Last year, there was a staff suicide on site at a large multinational company in Melbourne. That prompted the company to enrol 180 of its managers in a training workshop to help them recognise signs and symptoms, and to sensitively talk about the incident and mental health in general with staff.

“The feedback from that was really positive and they felt much more empowered to be able to deal with the situation,” Health@Work CEO Kristina Billings told the AICD in an interview. The benefits of talking publicly in the workplace in the right way about mental health are many. Managers who do the workshops report that they feel more equipped to be able to support their staff, as well as deal with their own mental health and specific crisis issues such as the suicide that occurred at that particular workplace, says Billings.

The Health@Work training workshop, Leading Mental Health: A Framework for Australian Leaders, which is conducted both virtually and now also face-to-face in some states, has run for a number of years in different forms and has trained business managers all over Australia in how to promote positive mental health in the workplace.

Managers learn how to identify signals of mental health issues and warning signs of suicide, how use the right language with staff at work and have quality conversations on mental health, how staff and teams can develop a cohesive language around mental health, how to develop healthy return to work practices and how to offer guidance on what to do and what not to do.

Pressures ramp up with COVID-19

The pressures of COVID-19 have seen advice from experts change in some cases, so it is important to keep up to date with evolving practice in the mental health area. As an example, this year the advice from experts on talking about suicide at work has changed. Previously, managers were encouraged to be open, but due to increased pressures from COVID-19, they are now advised to immediately refer staff to get professional help. “You're not to discuss suicide with them now because of the increase in suicide and suicidal tendencies because of COVID-19. That's already a change we've had to make in the program this year,” says Billings.

Levels of anxiety, depression and suicide are forecast to rise further this year, and demand for the leader workshops has escalated dramatically since June, according to Billings. “We're now getting five to 10 inquiries a week, which we have never had before. Previously, I got 15 inquiries in the last six months. So it’s really encouraging that companies will have this training and that workforces will be supported in their mental health.” Demand is coming from not just Melbourne, which has endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, but from all over Australia. Lately it is not-for-profits in particular that are seeking training. Recently, Health@Work has signed three new clients – two government departments and another not-for-profit operator.

“Every client that I'm speaking to at the moment says the big focus going forward over the next two to three years is mental health. I think the impact and the fallout we’re going to see from COVID-19 in the workplace, which is the community, is going to be really in businesses needing to develop robust, holistic programs to support both managers and employees,” says Billings.

In Australia, talking about mental health at work is seen as difficult and so developing common language around the subject is important, she adds. “What we know about Australian workplaces is in the past they don't like talking about mental health. The attitude is: ‘everything will be okay mate’.

“So a lot of the language we use is very Australian and the data we use is also around Australian workplaces.”

Mental health insurance claims forecast to rise

Mental health is a huge risk area for boards and directors should be aware of increasing risks in this area, exacerbated by COVID-19, says Billings. “There is a huge increase in mental health claims in workplaces.”

Recent life insurance data from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) shows that mental health claims are increasing. Nick Kirwan, life insurance senior policy manager at the Financial Services Council, said this year has already seen a “surge in the number and duration of claims, especially for mental health conditions. We expect mental health claims to increase in the months and years ahead from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, exacerbating people’s isolation and financial hardship”.

However, many of these mental health claims are not expected to surface until the early part of 2021, because unlike claims for most other conditions, customers typically take over a year to report claims for mental health conditions, says Kirwan.

The life insurance industry posted a net loss after tax of $179 million for income protection insurance losses for the June quarter 2020, largely driven by higher mental health claims.

Over the longer term, a joint study by KPMG and the Financial Services Council released in June found the number of mental health claims had doubled over the past five years, with mental disorders now the third most common cause of disability income claims, ahead of cancer and behind accidents.

The study shows life insurers paid out $750 million in mental health claims to almost 7,000 Australians in 2019. This was the highest number of claims in the Total and Permanent Disability area, with 24 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women making a mental health claim. It follows a 53 per cent rise in mental health-related disability income payouts worth $4.9 billion in the five years to 2018.

More than three-quarters of Australians say their mental health has worsened during the first period of the COVID-19 crisis, one study found. That was from analysis conducted in late March and early April, in the first ‘wave’ of coronavirus. The Black Dog Institute at the University of New South Wales surveyed more than 5,000 people about how they coped during the outbreak’s first phase. Four out of five respondents felt “very uncertain” about the future and 78 per cent reported a deterioration in their mental health.

Australians are also turning to crisis hotline Lifeline more than ever before, with calls increasing by 25 per cent compared to last year. Tragically, more than 1,200 people have died by suicide in Australia since March this year and modelling from the University of Sydney predicts suicides could rise by 25% annually for the next five years. Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre at The University of Sydney, said that equates to around an extra 750 extra deaths by suicide a year.

“National surveys of anxiety and depression both via the Australian Bureau of Statistics and (academic) studies show increasing rates of psychological distress since the pandemic began,” Professor Hickie said. “Initially, I think there was a high degree of anxiety about health, but I think the deep and ongoing anxiety is about people’s economic future.”

Wellbeing as a corporate strategy

Corporates and other organisations are increasingly dealing with health and wellbeing as a core part of business strategy. For example, Woolworths has appointed a Chief Medical Officer to deal with overall health issues for both customers and staff during COVID-19 and beyond. Dr Rob McCartney will act in a specialised and technical leadership role within the Woolworths Group, providing direct input into the Woolworths Board and its relevant sub-committees, as well as the Group Executive Committee.

Many other organisations run Employee Assistance Programs that address mental health. EAPs are employer-sponsored programs that help employees cope with issues that can adversely impact their productivity and the organisation’s performance. These issues may stem from alcohol and substance abuse; marital/family/relationship turmoil; medical, financial, and legal issues; and mental health problems.

Dr Amanda Rischbieth PhD FAICD, chair of the National Blood Authority Australia, and a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow, says health and wellbeing must be core to any business strategy in a post COVID-19 world. Organisations must incorporate health and wellbeing into corporate strategy, she says. Individuals, employers and their organisations, and governments at all levels, have a moral and dutiful obligation to contribute to addressing the health of our communities. COVID-19 has demonstrated that response demands involvement from every sector of society, including business, she writes in an article published in JAMA Network. Work in the US by Harvard professor John Quelch also promotes the concept of a Culture of Health (COH) as a business leadership imperative.

To help directors address mental health issues in the workplace, the AICD is hosting a virtual event on 15 October: Is Mental Health and Wellbeing Your Competitive Advantage? Three experts will discuss the impact of the COVID-19 environment on mental health and wellbeing and what boards need to be aware of as they work to protect their organisations. Join this virtual discussion to hear panelists Jono Nicholas, Kate Hillman and Kate Carnell AO FAICD share their insights on this important topic

How employers can promote positive mental health

  1. Communicate with staff
    Engage with employees during this period, communicate regularly, and keep them informed as much as possible. With many still working from home, this may be through regular staff briefings or, for larger companies, a multi-level communication strategy. It is also important to improve mental health awareness.
  2. Provide access to support
    Many companies offer employee assistance programs, which generally include free access to private and confidential counselling. A mental health first aid officer could be appointed or an online dashboard that can be accessed by staff can also be useful, as offered by Health@Work.
  3. Prevention and intervention
    There are many ways in which workplaces can improve mental health awareness.
    • E-health / online programs
    • Mental health screening
    • Workplace health promotion
    • Mental health return to work programs
    • Manager mental health training

Other Resources:

Heads Up

Training resources for mental health

This page lists national and state training programs, both face-to-face and online, that can help leaders, managers and employees understand mental health in the workplace. This resource also offers tips on how to select a workplace mental health training provider.

Black Dog Institute/NSW Government

Manager training online module

The Black Dog Institute offers a free online program for managers and leaders on identifying the warning signs of mental ill-health, techniques to improve wellbeing, and how to support your team. The four-part online program takes 60 minutes to complete.

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Mental health first aid training

Workplace wellbeing and mental health

The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry offers mental health programs and online training including workplace mental health and wellbeing programs and mental health first aid training. Having a mental health first aid officer ensures workplaces can respond appropriately to problems or crisis situations as they arise, protecting both employees and the business.

Heads Up/Beyond Blue

Developing a workplace mental health strategy

This how-to guide provides practical, step-by-step guidance for organisations on developing and implementing a tailored mental health and wellbeing strategy for their staff. It can also be used to drive organisation-wide change toward a culture of positive mental health and wellbeing.

Mental Health Commission

The economic case for investing in mental health prevention

A 2019 report shows why it makes good sense for organisations to invest in a range of preventative interventions.