Overcoming the hidden cost of mental health stigma

| October 9, 2019

The stigma associated with mental ill-health doesn’t just affect those living with mental health conditions – it affects businesses, too. Ironically, employer fears that hiring people with mental health conditions will add unnecessary cost to their businesses are exposing them to significant financial hits. They are also missing out on some highly sought-after benefits.

One in five Australians are affected by mental illness annually, so it’s safe to say the majority of Australian businesses already employ people with mental ill-health. But thanks to stigma, these conditions regularly go undisclosed. This means that employers are often oblivious to the presence of mental ill-health among their prospective and existing staff and unaware of the hidden costs of not supporting these employees.

Research from Beyond Blue shows that mental health is the issue Australian workers feel most uncomfortable discussing with their managers. A large majority of job seekers and employees feel the need to hide their mental health disability for fear of judgement and discrimination. It’s easy to understand why, when the most common messages that I hear from employers influenced by mental health stigma are: “It will cost too much in absenteeism” and “I can’t afford to have unreliable staff”.

The reality is, stigma around mental health is already costing employers. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), untreated mental health conditions are costing Australian workplaces around $11 billion per year. The majority of these costs relate to absenteeism, presenteeism (reduced productivity at work) and compensation claims.

Don’t think you can afford to have “unreliable staff?” PwC estimates that there could be an average $2.30 benefit to businesses for every dollar spent on investing in “mentally healthy” workplaces. And let’s not forget the widely acknowledged benefits of hiring people with disability (including people with mental health conditions). These include higher staff engagement and retention, greater productivity, less time off and enhanced brand reputation.

Employers can no longer afford to ignore the value of embracing diversity and being open and supportive to their staff’s mental health needs. The good news is that there is support available to employers to do so. Through the government-funded Disability Employment Services (DES), businesses can obtain tailored support to build sustainable, inclusive workforces and navigate the various government funding available to businesses.

Today [Thursday, 10 October] is World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme for Australia is: “Do you see what I see?”. So as a person who spends every day working with employers and job seekers living with mental health conditions, let me take the opportunity to tell you what I see.

Currently about 40 per cent of participants seeking work through DES list a psychiatric disorder (mental health condition) as their primary disability. The true figure is higher when taking secondary disability and unreported and undiagnosed mental health issues into account. What these people represent is untapped potential.

With a shrinking workforce and employers increasingly finding it harder to find good staff, not considering people with mental health conditions for roles cuts off 20 per cent of an employer’s potential candidate pool. That doesn’t make business sense.

When employers tackle mental health stigma by taking more inclusive approaches to recruitment and looking after their staff, they are able to better support their workforce and get the best from them. They save money that would have otherwise been lost on undisclosed and unsupported mental health issues. Plus, they benefit from all of the positive flow-on effects of a diverse workforce that I mentioned above.

When people with mental health conditions enter stable and supportive employment, not only do their lives and the lives of their friends and families improve, but they are actually more likely to see improvements to their mental health.

What I see are win-win solutions.

If you or someone you know is in danger or needs immediate medical attention, please call 000.

If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis help is available.

No one needs to face their problems alone. Call Lifeline 24/7 on 13 11 14.

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