The incidence of excessive stress, depression and other mental health disorders in our workplaces is rising. Our cities are becoming more crowded and fast paced, while our workplaces have become more psychologically demanding and unrelenting than at any other time in our history. Unprecedented accessibility to global markets and 24 hour mobile work environments has made modern business background noise wherever we go. Less often do we hang up our boots following our eight or ten hour shift and have dinner with the family. Instead we’re still loitering by the computer at 11pm incessantly tapping away, dreary eyed in an attempt to get that all important document sent through to the Hong Kong office before the deadline.

In a competitive world where getting high productivity from your staff can make or break a company, at what point do we cross the line and instead work becomes detrimental to our employees health and performance? And what is that really costing us? In terms of cost, the answer is simple - "a lot". Stress alone costs Australia in excess of $14.8 billion annually, with around two-thirds of the cost coming from productivity losses.

Although we are illustrating the pressures on white collar workers, let’s clarify that mental health disorders do not discriminate between industries. An Australian study suggested the prevalence of depression amongst construction workers to be above the average for most other industries, and similar to those of communication and finance workers. Blue collar workers may not have the same kind of 24 hour access to their work, however modern productivity demands, competition and job security takes a significant psychological toll in any industry. In addition, work environments that expose workers to loud noises, vibrations, confined spaces or extreme weather conditions all present very different, but equally significant psychological stressors.

On top of this we exercise less, eat worse and are in poorer health than we have been for several generations. A large proportion of our baby-boomer workforce play the role of caregiver to an elderly parent outside of work, essentially representing a second job that is surely more emotionally straining. We cannot ignore the impact of modern lifestyles on both our physical and psychological wellbeing, nor the subsequent fallout in terms of work limitations and poor performance.

The term mental health, or more specifically mental health disorders, encompasses a broad range of specific conditions. Stress, depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, addiction disorders and developmental conditions are all examples of common mental illnesses present in our communities and workplaces - all of which represent the potential for significant impact on work productivity.

Despite mental health appearing to be a relatively common occurrence, and considering the accompaniment of such a hefty productivity price tag, why is there such a lack of awareness and proactive support interventions in our workplaces?

In economic times like these, ignoring something that has such significant productivity burdens as mental illness, does not make good business sense. Whether it is a lack of understanding of the prevalence and impact of these conditions, or unease in tackling what has traditionally been a taboo, personal problem, it seems that now is as good a time as any to bring mental health out of the shadows. By educating and enlightening your workforce about mental illnesses you can work to remove unnecessary connotations and encourage employees to be open about their mental wellbeing.

Encouraging people to be less afraid of seeking appropriate assistance is a huge step. Every dollar spent on effective workplace mental health actions and solutions can generate $2.30 in benefits to your organisation. Of course there would be costs associated with implementing an effective workplace health promotion and intervention program, however these upfront and ongoing costs are far outweighed by these potential saving returns. Although there is case enough for a mental health awareness and intervention campaign alone, careful selection of comprehensive workplace health promotion programs successfully addressing a range of health concerns, including mental health and wellbeing, may present the greatest potential for overall cost-effectiveness.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of recent research in the health promotion field clearly demonstrating that the potential for savings returns (ROI) are greatest with more comprehensive, intensive and behaviour change oriented programs.

The first step in addressing mental illness is to "introduce the elephant". Continuing to ignore mental health ("the elephant in the room") as an issue in today’s work environment is a mistake. Whatever stigma or misinformation there is inevitably floating around your workplace may represent the biggest single hurdle which will need to be overcome. For far too long there has been speculative misconceptions that mental illnesses represent some form of weakness. Stress or depression means you can’t hack it. Not to mention the irrational fear that surrounds less understood conditions such as schizophrenia and certain obsessive or personality disorders, largely due to fictional portrayals in popular media and entertainment. The overwhelming notion that people with such conditions represent "the crazies" must be erased. This represents the second step: Education.

Along with increasing the awareness of both the existence and prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace, we need to educate workers on the realistic signs and symptoms, as well as resources and treatment options that may be available to them. If employees are more informed and feel supported by their employer then they will be less likely to hesitate seeking treatment or management advice. It is hypothesized that an effective awareness, education, screening and support campaign would encourage more people to seek early intervention.

Apart from awareness and education, the other massive benefit of a comprehensive health promotion program in terms of mental health is building resilience. The impact of modern lifestyles on emotional strain was alluded to above. Poor diet, inactivity and inappropriate work-life balance can have huge impacts on our ability to maintain emotional wellness, and our ability to effectively manage pressure and stress.

Some stress can be beneficial in driving productivity within your workforce. Without some form of stress or incentive there is no motivation or drive to perform. With some healthy pressure in place, controlled amounts of stress releases epinephrine in the brain and encourages enhanced focus. However when stressors become overwhelming or unrelenting, then they can cause long-term build up and imbalance of certain brain chemicals which will ultimately lead to reduced performance or burn-out. Encouraging a healthy lifestyle can help to regulate and balance some of these chemicals in the brain and work towards building a more resilient workforce. The way our bodies respond to elements of our daily lifestyle is complex, however there are many layers of benefit to aspects of a healthy lifestyle on several components of both physical and mental wellbeing.

The costs to business, both direct (absenteeism, workers compensation claim costs) and indirect (reduced productivity) for many aspects of an unhealthy workforce are large and increasing. Mental illnesses represent a large proportion of those costs and should be seriously considered as an aspect of your overall employee wellness. The increasing prevalence, in addition to the relatively high cost to worker performance, should mean that raising the awareness of good mental health and an understanding of mental health illnesses should be integrated into future business strategies. Mental health awareness campaigns can be beneficial, however evidence points towards improved cost effectiveness of more long-term and comprehensive health and wellness programs which incorporate mental health and wellbeing as a core component.

Health by Design are leaders in designing and implementing effective workplace health, injury prevention, and high performance programs.  With a focus on working with clients to create engaging programs which successfully help employees change their behaviour, we are well placed to provide programs which will positively impact a business’ workforce costs and performance outcomes.

Contact us to learn about how Health by Design’s award winning programs may be able to help you and your team. For a PDF version of this ResearchAlert, click here.