Close Search
Opinion  |  CareersPeople and culture

Helping manage workplace mental health

29 August 2022 at 2:10 pm
Carmel Tebutt
With research showing a sharp increase in mental ill-health in NSW, the CEO of the Mental Health Coordinating Council gives five practical ways to support employees that can make a real difference. 

Carmel Tebutt | 29 August 2022 at 2:10 pm


Helping manage workplace mental health
29 August 2022 at 2:10 pm

With research showing a sharp increase in mental ill-health in NSW, the CEO of Mental Health Coordinating Council gives five practical ways to support employees that can make a real difference. 

The author Salman Rushdie, who is currently dealing with his own terrible trauma, wrote of earthquakes that once you have been in one, ‘you know, even if you survive without a scratch, that like a stroke in the heart, it remains in the earth’s breast, horribly potential, always promising to return, to hit you again…’.

This perceptive description feels particularly relevant at the release of the Aftershock report into the social and economic cost of COVID-19 and the ongoing seismic impact the pandemic is having on all our lives and the economy that underpins us.

Aftershocks, by their definition, are the small earthquakes that continue to shudder in the months and years following a main shock.

During the pandemic, the ground felt like it literally shifted beneath our feet, and now while the world looks similar to before, the shudders and fissures go on affecting our lives, and will for a long time to come.

Aftershock: Addressing the Economic and Social Costs of the Pandemic and Natural Disasters estimates there was a concerning increase in 2021 of 171,615, or 21 per cent, more people in NSW with self-reported mental health issues consistent with depression or anxiety.

See also: Research shows economic cost of declining mental health

The report, produced by NSW Council of Social Service with Mental Health Coordinating Council and a coalition of peak organisations, shows how this increase in poor mental health is having associated economic and social costs, including increased expenditure on mental health services, reduced participation in the labour market and increased costs from absenteeism and presenteeism.

The report produced by Impact Economics and Policy, illustrates the urgent need for additional, culturally appropriate mental health services and supports in the community.

That’s work that community organisations will be deeply involved in, but there’s also a responsibility on the wider community, including workplaces and employers, because if left unaddressed the huge personal impact and mental load will leave deep fault lines..

The workplace is an essential environment to promote mental health and wellbeing.

Organisations have a legal obligation to ensure they create a mentally health environment for their employees.

And aside from the fact that a mentally healthy workplace is the right thing to do, given we spend a large amount of time at work and bring our whole selves to work, by equipping workplaces to be mentally healthy, we can potentially protect lives.

In fact, the 2020 Productivity Commission report into mental health explicitly called out the need to equip workplaces to be mentally healthy.

As Aftershock points out so dramatically there’s also the significant fact that doing this makes great business and economic sense.

These statistics from the Productivity Commission report illustrate the point: 

  •   People with mental ill-health took an average of 10 to 12 days per year off work due to psychological distress.
  •   On average, people with mental ill-health reduced the amount of work they did on 14 to 18 days per year because of their psychological distress.
  •   While only about 6 per cent of all workers compensation claims in Australia are for work related mental health conditions the cost of these claims is typically about 2.5 times the cost of other claims.

In NSW alone $7.4 billion in lost productivity is estimated between 2021 and 2025 due to an increase in poor mental health among the employed population.

Break the figure down and we see the long term impact will be considerable, with a staggering 166,000 workers in NSW impacted by poor mental health from now until 2025 and a causal hit to the economy of $4.6 billion (by comparison it is estimated 108,000 workers were impacted in 2021 costing $2.8 billion).

So, not only is educating and empowering workplaces to support mental health ultimately going to mean that people remain well, but also, the organisation itself can benefit with fewer sick days, more engaged staff, higher productivity, and greater retention.

Recently, Mental Health Coordinating Council worked with one of our member organisations, WayAhead Workplaces, to produce a series of resources to improve the health of people working in the community mental health sector.

The series covers issues such as the importance of leadership in supporting good mental health, the impact of the design of work and psychosocial risk factors and how to create a safe and inclusive workplace.

The advice and lessons in this series are just as relevant to the wider not for profit sector, you’ll find the resource on our website here. 

Mentally healthy workplaces need continuous action, and while everyone has a role to play, leadership capability is a critical factor for mentally healthy workplaces. 

There are some simple practical actions that can have an immediate impact: 

  1. Check in with staff and colleagues – our day to day interactions can have the biggest impact on workplace culture
  2. Integrate mental health and wellbeing into systems and policies and communicate them effectively and clearly to staff
  3. Support a flexible workplace – COVID-19 enabled a new working from home flexibility for many workplaces and maintaining flexibility can contribute to staff wellbeing and morale   
  4. Find meaningful ways to recognise the efforts and achievements of staff
  5. Focus on good work design which supports people to do their best work 

Almost half the population will experience poor mental health in their lifetime.

The last few years have seen the NSW community challenged like never before and we are only just beginning to understand the impact this will have on people’s mental health and wellbeing. 

What we do know is that supportive workplaces and access to services can help reduce the probability of mental ill-health, the severity of symptoms and the duration of episodes.

We all have a responsibility to support people dealing with ongoing quakes in their lives.

Carmel Tebutt  |  @ProBonoNews

Carmel Tebbutt is the CEO of Mental Health Coordinating Council and a member of the board of Mental Health Australia. She is a former NSW deputy premier and NSW health minister.

Get more stories like this



Leading change for the next generation

Ed Krutsch

Friday, 21st July 2023 at 9:00 am

Empowering Change for Invisible Illnesses

Ed Krutsch

Friday, 7th July 2023 at 5:31 am

The 11 green flags of a great employee, what are yours?

Tracey Montgomery

Friday, 7th July 2023 at 5:09 am

Importance of work flexibility

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 5th July 2023 at 3:13 pm

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook