Mental Health in the Workplace

How attitudes around the world are changing and offering people more ways to get help

Australians spend most of their time at work every day. While work is sometimes a source of satisfaction and even pleasure, it’s also a major source of mental stress. Whether that stress originates at the workplace or somewhere else, the repercussions for both the employee and the employer can be devastating.

The effect of mental health in the workplace

Last year, 31% of Australian workers used leave for mental health or stress, according to a study. If left untreated, a solitary issue can snowball into something more concerning, such as severe anxiety, depression and even suicide.

Employers also feel these negative effects. The same study found that mental health issues cost the Australian economy an estimated $881 million a year in sick days alone, not to mention lost productivity that occurs when sufferers do show up to work but can’t perform at their best.

Case study: The generational effects of workplace

Psychologists from Queensland University of Technology teamed up with psychologists from universities around the world to study the mental health of people living in manufacturing and coal-mining communities in both the US and the UK.

They found that people in these communities are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than people from other parts of those countries.

They hypothesise that these industrial regions have been selecting for negative emotional traits since the very beginning.

  • People who originally settled there only did so to escape poverty, making them predisposed to negative emotions.
  • The work was difficult and living conditions poor, reinforcing negative emotions within the population.
  • Optimistic people migrated away, further concentrating negative emotions within the selection pool.
  • The decline of industry introduced new economic stressors, creating more negativity.

The comprehensive mental health action plan

Compounding the issue is the stigma that exists around mental health and the reticence people feel toward speaking openly and honestly about it with their employers.

Luckily, that is changing thanks to initiatives like the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan. According to WHO, the action plan “calls for a change in the attitudes that perpetuate stigma and discrimination that have isolated people since ancient times…”


Change is happening locally as well, with Aussies becoming more and more comfortable talking about mental health

The plan has wide-ranging ambitions that include promotion, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, care and recovery targets for mental health issues around the world. WHO’s role is to compile best practices, to offer technical assistance to countries based on their needs and to partner with NGOs, academics and other experts within those countries to help bring about change.

Change is happening locally as well, with Aussies becoming more and more comfortable talking about mental health. Recent figures show that 80% of Australians are aware of the suicide prevention campaign R U OK? Day and that 25% of those people actually take part. Beyond Blue’s online forums have more than 175K comments coming directly from community members who talk about their mental health and provide support to one another. And every November, you can see men around the world sporting their “mos” as part of the charity event known as Movember, which aims to bring attention to male suicide (among other male causes).

Aussie employers are also starting to help.

“We are seeing this expressed through offering personal leave, subsidised counselling and flexible working hours. In many ways it’s a two-way street; happy employees means more productivity so it’s in your best interests to support them,” income protection expert at Bessie Hassan said.

Are you allowed to use your sick leave for mental health?

While initiatives like these certainly help, there will still be those days when people really do need a break. So the question is whether employees can take sick leave for mental health reasons.

The answer is yes.

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, an employee can take paid sick leave due to personal illness, which includes stress. However, the employer does have the right to ask for evidence, such as a medical certificate, even for as little as one sick day taken.

Therefore, employees who are struggling and truly need the time off can certainly take it provided there is a legitimate reason. This is where it helps to communicate honestly with employers and medical professionals.

What happens when your sick leave runs out?

Unfortunately, some employees will experience a mental health issue that will have a long-term impact on their health and employment. So what happens when the sick leave runs out?

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, employees can’t be terminated from their jobs if they have been away for 3 months or less within a 12-month period, which includes both paid and unpaid sick leave.

Therefore, after taking paid leave, the employee is entitled to take an additional period of unpaid leave, as long as the total time taken is less than three months. That’s good as far as job security is concerned, but that much unpaid leave could be hard on the pocketbook. The last thing you want in this situation is additional stress about money.

That’s where income protection insurance comes in.

Does income protection cover mental health?

Like with any other medical condition, employees with income protection insurance can be covered for mental-health-related conditions, but the same heuristics apply.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you need income protection, or if you need to make an income protection claim, you’ll need to read the policy closely to see what it does and does not cover, be honest to the insurer about any pre-existing conditions and obtain the requisite medical advice and documentation pertaining to the claim you are making.

Having a mental health issue can be stressful. Combined with stress around work and money, it can spell disaster for both the employee and the employer. Luckily, there are resources in place that can help employees cope with their issues and hopefully allow them to rebound healthier and more secure than ever. Understanding what resources are available and how to access them is the first step in combating this society-wide challenge.

Speak with an adviser about how you might be able to benefit from an income protection policy that covers you for mental health issues.

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