There is a clear business case to tackle mental health illness in superannuation as it impacts on the funds themselves through their employees, the members and the companies funds invest in, a panel of business leaders said.

Sam Mostyn, non-executive director of Virgin Australia, Transurban Group, Citibank Australia and Mirvac Group, said that a company’s approach to the governance of mental health was worth considering when institutional investors were thinking of investing in a company.

“I’m sorry to say that in many cases the driving force for directors is the criminal liability, but whatever the provocation, directors now care about work place health and safety. The measures of a physical safe workplace have become very sophisticated. However, the evolution of a similar set of concerns understanding mental health has really had a more difficult journey,” Mostyn said.

In keeping with the rest of the country, half of people in superannuation will have a mental illness over the course of their life and the cost to Australian workplaces of untreated illnesses is $11 billion per year – the wider productivity impact across society is $40 billion per year.

“It impacts on your workplace, but it also impacts on your investment decisions. The productivity impact is huge. These are very intelligent people who contribute a lot and it’s not as if we can avoid it,” David Butt, chief executive of the national mental health commission, said to delegates at the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors annual conference.

One in six people a year will be suffering from a mental health illness, but many businesses surveyed by Butt said it wasn’t a problem in their organisation, highlighting a poor benchmarking between Australia and Europe on this issue.

He added that the workplace has been good at reducing the stigma around depression and anxiety, but that it was still very strong around more severe illnesses. Discrimination hasn’t been reduced as much as it should have and workplaces still shy away from engaging, employing and supporting those with these health conditions.

A significant challenge stems from the interaction of four distinct legal rights, that impact on both employers and employees. How employers manage the balance of this interaction will contribute to the effectiveness of their response, said Kate Munnings, chief executive officer at Logistics, Constructing and Consulting.

These obligations include:

  • Not discriminating against an employee because of a mental health condition
  • Ensure that no adverse action is taken against an employee because of a mental health condition.
  • Information pertaining to the condition must be kept private
  • The workplace is physical and mental safe and healthy for all employees.

“While the German Wings tragedy has heightened the focus on mental health in the workplace, I fear it has created a response that will result in employees not disclosing mental illness and there is a potential for an overreaction from employers,” Munnings said.

She gave examples from how her own business had approached mental health in the workplace to help both employees and employers. These practical initiatives include:

  • Pre-placement medicals with psych testing that is related to specific role requirements and working environments
  • Align with external campaigns and service providers to raise awareness of mental illness
  • An externally operated employee support program which is free and available to all employees on a confidential basis
  • In circumstances where staff are working in a particularly stressful environment they engage with an organisation which place a psychologist onsite to support and monitor staff’s mental health and wellbeing
  • Mental health first aid training, targeted for managers and supervisors


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