In 2012, Donna Thistlethwaite was one of about 65,000 Australians who attempted suicide that year.

The former human resources professional, often the first person an employee turns to for help with concerns about mental illness at work, was in a “perfect storm” herself, triggered by work stress, that led her to try to end her life.

“I couldn’t see my way out, this was my solution. I didn’t tell anybody about what was going on in my head. There was lots of shame,” Thistlethwaite says.

Thistlethwaite survived a suicide attempt in 2012 and her miraculous recovery came in step with a new business, Career Vitality, which coaches others on navigating their own occupations.

“Most people come to see me because they’re lost or stuck, they’re in jobs they hate,” she says. “I do preventative work, helping people avoid going where I went.”

While Thistlethwaite never claimed workers’ compensation for her short mental illness and long recovery, she is aware that 33 per cent of Australia’s income protection insurance claims are related to mental health.

The impact of mental illness on the workplace and insurance claims is growing, says Margo Lydon, chief executive of SuperFriend, which launched a best-practice framework for the insurance industry in 2015 to manage psychological claims.

“Most insurers are saying that mental illness claims are on the increase,” Lydon says. “We’ve been talking for 10 to 11 years about how, globally, we’re going to be seeing greater claims in the mental health space.

“As an industry, this is a claim type that, if we get our act together, we can really have an impact on. There’s momentum in the industry. It’s slow and could be faster, but the most important thing that the industry must do is focus on better outcomes.”

SuperFriend was set up in 2007 by insurers and superannuation funds. It is focused on creating positive, healthy and safe working environments.

Lydon says a recent KPMG and Mental Health Australia report had found employers could save a combined $4.5 billion annually by better supporting individuals with mental health issues.

Insurance claims for mental illness were the most complex and most expensive for the industry to administer, and the industry was now working with employers on early intervention, she says.

“What we’re looking at is transformational, generational change to improve the way we work,” Lydon explains. “We’re not likely to see any significant change in any statistics around claims…The reality is people are better engaged with their super, insurance inside super and awareness of mental health is going up, which is a good thing.

“What we’ve got to recognise is we might be seeing claims of mental illness going up, but I think we’re better able to respond and perhaps getting better at helping people get back to work faster.”

Insurers were in talks with the Financial Services Council and advocating for life insurance to be able to pay for medical treatment, getting into early intervention and getting people back to work earlier, she said.

The industry haS survived a tumultuous time since the GFC, with its response to MySuper, dramatic premium increases and greater scrutiny, including the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, and insurers now need to rally and examine how to build trust and transparency with their members, Lydon urges.

“That’s what I’d like to see, rather than being so risk averse that we pull back from our customers’ need,” shesays.

She was fearful of greater regulation as a response to the royal commission.

“I’m not sure taking a data-driven regulatory response is going to lead to innovation, creativity in engaging members, or being able to support members,” she says. “The industry tends to look at the situation from a risk perspective. If more regulation is the result, we’re going to have even less member engagement and less opportunity for the industry to be creative to generate collaborative responses to better benefit members.

“The industry has come a way to respond to the challenges but, more importantly, what are we going to be doing next? I think it’s about the industry working collaboratively to solve the non-competitive issues and mental health of Australians is a non-competitive issue.”

Thistlethwaite and Lydon spoke to Investment Magazine ahead of their panel discussion on “The importance of mental health” at the Group Insurance Summit, to be held in Sydney on August 28. To register, visit the website.

 If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available via Lifeline, on 13 11 14.

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