Australian wellbeing: the facts employers need to know
1 Jul. 2017

Mental illness is a major issue for Australian employees and their organisations. ABS statistics show that one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year, and that many individuals will experience mental ill-health in the workplace. Over three million Australians each year experience depression and/or anxiety disorders, and as many as one in four people experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

According to research by the Black Dog Institute, depressive symptoms are more likely to develop amongst individuals who work in industries and jobs that have higher levels of psychological demand, lower levels of flexibility in decision-making, low levels of social and environmental support, and longer working hours. The expense of mental health conditions to organisations can be exorbitant, and research from Beyond Blue indicates that individuals with untreated depression are less productive and more absent, costing organisations up to $9,660 per full-time employee per annum. There are many people with mental health conditions however, that work at all different levels of employment and are flourishing. With the right work environment and management practices, even those with severe conditions can be highly effective and fulfilled employees.

Employee wellbeing is a concept that has gained increasing attention in recent years, with many organisations investing in wellbeing to increase worker productivity, engagement, and return on investment. Wellbeing is not merely the absence of illness of disease, but is a complex combination of a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and social health factors. Globalisation and the fast-paced technological world of today, has seen individual’s lives affected by social, lifestyle, and employment changes. Changing expectations, including increased retirement age, flexibility, engagement, and outside access to work emails are some of the many revolutions individuals now face in the workforce. Despite these changes, however, individual’s still have the same basic human needs for social support, physical safety, health, and a feeling that they are able to cope with life. Due to a large part of people’s lives being spent at work, individuals are demanding that their employers help them to achieve these needs.

Extensive research shows that workers who are happy and healthy at work and have a positive attitude towards their wellbeing, are more productive, engaged, and have lower rates of absenteeism at work. Australian employers are bearing many of the indirect costs associated with chronic disease and ill-health, with absenteeism rates costing Australian employers an estimated $7 billion each year, while the cost of presenteeism (not fully functioning at work because of medical conditions) was estimated at almost $26 billion in 2005-2006. These rates are steadily increasing, with absenteeism rates up from 8.5 days per person in 2006 to 9.87 per person in 2010.

In addition to physical health, positive mental health is also vital for workers overall wellbeing. In the working context, mental wellbeing is determined by the interaction between the working environment, the nature of the work, and the individual. Developing an attitude of mind that enables the employee to have self-confidence, self-respect and be emotionally resilient can greatly influence a person’s wellbeing. If the working environment does not support these elements and the individual feels that they don’t have a sense of purpose or aren’t being fulfilled, positive mental wellbeing is impacted, and as a result, mental health issues can subsequently arise.

The global financial crisis has been raised as a contributing factor to the declining mental health of working Australians as many now face greater uncertainty and job insecurity.

There has been a 54% increase in mental stress claims in proportion to other accepted claims since 2006/2007, and in the periods of 2009 to 2010, body stressing and mental stress claims accounted for 70% of premium payer’s claims costs. It is evident that the incidence of workplace stress in Australia is growing, and research now indicates that job stress is emerging as one of the leading contributors to the burden of occupational disease and injury.

Successful health and wellbeing programs provide an excellent return on investment, including decreased sick leave absenteeism by 25.3%, decreased worker’s compensation costs by 40.7%, and a saving of $5.81 for every $1 invested in employee health and wellbeing. Additionally, the financial performance of an organisation depends on its organisational health, and thriving and healthy workforces typically perform 2.2 times above average compared with organisations who don’t invest in their employees’ health and wellbeing. This clearly demonstrates a link between mental health and return on investment.

Recognising and promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is essential for creating a safe and healthy workplace. Regularly reviewing your organisational wellbeing policies and procedures, engaging in leadership and management training to support and encourage employees in the workplace, and removing obstacles to keeping employees at work, are some of the many initiatives employers can participate in to improve worker health and wellbeing.