OHS and WHS: Removing the culture of shame

Travelling through New York on a train, Catherine Plano suddenly felt as though the carriage was caving in. She couldn’t breathe, her hands felt numb and she lost all sensation in her legs.

The high-flying Melbourne executive and mother was convinced she was dying.

Catherine feels ridiculous recounting her visceral fear now, but while she wasn’t having a heart attack, that moment changed things for her forever.

The panic attacks continued for another six months, to the point where she couldn’t leave the house.

“I had a breakdown,” she said.

“I was very depressed. I didn’t want to leave the house or my husband.”

“There’s a stigma attached. I was really scared it would happen in public. It was shame, it cripples you.”

Catherine had brought her son Jordan up alone, so suddenly becoming reliant on new husband Andoni was a shock.

“I was a single mum, independent, to have someone look after me, I was really embarrassed.”

“And he saw me in a different light, he didn’t see me as a strong woman, he saw me as a weak, frail thing.”

The mother of one had fallen victim to Australia’s workplace stress crisis, putting in longer and longer hours at the expense of her mental health, pushing herself to the point that she had developed chronic anxiety.

She now makes her mental health a priority, using meditation, writing and a healthy lifestyle to shift her thinking.

She speaks openly about her struggles with anxiety, and says the number of people coming forward with their own stories only seems to be growing.

Mental health issues are the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia — overtaking musculoskeletal problems in 2013 — and most developed countries.

And the problem is driving people to suicide at an unprecedented rate. A massive 20% of suicides are linked to work.

At a summit in May this year, crisis support service Lifeline said we were facing a “national suicide emergency”.

It is one of the most critical threats to society — damaging our health and relationships, costing the economy and endangering our lives.

Yet we don’t always treat the issue seriously.

As formerly suicidal firefighter Peter Kirwan told us: “If you see someone with a broken arm, you help them lift things, but that doesn’t necessarily occur with mental illness because it’s invisible and people hide it.”

‘We can’t make it risk-free’

Recently, news.com.au met people who have developed severe work-related mental health disorders, contemplated suicide or loved someone who took their own life because of a job.

We spoke to researchers and those on the front line trying to address this “modern epidemic”.

The research shows there are a number of clear risk factors in a job that lead a person to develop mental health issues and potentially attempt suicide.

Samuel Harvey, a UNSW researcher exploring the issue for the Black Dog Institute, divides it into three main risk factors.

“One is job strain,” Harvey told news.com.au.

“A combination of a psychologically demanding workplace … with employees not having much control over what they do minute to minute, day to day.”

Job strain can involve a lack of resources, engagement, exposure to extreme stress and long hours.

Then there’s a lack of respect or value. This could involve being bullied, sexually harassed or ignored. Bosses who are not open or fair in their decision-making can generate feelings of resentment and misery in employees.

The third major factor is occupational uncertainty.

Workers whose jobs are insecure are likely to be under more stress than others, particularly if finances are an issue.

But the picture is far more complex than the type of job you do.

“You can have two workers experiencing the same environment and it can cause problems for one and not the other,” said Dr Harvey.

“That’s not to say we can’t, and employers in particular can’t, make it more mentally healthy, but we can’t make it risk-free.”

Poor mental wellbeing is typically the result of a combination of individual vulnerabilities, social factors and environmental triggers.

Men are more at risk than women, and people living in rural areas are at more danger of suicide.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Allison Milner told news.com.au: “I think of [suicide] in connection with things like the economy, I think of it in connection to the community, connection to whatever’s going on in society.”

A difficult work situation could exacerbate other issues in someone’s life — whether a relationship breakdown, financial stress, bereavement, genetic predisposition to depression, substance abuse, isolation or sexual harassment.

“I think what we need to consider when we think about something like suicide is it has a massive ripple effect,” Dr Milner said.

“Numbers don’t really provide a true indication of how much a suicide really affects workers and people around them.”

With one in three people in any Australian workplaces currently experiencing some kind of mental health challenge, we clearly need urgent action to tackle what the Black Dog Institute calls a “public health crisis”.

There are various programs in place through Federal and State Governments, non-profits and private companies, but there is a lack of consistency, and some are far ahead of others.

The Centre of Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention notes that despite investment in suicide prevention activities and interventions, evidence suggests these have been largely ineffective, highlighting “the need to focus on strategies that are proven to work.”

The experts say we need workers to prioritise their mental health and that of those around them, employers to create a supportive culture with universal support on an ongoing basis and structural change within industries, with the assistance of Government.

Vitally, we need to remove the culture of shame and be willing to address mental health as we would any other problem.


 Emma Reynolds is a journalist at news.com.au. She tweets at @emmareyn.

This article first appeared at www.news.com.au and on PS News.


Image sourced from Flickr cc: Andre Hofmiester

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