Mental Health Day - the case for investing in employee health and wellbeing


World Mental Health Day falls on 10 October. At any one time, 1 in 5 employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition, with the knock-on effect impacting corporate Australia to the tune of over 6million lost working days each year. Support for people with mental illness is estimated to cost Australia in excess of $28.6 billion annually.

Yet as a society, we continue to be driven by real growth in GDP - a material valuation, that ensures we are all working as hard as we can to keep up with the Jones'. Just last week, our 6 year old announced that he wanted to be rich so he could buy whatever he wanted. But as Robert Kennedy warned us over forty years ago Gross Domestic Product counts "everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile." And so my response was to ask him what his favourite thing in the world to do was - kick the footy with Daddy. The price tag? Priceless.

While some stress supports individuals to deliver, it is well known that a high level of workplace stress is a costly burden for employers, resulting in increased accident rates, lost time, absenteeism, lower productivity and effectiveness and increased insurance premiums. Traditionally, health policy and funding in Australia has invested its resources into treatment rather than prevention. But what are Australian organisations doing to reduce workplace stress?

A recent report by PWC in the USA puts the return for every $1 spent by business into creating a healthy workplace at $2.30. The workplace can affect the physical, mental, economic and social wellbeing of workers and therefore offers opportunities to improve employee health. Australian workplaces, however, lag behind many other countries in terms of their investment in "wellness", and all too often, programs designed to support employees to take responsibility for their own health and well-being, are perceived to be "benefits", and offered on an "opt in" basis. The result being participation rates hover below 30%, unless incentives are used, even when the business case is crystal clear.

"In a competitive labour market, employers need to distinguish themselves to attract, retain and motivate staff." (Workplace Wellness in Australia, PWC & Medibank). Advocates and users of health and wellness programs in Australia report that they assist them to position themselves as an employer of choice, and, when integrated with a human capital approach, improve productivity and reduce workforce absenteeism.

We have written frequently about the findings by the Australian Human Rights Commission that 1 in 2 women experience some form of pregnancy related discrimination. And sadly, a whopping 72% of those reported the discrimination to have affected their mental health. Add to that the most life changing transition - to parenthood - and the most significant change in an individual's identity, and an unreal ideal of what it means to be both a "good mother" and "high potential employee" and it is perhaps unsurprising that ante and post natal depression is so prevalent. We believe, with appropriate investment in programs that support women and men through such transitions, the prevalence of mental illness can be substantially minimised.

We need to shift our thinking around employee wellness, engagement and productivity: leaders need to view it as part of their Corporate Responsibility to ensure not only that employees have all the information they need about the outcomes for participating in wellness programs, but that they are also adequately incentivising employees to participate. For example, as one of our clients is implementing, the use of babysitting vouchers for completing the Grace Papers digital coaching program!

There is no silver bullet, but by implementing targeted programs for different employee segments, and ensuring that all employees are encouraged to prioritise their health and wellbeing over unnecessary workplace stress will go a long way to, as Arianna Huffington says, "redefining success and creating a life of well-being, wisdom and wonder."

Our tip for the weekend is to get your hands on Arianna Huffington's best selling book, Thrive, and download the 1 Giant Mind meditation app. It will change your life for the better.

Now is the time.