Workplaces make millions of workers mentally unwell, research says


A new study reveals a huge number of Aussies experience mental illness caused by their workplaces, with some industries more likely to make people sick.

A major new study has found that half of all Australian workers have experienced a mental illness – and 43 per cent of those say their workplace caused it. National mental health organisation Superfriend will today release the findings of the largest-ever survey of employee mental health and wellbeing.

Despite significant improvements in awareness and stigma reduction, mental health remains a major challenge for employers, the Indicators of a Thriving Workplace report shows. Of the 10,000 Australians surveyed, half said they had experienced mental illness, and 43 per cent of those said conditions at their workplace caused it.

“There is a heavy cost if this is the case, with approximately $543 million of workers’ compensation paid to 7200 Australians each year for work-related mental health conditions,” the report said. The top three industries where workers reported their workplaces caused their mental health condition were manufacturing, public administration and safety, and construction.

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A major factor in workplaces with low levels of wellbeing is stress. Workers who are stressed on a regular basis are being driven from their jobs and are routinely unhappy, with the majority not hopeful of an improvement.

“Higher turnover is the result, with only 30.4 per cent of these workers planning to stay with their employer over the next year,” the report found.

Stress isn’t the only culprit, with the survey finding that a lack of job security also plays a part in mental health issues. And when workers are struggling, many still feel fearful about speaking up and asking for help.

Stigma around mental health issues has not improved at a national level over the last two years, with the latest research showing that 13 per cent of Australian workers have experienced this stigma in their current workplace,” the report noted. Despite positive national conversations about the benefits of mental wellbeing, 57 per cent of workers said they hadn’t seen tangible actions implemented to improve mental health.

Only 15 per cent of respondents felt they were receiving adequate support in the workplace. Margo Lydon, chief executive officer of Superfriend, said poor mental health at work cost the economy $17 billion a year – a big chunk of the overall $51 billion cost of mental illness and suicide.

“And yet work can be beneficial for people experiencing a mental health condition if they feel well supported in the workplace,” Ms Lydon said.

“For employers, this is a fantastic opportunity to turn the $17 billion cost of poor mental health and lost productivity into gains for their business and Australia’s economy, creating happier, healthier workers and communities.”

Australians working in healthcare experienced the highest levels of stress of any industry, followed closely by the public administration sector. Healthcare workers also experience the highest levels of workplace violence (16 per cent) and second highest levels of bullying (28 per cent). One-in-four older workers aged 55 to 64 who experienced a mental health condition said their current workplace caused it – higher than any other age group.

“Our research suggests that education and training about mental health and wellbeing helps to break down many of these barriers, particularly those related to skill gaps, recognition of the importance of mentally healthy workplaces and managerial commitment and action,” Ms Lydon said.

The report also highlighted that it was not individual employees who stood to benefit from more mentally healthy workplaces.

“Our research shows that employers who invest in mentally healthy workplaces would see a reduction in sickness and absence, along with increased productivity and higher retention,” the report said.

“And alongside the human benefits, the economic benefits are also clear, with research indicating a $4.20 return for every $1 invested in workplace mental health.”

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