “It can be as simple as asking if they’re okay, however we certainly are not advocating that it’s the role of a manager or a colleague to play doctor. They should refer the employee to seek professional help or services.”

However, things are changing. Nicholas pointed to successful programs like Mates in Construction, which has won an award for suicide prevention three years running.

“Employers are seeing that engaging in staff wellbeing can be a good thing. We need to let our employees know that getting help is a sign of maturity and it won’t end your career.”

If you are interested in the mental health of your workforce, Mindful Employer provides training sessions and advice to employers and managers. They can be found at www.mindfulemployer.org.au or contacted on (03) 9682 5933.

Also, if you or anyone you know is troubled or feeling depressed, you can contact BeyondBlue on 13 11 14 or at their website: www.beyondblue.org.au.

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