Former journalist and PR executive Asher Moses is currently fighting a Fair Work court case after, he says, he was sacked and frozen out of a business he helped start after taking time off for “mental wellbeing”.

Moses, formerly a successful and award-winning technology journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, joined the M+C Partners PR firm in 2014, where he worked until, he says in court papers, he was sacked in June this year while still dealing with diagnosed mental health conditions stemming from his father’s death. He says he was shut out of business decisions and was not allowed to be involved in the same high-level planning and decision-making he had been prior to his leave.

Moses lodged his claim in the Federal Court last month, just weeks before former Studio 10 executive producer Rob McKnight’s lawyers confirmed he was suing his network, also for unfair dismissal. McKnight hasn’t yet lodged his claim with the Federal Court, but his lawyers told Crikey he was alleging breach of contract and would be taking court action. McKnight signed off after his sacking with an email to his colleagues, where he said he’d suffered a breakdown and the had suffered from the unrelenting pace of the show.

Is there something particular about the media industry that makes people more susceptible for mental health problems, and is it worse than others at dealing with mental health issues?

RMIT senior lecturer and Mindframe Education Advisory Board member Alex Wake said dealing with mental illness at work wasn’t unique to newsrooms, but there had been a traditionally tough culture in the news media that didn’t deal well with mental illness — and it hasn’t been eliminated yet.

“Newsrooms still don’t deal with the fact that many people in their life will suffer a mental illness at some point in their life,” she said. “But if the #metoo movement at the moment is not a wake-up call to take seriously more of the issues that we report upon and the impact on our own sector, I don’t know what is.”

Wake said that Australia had some world-leading programs in place in the media for dealing with journalists’ mental health, especially at the ABC, and a lot of younger journalists won’t put up with the same sort of attitudes that have dominated in the past.

“It’s typical of the news media that it constantly writes stories about how we need to be supported, how work policies should be introduced, and how much it costs our economy. And yet the very places that publish these kinds of stories often have the worst practices,” she said. “They write stories about the abusive use of alcohol and then have problems with it themselves. In some news organisations they’ve still got a very macho culture, it’s like, ‘toughen up, princess’. Increasingly, young people won’t accept that situation.”

She said historically a lot of journalists had turned to self-medication with alcohol and drugs, and black humour to deal with any trauma or mental health issues they faced in the workplace. Or, they left the industry completely.

“The media industry is full of a lot of people with a lot of talent, and they aren’t always very good at acknowledging that self worth. We need to be aware of the impact of losing really good people from this industry,” she said.

The Black Dog Institute Workplace Mental Health Research Program’s Dr Mark Deady said that issues around dealing with mental health weren’t limited to the media or other high-pressure industries.

“We still have a long way to go in terms of reducing stigma,” he said. “High pressure occupations are associated with a large degree of stress that can lead to more mental health issues. At an organisational level, they need to be promoting positive mental health in terms of prevention, early intervention and enhancing personal resilience.”

He said returning to work can sometimes be challenging for employers and colleagues, especially when there wasn’t an appropriate framework in place, and there was still a lack of understanding in some workplaces about how to support employees returning to work.

“You can have an organisation with a a perfectly good framework, but they may not necessarily be putting someone on duties that will help, for example they may be taken away from the work they actually want to be doing. One of the biggest concerns in terms of return to work is largely around awareness and the reduction of stigma.”

Peter Fray

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