peter joseph

The economic case for directors to do more to manage staff health and wellbeing is a “no-brainer”, said Peter Joseph AM FAICD, who chairs the Black Dog Institute and The Ethics Centre.

However, duty goes further for directors. “Every dollar spent on effective mental health actions returns $2.30 in benefits to the organisation,” said Joseph. “Mental health is going to be the biggest economic burden of disease on the planet within a few years. As directors there’s an economic driver to act, but we have to be vulnerable and show our humanity. As boards and directors we do have to get personal.”

He and the other panellists on the Mindful Leadership: Governance and mental health session — Jacinta Munro GAICD, deputy chair of Lifeline, and Dr Rob McCartney, chief medical officer of Woolworths — urged workplaces to do more to support the health and wellbeing of workers and help people recover from mental illness.

McCartney said many boards were lost on where to start when overseeing the mental health of the people in their organisations and urged directors to consider their own mental health as they were in a high-risk group. “The key is to start at board level through to the CEO. [Mental wellbeing] needs a strategy so you can make a difference,” he said. “Sometimes, when you get to a certain level, it’s not OK to say you’re not OK. If directors are struggling, they need to say so.”

Joseph made managing mental health a personal mission after his son Michael took his own life 15 years ago at the of age 30, after battling mental health issues for 17 years.

The Black Dog

The Black Dog Institute has grown from 30 staff in 2012 to 200, plus 200 volunteers. The institute is expecting to double in size in the next five years. Joseph outlined a framework of how to create a mentally healthy workplace:

  • Design work to minimise harm
  • Build organisational resilience through good management
  • Enhance personal resilience
  • Promote and facilitate the early seeking of help
  • Support recovery and return to work

“We have learnt more about the human brain in the past 30 years than in all of human history,” said Joseph, noting that one in six Australian workers are suffering from mental illness — and another one in six people are suffering symptoms associated with mental illness, such as stress and fatigue, which, while not meeting the criteria for a diagnosed mental illness, will be affecting their ability to function at work.

“Mental illness is one of the leading causes of absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia [and globally] and is one of the main health-related reasons for reduced work performance,” said Joseph. “Research shows that absenteeism, reduced work performance, increased turnover rates and compensation claims as a result of mental illnesses cost Australian businesses up to $12b each year — and that was three years ago.”

Munro, who also leads KPMG’s compliance and conduct practice, said most Lifeline volunteers are over 60 and often socially isolated, so watching out for their mental health during COVID-19 was a key responsibility for the board at a time when demand for services had increased by 25 per cent. She urged boards to collaborate with staff and volunteers when developing wellbeing approaches.