Nearly half of the Australian population will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. In any one year, around a million Australian adults suffer from depression, and over two million have anxiety.

The reality is that more people are absent from work because of stress and anxiety than because of physical illness or injury. There are many things we can do to turn these statistics around, and one of the most important is to openly and honestly discuss mental health in the workplace. Leaders in the workplace, including CEOs, have a vital role to play in starting and leading these conversations.

The CEO Circle recently teamed up with beyondblue to present two breakfast panel discussions in Melbourne and Sydney on the topic of mentally healthy workplaces.

For those not familiar with beyondblue, it is an Australian independent not-for-profit organisation working to address issues associated with depression, suicide, anxiety and other mental health conditions. It was founded 18 years ago by former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, and its current chairperson is former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Gillard was joined on the panels by beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman, and Paul Howes, a beyondblue director, who is also Partner in Charge at KPMG Australia and a former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU).

Breaking the taboo

For too long mental health has been a taboo topic in the workplace. The idea of a mentally healthy workplace is a relatively new one, but the concept is fast gaining recognition as being an essential element of any progressive, forward-thinking business strategy.

“The best definition of a mentally healthy workplace I’ve ever come across is one where people are productive, know what their roles are, do good work – are allowed to do good work – and go home with something left in the tank. That’s something we all want and strive for,” Harman said.

Taking a bandaid approach by flicking it to HR and ticking a box was not good enough, she added. “We can look at this from a legal compliance and regulatory perspective, but I prefer to look at it like this: We all go to work; we all want to be in communities at work where we feel connected.”

Leaders have the power to make the cultural changes necessary to ensure mental health becomes a priority. “This isn’t about services, and doctors, and pills. This is about leadership. It’s about culture. It’s about creating environments and systems but, of course, also having the processes and policies that support people to recognise mental health is as important as physical health,” Harman said.

However, for those changes to happen, leaders have to demonstrate the right kinds of behaviour, set the tone of the conversation, and lead by example.

Leading the way

Gillard has observed a fundamental shift in the nature of leadership across the corporate, and even the political, world over the past decade or so. “I think we’re moving as a culture, as a society – and this is a global trend – from that ‘hero’ model of leadership to an enabling model of leadership. And you can see the signs of that everywhere,” she said.

She went on to say that the initial thrust of digital technologies and the always-on, 24/7 nature of the internet had led many leaders and employees to adopt the corporate warrior mode, working extremely long hours just because they could: “Just because you can answer your emails at 3am, doesn’t mean you should,” she pointed out.

“I think we’ve moved from that ‘I can take anything. I can work 20 hours a day, seven days a week’ model of leadership. What does the leader do that models good behaviours? What does the leader do that brings out the best in the team and helps them be the most productive and engaged they can be? And I think this mental health agenda fits so well with that new model of leadership.”

In practice

Howes laughed as he recalled the attitudes displayed by some of his early bosses when he was starting out in the union movement almost two decades ago. “If you complained about anything, they’d give you a swift kick up the backside,” he said. “It was a rough-and-tumble environment where sharing things like feelings was not encouraged.”

While Howes managed to conform to that culture to advance to the post of national secretary of the AWU, one of the most powerful unions in the country, he accomplished this while battling mental health struggles. “I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression since I was a child,” he explained. His high-profile position at the AWU and in Labor politics at times exacerbated these issues. “Being in the public eye was not a good trigger for me in being able to deal with that.”

Howes joined the board of beyondblue in 2013, when he was still at the AWU, because he wanted mental health to be given a higher priority, both for union members and, more broadly, for people in the workforce. Since leaving the union sector and taking up his role as a Partner in Charge at KPMG, he has continued to advocate for better mental health conditions in the workplace.

Echoing Gillard’s sentiments on the shift to a more enabling style of leadership, Howes has worked within KPMG as well as with partners from the three other big professional services consulting firms to implement better mental health programs and policies. His main focus has been on creating workplace environments that allow people to speak openly, and don’t stigmatise individuals for seeking help.

The aim has been to bring mental health out into the open and start the conversation about how to create a mentally healthy workplace. His message for those experiencing anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue is simple: “Seeking help and early intervention is the key.”

The business case

Harman said business leaders should be trying to create mentally healthy workplaces because it made sound business sense. While prioritising and implementing mental health strategies may initially incur a cost to businesses, the long-term gains are rewarding, with respect to staff retention and recruitment as well as the financial bottom line.

“There are great business benefits in this. We know that for every dollar invested in a workplace mental health strategy, the return is, on average, A$2.30,” Harman said.

“If you get this right, if you engage your staff, if you build a mental health strategy, just as you would any other business improvement strategy, you’re going to reap enormous returns in terms of presenteeism, absenteeism and productivity.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, please seek help from your GP, or from organisations such as beyondblue by calling 1300 224 636 to speak to a trained mental health professional. For suicide and crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.