Workplace mental health needs a culture change

Changing workplace culture for better mental health

It is no longer news to Australian employers that mental illness is one of the major threats to the nation’s productivity and prosperity. Globally, we know that mental illness has become a leading cause of work absence and long-term work incapacity in the developed world – most commonly stemming from anxiety and depression.

So although I welcome the attention this issue has attracted during Mental Health Month, I am also concerned that employer awareness of the problem is not leading to lasting change. The critical question for employers is: “Are we changing workplace culture to reflect this reality”?

This question encompasses mental health conditions stemming from outside the workplace, as well as work-related psychological injuries. In either case, a healthy workplace culture will seek to assist the employee experiencing a mental health issue, rather than stigmatise, isolate or mistrust that employee.

In the case of work-related conditions, we know that workers with psychological injuries are particularly vulnerable when treatment or the payment of entitlements is delayed. Yet one of the barriers to early treatment is often a defensive or emotive response from employers to psychological injury claims, which only serves to reinforce the underlying health issues and potentially increase the cost of the claims.  

When the mental health condition originates outside work, employees often conceal their problem out of fear that they will be isolated or possibly even dismissed by their employer[1]. This is a lost opportunity for the employee to access the kind of support and acceptance at work that can greatly assist in recovery.  

Why should the employer become involved if it is not a work-related mental health condition? One reason is the frequency of the problem: one in five adult Australians will be affected by a mental health condition in any one year, and one in two across the span of a lifetime.

These are telling statistics, which can’t be ignored by any employer looking to attract and retain the best possible workforce, particularly when the boundaries between work-life and home-life have never been more porous.  

Another reason for providing support is that most people with a mental health condition will recover and become, once again, productive employees[2].  

Whether or not Australian employers are changing their workplace culture to better support the mental health of their workers will depend on the knowledge and training within their leadership teams.

Is mental health a key priority? Is there are focus on building resilience? Do employees feel psychologically safe in disclosing that they are experiencing a mental health condition? Will they be supported?  

The current thinking within most human resource areas is ‘protect the company first’, and the current training and workplace experience of most HR personnel are oriented toward this goal.

The more pressing need is for managers and team leaders, who have direct and critical relationships with employees, to learn how to support staff who may be struggling with a mental health issue.  

The R U OK? mental health campaign is not just about one event on one day of the year: it aims to stimulate cultural change in workplaces across Australia, with aligned support running right through the workplace, from the Board to the trainee.

There is a risk that the current spotlight on mental health in Australia will have limited impact on people’s occupational health and wellness outcomes unless employers ensure that their managers and team leaders are supported and trained to take a ‘whole person’ approach that values the individual.  

In terms of corporate social responsibility, surely this is a tangible area where the employers of NSW can take a lead for the benefit of the whole community?


[1] A recent UK study by BITC (Business in the Community) found that that 15 per cent of employees who disclosed poor mental health faced demotion, disciplinary action or dismissal.

[2] A Dutch study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that 50 per cent of people diagnosed with a major depressive disorder had recovered within three months and 63 per cent within six months. 


This article was written by icare Workers Insurance Group executive, John Nagle and was first published at


Image sourced from Flickr cc: Ramesh NG

Back to blog