Mental health in the workplace: moving from reactive to proactive

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Sunday, 27 September, 2020 - 11:00
Industry news
National News

While there has been progress around improving mental health in the workplace, the balance of related services that workplaces adopt and implement are still predominantly skewed to reactive rather than proactive strategies, according to an expert in the field.

For example, the key services associated with workplace mental health tend to be EAPs (employee assistance programs), mental health first aid programs, and mental health awareness raising workshops, said Greg McLoughlin, CEO of Health By Design International.

“Looking at EAPs specifically, uptake rates range between as low as 2-3 per cent in some industries such as construction and up to 11 per cent, with the average uptake/usage rates sitting at around 5 per cent,” he said.

“The obvious issue is that we are continually told that community mental health annual rates of diagnosed depression or anxiety sit around 20 per cent,” said McLoughlin, who was speaking ahead of a webinar on mental fitness: a proactive approach to mental health trends on 8 October.

“Amplifying the poor uptake rates is the fact that EAP programs deal with a number of other issues apart from mental health.”

RUOK day has genuinely raised awareness and made significant headway in breaking down stigma and normalising the discussion around mental health, said McLoughlin, who observed the biggest gap is around effective, sustainable and consistent prevention strategies that bring RUOK day to life for the remainder of the year.

It is important to actively push the message that “every single individual can be healthier mentally” and he said people can implement daily strategies to improve mental fitness and resilience.

“Figures from 2019 revealed that not only do we have the annual rate of diagnosed depression or anxiety sitting at 20 per cent of the population; over the course of a lifetime close to 50 per cent of the community will suffer from diagnosed anxiety or depression,” said McLoughlin.

“I stress that word diagnosed. We are not talking about short term events and periods of sadness. Further, 54 per cent of those diagnosed, do not seek treatment.”

With COVID, McLoughlin said the issues and the pressure on treatment systems and personnel have further increased.

“We need to enhance treatment availability and effectiveness while concurrently launching better prevention strategies.”

There are a number of ways in which organisations can go about normalising mental fitness in the same way that physical fitness is prioritised, McLoughlin added.
“There needs to be a greater focus on ‘joining the dots’ through effective education with compelling facts that show people the links between lifestyle, behavioural and relationship factors and mental health,” he explained.

“Give people the science so that the value proposition is really strong for them to initiate preventative action, then support them to sustain that preventative action. “This can be achieved at a very reasonable cost.”

The ideal is a “strong triaged system” where excellent prevention services are in place, but with strong synergy and early intervention referral where necessary to EAP and community treatment services, said McLoughlin.

There are a number of workplace mental health initiatives which are more proactive in nature.

McLoughlin said the consistency of compelling messages is very important, followed by assisting people with mental fitness actions plans that are tailored to their life situation.

“Many workplaces are implementing sensational programs that help educate and create individual action plans,” he said.

“However, the missing link is the sustainability of the education messages and action plans.”

The implications of this for OHS professionals are “enormous”, according to McLoughlin, who pointed out that mental health affects concentration, focus, fatigue and alertness – all of which impact safety risk.

“Mental health is costly,” he said.

“If you consider the above-mentioned figures, that almost one in two people will have a diagnosed issue over a lifetime and that 54 per cent don’t seek treatment, we would be completely naive to think this isn’t an extraordinary safety risk on a daily basis – as well as the risk of increased mental health claims.”


The webinar on mental fitness: a proactive approach to mental health trends will be held on Thursday 8 October from 11:30am - 12:30pm (AEST). The webinar will look at the need for more focus and strategic planning around proactive interventions that work progressively and consistently to prevent mental illness and concurrently assist those already diagnosed. For more information visit the webinar site.