An Investment Magazine roundtable sponsored by AIA.

It is sobering to consider how widely mental illness affects Australian society. Nationally, more than 3000 people took their own lives in 2017, making suicide the leading cause of death among people between 15 and 44.

With 1 in 5 people experiencing a mental health condition each year, the exact nature of the economic impact is beginning to be understood. But the government’s recent announcement that it had instigated a Productivity Commission to investigate the effects of mental illness on Australian business finally drew a line in the sand.

It was an acknowledgement that while mental illness remains an increasingly concerning social and health issue, it is also one that costs the Australian economy $12 billion a year in lost productivity.

Collaboration needed

The Productivity Commission is set to  examine the health sector, but also how other industries work together as it looks to assist in the design of the government’s long-term mental health strategy. It will include an examination of the education, employment, social services, housing and justice sectors.

In the workplace, mental health is associated with high-levels of presenteeism (people coming to work even though they are unwell), but research in collaboration with beyondblue has also revealed that every dollar spent on effective mental health
actions returns $2.30 to organisations.

In line with this, the need for collaboration between superannuation funds, insurers and employers to support prevention was a key topic of discussion at a recent Investment Magazine roundtable sponsored by AIA Australia.

“Mental health in the workplace, more  than anywhere, is a shared responsibility,” said Mark Leopold, head of workplace engagement at beyondblue. “We have a responsibility to put processes, systems, governance and policies [in place].”

Leaders from the super, insurance and consultancy sectors also explored best practice for early intervention in the workplace, and how it could potentially reduce some of the more grim statistics.

“It’s not just about supporting people with a mental health condition, which is critical, it’s actually about the idea of an integrated approach to mental health, which is about promoting the positives of work,” Leopold said.

The employer experience

Workplace consultants on the panel – KPMG, Clayton Utz and EY – spoke about the techniques that could be employed by employers and companies to embrace an  attitude of early, sustainable, accessible intervention.

“Certainly what we’re seeing inside of KPMG is that it’s something that everyone needs to be interested in from top to bottom, and we’re trying to equip everyone with the ability for that early detection,” said Jason Murray, director, people and change practice, at KPMG.

A 2017 Safe Work Australia study found that when employers instigated early contact with staff affected by mental illness, 77 per cent of those employees remained in work, compared with 52 per cent who had no employer contact.

Alexia Houston, head of insurance and risk at law firm Clayton Utz, said she had worked collaboratively with AIA and JLT/ Recovre (represented at the roundtable  by Alice Fung, the company’s national life insurance manager) to develop frameworks for mental health responses.

“We can do so much more together than apart,” Houston said.

At Clayton Utz, 10 per cent of staff are trained as mental health champions and that has made a difference for identifying symptoms of mental distress, “or someone who is not travelling very well,” Houston said.

“We encourage people to come to us openly. There’s no stigma associated with seeking help in the workplace. We will tailor programs to help you stay in work.”

Fung challenged roundtable participants to think about “self-compassion”.

“When you can apply that to yourself  you can apply it to everybody connected to you. So if we can all walk the talk, then we can probably deliver that even better,” she said.

For EY, the conversation has moved from simple resilience training to a “more integrated system-based approach” said Roberto Garcia, director for health, safety and environment services at EY.

This includes looking at potential “hazards”, which can include processes that may stifle creativity, right through to bullying and harassment. According to the Black Dog Institute, up to 50 per cent of Australian employees have experienced workplace bullying, with the mental health consequences estimated to cost the economy $36 billion each year.

Houston said organisations have an “obligation” not to tolerate negative behaviour and to make it safe for employees to speak out when they need to do so.

“It’s stripping it back to basics about how, as leaders, as employees, as colleagues, we behave to build a positive workplace culture,” said Debra Brodowski, national manager for psychological services at the Centre for Corporate Health.

Super fund challenges

Beyondblue’s Leopold said it was essential to think of mental health in the workplace as a green-to-red “continuum”, where at the green end a person was thriving and at the red end they had a mental health condition. He said it was about keeping the “healthy, healthy” but also acting on the “amber” warning signals before people go into the red.

For 118,000-member Prime Super – a comparatively small fund – working with employers to detect members in the “amber” zone remains an ongoing challenge.

“We’re a regional and rural superannuation fund looking primarily after farmers,” said Dana Clarkson, senior manager for insurance and member services at Prime. “From an employment perspective, we don’t have a lot of big employers. From a mental health perspective, it’s just not talked about…in those types of industries. And that’s a real issue for our membership.”

AIA chief group insurance officer  Stephanie Phillips acknowledged connecting with employers and members was a challenge for super funds, but urged funds to consider how they could create a closer relationship “much, much earlier”.

“We’ve got to take some of the advice we’ve got from corporate funds that still have that relationship…with their staff,” Phillips said. “What we’re trying to do is be more proactive with our super funds in recognising that they’ve got multiple employers that could be ‘mum-and-dad’ operations or rural small businesses where they don’t have access to mental healthcare.”

For Tracey Allan, the insurance and resolution manager for HESTA, the $50 billion fund for healthcare workers, considering mental health a continuum was a “fascinating” concept. Over the last two financial years, 20 per cent
of HESTA’s income protection claims related to mental health, Allan said.

“I think employers might talk the talk, but they don’t actually walk the walk. I think it’s about [having] a safe environment where you’re actually allowed to be yourself,” she said.

At the larger end of the scale, AustralianSuper, with 1.4 million  insured members is adept at assisting members, in the “red zone” with regards to rehabilitation for its income protection claimants, but the fund’s head of insurance, Richard Land, said it would like to “get earlier access for its people”.

“I think what we’re not quite so good at is in the ‘green’ area and engaging with our employers to help people stay in the green area,” Land said.

Technology potential

Using technology and data analytics to better understand the health of super fund members and keep them healthy when they’re in the green zone remains a burgeoning area. AIA national rehabilitation manager Joanne Graves said it was about using the information the insurer has but also about getting more of it.

“You might start to see an influx of claims come through for mental health for, say, one sector of the community,” Graves said. “We tend to drill down on that…and then work with those organisations to create some early intervention and change.

“We’ve done a lot on the red light of the spectrum, and we’ve done a lot on the green light…particularly with corporate employers. Over the last five years, we’ve really worked out, ‘How do we work with an employer to notify when someone’s not coping well?’”

KPMG’s Murray said wearables, such as Fitbits, could be used to detect stress points across a population, or even a sector or division of a business.

“Should they be going through a transformation, or a merger, etc, you might see spikes, so you can do early intervention from that,” he said.

Being proactive

AIA’s Phillips said it was also key to encourage members, and employers, to view super funds as a source of  information about mental health.

“It’s about how to be more positive in the process,” she said. “There is a commercial aspect because you want to reduce premiums and increase wellbeing within the membership, but you also want to be proactive in helping employers understand this. It’s really about how you connect with people way before they leave [work] because of a medical condition.”

BT Financial Group’s chief medical officer for life insurance, Dr Summer Zhu, suggested that super funds could “identify each individual member rather than just make them a kind of homogenous group”.

“It’s their super [fund] actually possibly playing a more long-lasting kind of lifetime friendship role than their employer,” she said.

Phillips cited employers such as Clayton Utz and EY as examples of what could be done when time and money were invested into changing processes and systems to generate better outcomes for the bottom line, staff and members.

Clayton Utz’s Houston said: “The media have talked a little about the commercial benefits of investing in this [mental health prevention], but I think as employers all around the room, bottom line benefits aside, we really have an obligation to invest in the mental health of our people, and I think we can do so much more if we work together.

“We know that being at work is good for people’s recovery…as an employer, we’re keeping people engaged, they’re performing, and we can get them back on the road to excelling.”

Alice Uribe is the editor of Investment Magazine’s print and digital platforms. Uribe has been working as a journalist, editor and digital producer for more than 10 years.