On January 24, 2010, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, encouraged all Australians to increase their “productivity growth”. But what if increased productivity could result in developing a mental disorder?

The February 2010 edition of the Harvard Mental Health Letter includes a report that lists the following key points:

  • Symptoms of mental health disorders may be different at work than in other situations.
  • Although these disorders may cause absenteeism, the biggest impact is in lost productivity.
  • Studies suggest that treatment improves work performance, but is not a quick fix.

Will the Australian Government review its policy on mental health? Will the Prime Minister accept that productivity and mental health are long-term problems that need strategies that extend beyond his next term in office?

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Safety in the workplace is a multi-disciplinary management challenge. The good companies integrate strategies so that everyone understands the aims of those initiatives, even those workers who hate the boss. Australia needs a similar multi-faceted approach if it is to achieve increased productivity without incurring the cost of increased mental health treatments.

Below is part of the media release sent out to accompany the Harvard report:

Mental health problems affect many working people. Yet they often escape notice because these disorders tend to be hidden on the job. Mood symptoms, for example, can masquerade as physical problems such as irritability and sleep disturbances. Efforts to identify and treat mental health problems not only improve employee health, but also increase workplace productivity…

About one in five working-aged Americans experiences symptoms of a mental health disorder in any given month. Depression, anxiety, and addiction problems are among the most common.

Because of the stigma associated with psychiatric disorders, employees may be reluctant to seek treatment — especially in the current economic climate, when they are concerned about losing their jobs. At the same time, managers may want to help but might not know how. As a result, mental health problems in working Americans often go undetected and untreated for years.

Most of the research on the costs and benefits of mental health treatment in the workplace has been done on depression. This work shows that when depression is adequately treated, companies reduce job-related accidents, sick days, and employee turnover, and improve the number of hours worked and employee productivity. [not according to a recent research report in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Ed]

Treating mental health problems in the workplace isn’t a quick fix. But over the long term, it is a sound strategy. Money spent on mental health care represents an investment that will pay off — not only in healthier employees, but also for the company’s financial health …

The Australian Government likes to look to England for many of its legal precedents and, sometimes, solutions but it rarely seems to look at the OHS and mental health initiatives that the English Government develop and are already implementing. The investigation by Dame Carol Black into work health was revolutionary when released in only 2008.

The way that mental health in a workplace can grow to catastrophic levels, if not managed properly, can be seen by the spate of work-related suicides in France Telecom. In contrast Australia’s approach to work health is fragmented into executive enthusiasms for physical health checks in some jurisdictions and well-resourced work/life projects in others.

The Australian Government is putting too much emphasis on OHS law reform at the sacrifice of developing practical OHS interventions. Legal analysts and OHS regulators say that the proof of success of the OHS law reform will be seen through the enforcement strategies of the new law, rather than the law itself. The law reform, still under way, will take at least two years to settle down and during that time workplace mental health problems will continue to increase.

OHS professionals and policy makers know enough about the new Work Health and Safety Act that they can begin now to anticipate the regulatory changes and start the process of cross-jurisdictional and cross-disciplinary consultation.

It is also essential that the well-funded depression lobbyists do not kidnap the mental health agenda so that treatment is not favoured over cure.

The government would be mad not to act.

(Pssst. Dear Prime Minister, integrated mental health improvement strategy — what a great election promise.)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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