Mental health warning for SMEs: Cost to business $10.9 billion

Small businesses stand to gain the most from investing in the mental health of their employees, according to PwC research released today.

The research has been commissioned by beyondblue as part of the charity’s latest campaign to raise awareness of mental health, this time in workplaces.

The nationwide “Heads Up” campaign, which is funded by the federal Department of Health, aims to encourage Australian employers to take mental health amongst their staff as seriously as physical injuries.

The ongoing campaign is being run in conjunction with the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance, which counts the Council of Small Business of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia among its founding members.

The cornerstone of the campaign is the Heads Up website, which provides information and advice for employers about promoting mental health in the workplace, and from mid-June will allow employers to create customised mental health action plans for their business, which they can then use to monitor their business’ progress.

According to the PwC research, businesses can expect an average return on investment from appropriate mental health strategies of $2.30 for every dollar spent.

However, beyondblue chief executive Georgie Harman told SmartCompany the return on investment can jump as high as $15 for small businesses. “This is because a lot of the benefits come from improving staff participation, which is often easier to do in small businesses,” she says.

Mental health conditions cost Australian businesses at least $10.9 billion each year, according to the research. This includes $4.7 billion in workers missing days of work, $6.1 billion in unwell workers still attempting to work, and $146 million in compensation claims.

According to the research, untreated depression results in more than six million working days lost across the country each year, while 12 million days are estimated to be lost to reduced productivity among staff.

Adding to the burden for businesses are other costs such as high staff turnover. Conversely, the rewards to business of improving mental health among employees may be further enhanced by intangible benefits such as improved morale.

Despite the alarming figures, Harman says most Australian businesses do not currently have mental health strategies in place. And while beyondblue recognises “investment of time and money is very precious for small business”, she says there are simple, cost-effective strategies all businesses can implement.

“We will be making a whole range of free resources about mental health and local support services available for business to put up in their workplaces,” says Harman. “Something as simple as putting up a poster about mental health changes the discussion.”

Harman also recommends business owners and managers call their teams together to start a discussion about mental health in the workplace.

“It’s about building a healthy environment at work [and] saying to people: we take mental health seriously,” she says.

The Heads Up website will also offer “really practical tips for having a discussion with an employee about their mental health”, says Harman, who says other relatively inexpensive strategies such as asking employees for feedback on their workloads can go a long way.

While mental health conditions are prevalent across all industries, the PwC report found mental illness is more prevalent in the financial and insurance, media and telecommunications and essential services industries.

Substance abuse problems were found to be most prevalent in the mining, construction, accommodation and food services industries, while anxiety conditions are more prominent in the IT, media and financial and insurance sectors.

It’s not just employees who are at risk, entrepreneur and Think Act Change founder Avis Mulhall recently organised an event called “F-ck Up Night” aiming to smash the stigma of failure and mental health among startups and business owners. 

In an interview with StartUpSmart,Mulhall identified a number of things that make founders and business owners particularly prone to depression:

  • Financial pressure, with business owners often taking largely reduced salaries or working for free
  • The encouragement to be obsessive about one’s idea
  • Long hours and the glorification of over-working
  • Little physical activity because of lack of time
  • The pressure to keep up appearances and not admit to struggling, particularly when you are looking for investment
  • People fear appearing weak

Beyondblue chairman and former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett said in a statement the research makes a compelling case for businesses to change their ways.

“One in five Australian workers are experiencing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety right now, but sadly too many workplaces still do not realise the importance of their employees’ mental health,” said Kennett.

“This report shows that employers have a responsibility not only to their workers, but also to their businesses’ profitability, to tackle these conditions at work,” he said.

Anyone struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts should contact Lifeline 13 11 14.


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