Mental health in the workplace

Building a Mentally Healthy Workplace - The Problem

How the workplace can affect the mentality of its employees

I’d like to talk to you about mental illness, its relationship to work, and the benefits of creating a safer, healthier workplace for everyone. This can be a sensitive topic to talk about, but it is entirely worth discussing in order to bring attention to the stigma that still lingers around mental illness.

This is the first part of a multi-part blog series about the problem mental health in workplaces. I will be discussing how we can begin to change how we work in order to improve the quality of life of everyone, and even increase businesses’ bottom line.

Let’s start by attacking the issue of mental health, head on.

Mental health issues are the leading cause of disability and illness

Every human being has a ‘physical health’ and a ‘mental health’, and we should be treating each with the same care and diligence. By ignoring either our mental or our physical health, we put ourselves at risk of dysfunction - be it obesity and heart disease from a lack of physical health, or depression and anxiety from a lack of mental health. In recent years there have been great initiatives to increase our physical health: eating healthier, exercising more, and so on.

I see a need for similar initiatives across mental health. Preventative measures instead of treating the symptoms. Socialising our efforts to improve our mental wellbeing instead of hiding them. Engaging in a collective effort to create a mentally stable and safe society.

A man sitting on a couch with his head in his hands
A man sitting on a couch with his head in his hands
Mental illness is so often ignored - even by the person suffering from it - and mental health upkeep is still a foreign concept to most (image from Unsplash)

The current state of how we treat mental health just isn’t cutting it - a sprinkling of feel-good spending by governments, a persistent strong stigma against mental illness, a blind eye turned to those suffering a mental health crisis. We need to realise that the problem is here, it’s ugly, and we must work to fight it. Mental illness is widespread.

Globally, an estimated 264 million people are affected by depression (link). This eclipses most common illnesses in a pinch, making it on of the greatest disablers of the general populace. It beats out common diseases like diabetes (422 million cases globally), and common infections like influenza (3 to 5 million cases globally every year).

In industries like technology, which is struggling to increase the gender diversity of their workforce, the following statistic is particularly problematic.

More women are affected by depression than men.

Mental Health Disorders, World Health Organisation (link)

Mood disorders such as depression are more commonplace in women than in men. People of all genders deserve a safe, understanding, and mentally healthy workplace. However, industries trying to attract more women to the workplace should be paying extra-special attention to the wellbeing of their employees.

A table denoting the levels of mental illness across different industries
A table denoting the levels of mental illness across different industries
Prevalence of mental health conditions over the past 12 months by ANZSIC industry divisions — courtesy of BeyondBlue (link)

You can see in the table above that around a quarter of all workers suffer from an anxiety condition. The industry I work in, technology, has the third highest rate of affective conditions (such as depression, and bipolar disorder).

More people around you than you think are probably struggling right this very second. This is why it’s so important to start acting spread awareness of this problem and to start accommodating the needs of workers.

Workplaces’ share of the problem

Is it really the employer’s problem though? People could suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses for many reasons!

Well…research says otherwise.

“There is good evidence suggesting that the psychosocial risk factors of high job demands, low job control, high effort-reward imbalance and low social support in the workplace are associated with a greater risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.”

Harvey S., Joyce S., Modini M., Christensen H., Bryant R., Mykletun A. & Mitchell P. 2012, “Work and depression/anxiety disorders — a systematic review of reviews”, UNSW, beyondblue & Black Dog Institute, Sydney (link)

More than 90% of companies globally offer some form of wellness benefits to their employees. Most common among these benefits is access to a counselling service, often referred to as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). On face-value, this looks like a good solution to help offer support to employees during difficult times.

However, a 2016 EAP industry trends report shows that only 6.9% of people actually use their employer’s EAP services (link). In fact, a quarter of people suffering from a mental illness do not seek help at all.

In Australia, there are estimated to be 3.9 million people with mental illness, but 1 in 4 are not ­accessing support and services for mental illness.

Department of Health 2019, National PHN Guidance, Initial Assessment and Referral for Mental Healthcare (link)

Consider someone with a long-term physical ailment such as diabetes who is not managing their illness with a doctor. They are playing with their livelihood! We would urge them to see the doctor. That’s exactly the case for a quarter of people with mental illness, the only difference is the ailment is mental, not physical.

Clearly the easy options - a token ‘mental health awareness day’, an EAP offering, and so on - don’t work. A more holistic consideration of workplace and mental health is needed to lift the stigma of mental illness, and to prevent people from developing an illness in the first place.

At what cost?

Now, it’s very easy for me to say “let’s do more for the workforce’s mental wellbeing”. Ideas flow freely regarding wellness stipends, subsidised exercise programs, flexible working hours, and so on. In reality, these ideas are quickly challenged by “the cost to the employer”.

Why should I pay for my employee’s hobbies?

Let me show you what businesses lose by not investing in wellness initiatives.

$17,000,000,000

That’s the estimated loss to businesses due to absenteeism, presenteeism, and compensation payouts as a result of mental welfare in the workplace.

Every year.

Just in Australia.

That’s 17 billion dollars with a capital ‘B’.

This was one of the findings of a recent report about mental health made by the Australian Government’s Productivity Commission (link). The cost to businesses is eye-watering, and surely must be addressed - if anything in the name of good business acumen.

There is, however, a much more important reason to address wellbeing, and an uglier cost of mental illness.

The greatest killer of the workforce is suicide.

A table denoting the leading causes of death by age group
The leading underlying causes of death, by age group, 2015–2017 — courtesy of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (link)

Many will know that coronary heart disease is the #1 leading cause of death in the population, but the above table shocked me in my research for this article. Our young, ambitious, impassioned population is dying by their own hand.

The question of ‘why’ immediately came to mind.

A table denoting the leading causes of suicide
A table denoting the leading causes of suicide
The top four causes of suicide between ages 15–44, as a proportion of total suicides for 2017 — courtesy of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (link)

Three of the top four causes for suicide are related to a lapse of mental health, leading the individual to seek to end their life.

All of the above evidence points towards the stresses of our society, among those being high job demands, low job control, high effort-reward imbalance and low social support, causing not only an increase in mental illness among workers. It’s actively killing them.

The evidence paints a clear story - we face a mental health crisis in our workforce.

The solution

We can affect change in our workplaces to make them more inclusive, fairer, more understanding, and healthier places to work. Together, we can bring mental health awareness to the forefront of our minds, and start to help those around us who need support.

What’s more, if employees have a healthy mental wellbeing, they feel valued and cherish their leaders’ efforts to make their busy work lives just that little bit more pleasant. Valued employees that have agency over their lives will by-and-large stick around for longer. Happy, healthy employees take less sick days, and are more productive.

Businesses stand to benefit in many, many ways - even beyond talent retention! More on that in part 2 of this blog series which will cover:

  • Actions to begin the process of improving workplace mental health
  • Benefits of wellness initiatives, both for the employee and employer
  • Return on investment for financing wellness initiatives
  • Critical success factors for creating a mentally healthy workplace

About the author

Matthew Grey is a senior technology engineering consultant at Servian specialising in Google Cloud. Servian is a technology consulting company specialising in big data, analytics, AI, cybersecurity, cloud infrastructure, and application development.

You can reach me on LinkedIn or check out my other posts here on Medium.

Technology engineer keen on big data, automation, streaming, and natural language processing. Currently focused on solutions in Google Cloud.

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