Mental health buy-in

Tom Barton

Financial commitment is just the beginning

Industry experts like Ingrid Ozols of Mental Health @ Work understand the overwhelming human and economic benefits of good mental health and wellbeing at work.

Yet, such proponents of workplace mental health are equally aware of how hard it can be to secure buy-in for wellbeing programs. “It’s not just about investing monetary support,” says Ozols, “it’s about resourcing.”

Even despite allocating funding for workplace mental health programs, organisations can find their best intentions – and investments – thwarted because of stigma and misguided attitudes.

Ozols explains why it’s vital to match financial investment in workplace mental health initiatives with support for true organisational cultural change.


Only half the battle

We might be more aware of mental health issues in the workplace, says Ozols, “but this awareness has not articulated into attitude or behaviour change.”

While there’s no doubt that recognising the need for change is the first step to improving workplace mental health, it can be common for organisations to undertake programs without a real acknowledgement of all the steps involved.

“I did a session for one of my clients who spent a fortune on evaluating our program, helping us to develop it and getting it out there,” Ozols recounts. “But I had two of their employees walk in saying, ‘My managers laughed when I said I was attending a mental health awareness session.’ And yet they [the company] have very high levels of stress claims and very high levels of depression.”

Unless financial support is accompanied with a genuine drive for organisational culture change, the effectiveness of mental health programs will be jeopardised.

“Senior management, executives and the board all have to be committed to addressing mental health,” says Ozols. “It’s not just about a workshop or a book: this is about a long-term journey of learning what to say, what not to say, and how to approach it; not being ashamed of it...We’ve been working with one company for eight years now and we’ve only just tipped the iceberg. It is years and years of work.”

This journey is largely about challenging negative perceptions, Ozols explains. “There are some people who do not want to know about this stuff,” said Ozols. “I’ve had people sit in workshops with their hands crossed, saying, ‘this is just a whole lot of warm and fuzzies.’

What these people don’t yet realise is that their attitudes inadvertently perpetuate the significant human and economic costs of mental illness in the workplace.

The costs of complacency

“It’s not just about mental health,” implores Ozols, “it’s about physical health and wellbeing.”

“Mental health is not in isolation. If you’ve got mental health and good physical health, they go hand in hand. If you’ve got bad mental health, you’re also likely to find the physical symptoms will come and hit you. If you have a physical health condition, many people develop a mental illness.”

Just looking at the stats, we see that nearly half of all Australians will have had anxiety, depression or a problem with drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their lifetime, while a startling one in five Australians will suffer from a mental health disorder in any given year. Of these people, one in four will have had more than one disorder and lose an average of around 9 days of useful functioning every month.

Tackling mental and physical ill-health in the workplace is not just about minimising the human costs.

While Australia still gathers conclusive data on the costs to business of this widespread mental ill-health, UK statistics show that the aggregate social and economic cost of mental health problems in England was £105.2 billion in 2009/10.

Research estimates the economic cost specifically of job-stress related depression in Australia at $730m annually, while another reports estimates the broader costs of stress in Australia at $14.81 billion annually.

In another interview, Ozols states the average cost to business of each case of mental ill-health at $10,000 per employee.

The human story

Ozols finds that those holding the chequebook who buy-in to workplace mental wellbeing initiatives are often driven by direct experience with mental illness through a loved one, a colleague or an acquaintance.

“The reality is we’re all human,” says Ozols. “Every one of us is going to experience adversity, loss, grief sadness, anger, frustration – stress is a part of life. We have to learn how to manage it and how to develop a coping mechanism so that when life does hit us with a hard ball in the guts, we can cope better.”

Ozols explains how sharing the power of her own experience with mental illness helps facilitate executive buy-in.

“By giving a little of myself, by gosh you get back,” says Ozols. “And when you hear how many others around the table have similar stories you realise you’re not telling a different story, you’re telling their story.”

“And then the odd one who’s a cynic might sit there with their arms crossed, but won’t leave,” says Ozols. “And they’ll come back later and say, ‘well actually, you’ve moved me slightly.’ And that’s where the power of the lived experience comes into it.”

Addressing stigma

Once the decision makers understand the reasons behind improving workplace mental health, Ozols says it’s important to promote that message throughout the organisation. "Mental health is still such a stigmatised topic," says Ozols.

Ozols recommends engaging in honest dialogue about mental illness and reinforcing the idea that, “people with a mental illness may not be perfect. But they’re not malingerers either...Mental illness does not mean mental incompetence.”

A common area for stigma is the issue of workers’ compensation for mental illness. Again, Ozols recommends reiterating the human side.

“If you have a car accident, there’s no stigma around taking insurance; you just exchange details and call the insurance companies,” says Ozols. “If my house is burgled, I ring up my insurance company.”

“These situations are equally traumatic, but there’s no stigma around ringing insurance companies for these reasons. But, if I was bullied at work and I become really depressed, there’s a stigma. And I’m seen as a malingerer; as abusing the system; as trying to take advantage.”

“I’ve seen it at conferences that I’ve chaired and spoken at. Some of them [managers] would get up and say that every worker [who has made a workers’ compensation claim] is trying to abuse the system."

"That’s actually not accurate; not everyone is out to take the system on. Some people just genuinely want to get an income when they’re sick, maybe have a few doctor’s bills paid for and that’s it. And that’s fair enough if they’ve had something happen to them at work. That’s what the work premium’s there for; that’s why it’s being paid.”

Sending a strong message throughout the organisation that good mental health is valued and supported is the true meaning of buy-in, and will ensure an improvement in morale, fewer health-related costs and increased productivity.

Ingrid Ozols is founder and Managing Director of Mental Health@Work.

Published 16 September, 2011 | Updated 10 September, 2019