Mental ill-health costs the Australian economy $70 billion a year, but what can superannuation funds do to assist? Ahead of her appearance at the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds 2019, SuperFriend chief executive Margo Lydon spoke to Investment Magazine about a panel she is chairing on this topic.
Q: It is recognised that tackling mental health in the workplace is essential, but do some employers still need to be convinced?
A: I don’t think it’s so much about convincing people, because we all know someone who has or is currently navigating mental health or wellbeing challenges at work. It is more about helping businesses navigate all of the many, many competing priorities they have, and guiding them through the process of putting positive interventions in place.
In my experience, many businesses simply do not know where to start or what to do, and may feel overwhelmed at the size of the perceived problem.
Helping employers understand their legal obligations to provide a safe workplace is also a really critical part of the conversation – it’s not just physical safety that needs to be in place for workers. The law also stipulates psychological safety, which people are typically much less aware of.
Some more financially-minded leaders find the return on investment (ROI) data more convincing. An Australian study done a few years ago clearly showed a $2.30 return for every $1 invested in mental health—that covers all sorts of things including staff retention and productivity, as well as reduced Work Cover claims, ‘presenteeism’ and many other factors.
Q: How prevalent are mental health problems in super fund workplaces?
A: We know that financial services and insurance workers are more stressed than the national average, with over 26 per cent reporting experiences of very high levels of stress in their job. We also see that they are significantly less engaged than the national average – with only 13 per cent reporting feeling highly engaged with their work. Leadership also seems to be a big concern for workers in financial services, with only 8 per cent feeling their leaders create a sense of cohesion within work teams – compared to the national average of over 16 per cent.
Job insecurity is a big concern for people in these industries as well – particularly within insurance.
One in five working Australians are dealing with a mental health issue each year, and two in five have left a job because of a poor workplace mental health environment each year. Almost half of all Australians will experience a mental health issue over their lifetime.
Q: How can employers support their vulnerable staff?
A: From the employers’ position, there is a strong rationale for mental health and wellbeing staying front and center of all discussions in the workplace. Poor mental health (in the form of stress or anxiety) is something that we all experience at different times, even in the absence of a mental illness. It can lead to reduced productivity and engagement, increased staff turnover and attrition costs, and the loss of valued staff expertise and skill.
Research indicates that injured workers recover faster and more fully if they maintain their usual working routines and stay in contact with their workplace wherever possible.
Because our jobs contribute to our sense of self-worth and social connection, staying at work can help us to recover from illness or injury, prevent loss of confidence or depression and decrease the risks of long-term unemployment.
Responding early and positively to an employee when first notified of a mental illness or injury, and then making a plan together will allow both employer and employee to know the assistance needed and gives a clear pathway for them to follow.
Q: What are your thoughts about early intervention in the workplace?
A: We believe that when an employer first becomes aware of an employee’s illness or injury, it is important to respond as quickly and positively as possible, clearly indicating the level of support that can be provided.
Developing a Stay at Work (SAW) or Return to Work (RTW) plan formally lays out the assistance that will be provided to the employee and outlines a clear pathway for them to return to work or stay at work safely and productively, if health permits.
The plan should be worked out collaboratively with the employee based around the individual’s strengths and preferences, to provide critical support to the employee during these early stages.
Q: What can be done about keeping injured workers safe from getting a ‘secondary’ mental illness while on leave?
We know that almost 40 per cent of those on claim after experiencing a mental injury can take more than two years to return to work.
We also know that injured workers do much better when they’re supported by an integrated approach – that is, their insurance claims manager working together with the worker’s GP, other healthcare providers, employer and union. Essentially it’s about having a structured plan in place to help the person feel supported and return to work in a way that accommodates their needs. Respectful connection and communication to help the person remain a part of their work community is also really beneficial.
Because of the stigma around mental injury and illness, reporting it is often delayed, which can mean delays in treatment and support. We need to get better at breaking down this stigma and helping employers understand their legal obligation to provide psychologically safe environments—including an environment where it’s safe to speak up and have these conversations.
Q: What can super funds and their group insurers do?
A: It has been a really tough time for many people working within financial services as the banking royal commission has unfolded, and we know that there is a lot to do to address the commission’s recommendations. From a mental health and wellbeing point of view, it ultimately comes down to leaders making this a priority, and investing in improvements.
A good starting point is just to encourage healthy and safe communication about mental health, followed by investing in mental health and wellbeing awareness activities and training. Encouraging workers to seek help and providing avenues for them to do so (for example through an Employee Assistance Program) is also a concrete way of supporting people.
After addressing these basics, I recommend designing and managing work to minimise harm, and promoting protective factors—leadership, connectedness, policy and culture—within your organisation.
Q: Have workplaces made improvements in addressing mental health?
A: Every year, we conduct a comprehensive survey called the Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Report, which measures the current state of mental health and wellbeing in Australian workplaces against a desired state. Since the survey began in 2015, we have captured insights from over 15,000 Australian workers.
Our latest survey confirms that mental health and wellbeing is still a work in progress in Australian workplaces, with Australia over two-thirds of the way to optimal workplace mental health and wellbeing. This means there’s no doubt that great efforts are being made in creating and sustaining thriving workplaces. However, according to the report, the prevalence of job stress, stigma and work-related insomnia means we’re still on the journey.
It’s encouraging to see employers are increasingly realising the importance of working collaboratively with employees to take a preventative approach to achieving a mentally healthy workplace. Employers are working towards supporting all workers to thrive, whether they’re experiencing a mental health condition or not – which is a great improvement we’ve noticed over the years.