As a business leader, ensuring that the workplace environment is an inclusive and respectful one for all employees is paramount. Equally important is being cognisant of what is happening outside your organisation in the broader community, as external happenings are often reflected inside the walls of companies.

Mental health is underfunded and under-researched

In 2007, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that almost half of the population will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lifetime – around 45.5% of Australians. Over 10 years later, this figure has not been updated and continues to contribute to current literature regarding Australia’s mental health. With mental health issues on this scale inevitably affecting the Australian workforce, supervisors rarely have the training to detect problems or act quickly.

The core of mental health-related funding tends to trickle down into hospital-based services such as in-patient and emergency care. For those experiencing long-term mental health concerns and psychosocial disability, the 10 Medicare sessions per calendar year under a Mental Health Care Plan may not cut it.

While this is beneficial for short-term situations, greater research and a broader framework is needed to overhaul and improve the mental healthcare system for Australians.

The need for structure

The Australian Medical Association defines the country’s current mental health system as lacking an overarching ‘architecture’, with a national design or structure that will facilitate prevention and proper care for people with mental illness virtually absent. Indeed, mental health remains highly misunderstood and society and government are lacking in the language with which to address these highly varied issues.

This, coupled with the fact that more mental health programs are being shut down to divert funding to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, means that greater numbers of people are not getting the care that they need. In fact, new research by the University of Sydney indicates that individuals with severe mental health problems are most at risk of being left without proper support under the NDIS.

Australia needs to prioritise its most vulnerable people by promoting and continuing to fund independent and specialised providers – in mental health and the wider spectrum of disability. Many of these specialised organisations are also available to provide businesses with community insights that can assist with shedding light on current and forthcoming workplace concerns. This, in turn, arms leaders with a wealth of information to help them better understand the complexities of mental health in and outside the workplace.

Lifting the burden

Last year, IDEAS received 166 calls from people with psychiatric disabilities and mental health issues. Through our service, we were able to provide them with a wide variety of assistance, from counselling and support services, to advocacy and access information. However, information and support services play just one role, when many more degrees of care are needed. Australians with complex mental health needs require adequate systems in place for ongoing and long-term psychological care.

The AMA notes that in 2014–15, mental health received 5.25% of the overall health budget, despite representing 12% of the total burden of disease. As a measurement of health issues as quantified by such indicators as finances and mortality, this disparity indicates the need for serious mental health funding, and better linkages between health systems to pool funding to where it is urgently needed.

So what can a business leader do to play a role in helping to lift the burden? First, open the floor up for a transparent line of dialogue within your organisation. Open and honest communication is crucial for employees to feel safe and comfortable at work while experiencing mental health issues or disabilities. Creating a mental health and wellbeing policy is also an effective way to support staff, as well as encouraging informal ways to start a productive conversation around mental health at the grassroots level of the business.

With mental health issues affecting at least half of the population, it is important to bring your company together and urge employees to challenge the stigma of mental illness by speaking freely. This will start the process of change, one business at a time.