Mental health-related absenteeism/presenteeism cost up to $17 billion per year

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.
Tuesday, 12 November, 2019 - 12:45
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National News

Workplace absenteeism (the inability to go to work) and presenteeism (the inability to fully function at work) due to mental ill-health cost from $13 billion to $17 billion per year, according to a recent Productivity Commission report.

Furthermore, the typical cost of a mental health-related claim was $25,650 (compared with $10,600 for all other claims) while the typical time of work was 16.2 weeks (compared with 5.7 weeks for all other claims) according to the report on mental health.

“Mental ill-health has huge impacts on people, communities and our economy but mental health is treated as an add-on to the physical health system,” said Michael Brennan, chair of the Productivity Commission.

“This has to change.”

Some 75 per cent of those who develop mental illness first experience symptoms before they turn 25, and Brennan said “mental ill-health in critical schooling and employment years has long-lasting effects for not only your job prospects but many aspects of your life.”

The Productivity Commission report highlighted the need for mental health to be explicitly called out in work health and safety legislation, with appropriate guidelines and codes of practice developed, according to Jennifer Cameron, injury prevention manager at NSW’s social insurer Icare.

“This would see a strengthening of the lever for employers to take action, as well as giving them the right support to do so,” she said.

“This type of action may help move us from focusing on how to help someone when they are becoming unwell, to taking the brave action often required to change the way work is done so the impact is prevented in the first place.”

Cameron said there has been an overall increase in psychological injury claims, however, this is more prominent in some industries.

“For example, in NSW workers’ insurance we have seen we have seen psychological injury claims increase from 6 per cent of total claims in 2013 (442 claims) to 8 per cent of total claims in 2018 (667 claims) in the health and community services sector,” she said.

In the manufacturing industry, psychological injury claims made up 1.4 per cent of total claims in 2013 (172 claims) and 2 per cent of total claims in 2018 (163 claims).

In the construction industry in 2013 psychological injury claims made up 1 per cent of total claims (80 claims) and this remained at 1 per cent of total claims in 2018 with 98 claims.

Overall, Cameron said psychological injury claims accounted for 4 per cent of total claims in the Workers’ insurance scheme in 2018, or 2,179 claims (compared to 3 per cent of total claims in 2013 or 1,999 claims).

“While some of these numbers may not appear immediately significant, the trends are moving in the wrong direction and we know that the cost of a psychological injury claim is on average three times higher than other types of claims,” said Cameron, who pointed out that it is important to understand that mental health problems do not always end up as or present as a workers’ compensation claim. “People may be working with a non-work-related mental health problem, or even an undiagnosed and untreated mental health problem,” she said.

“When not treated or supported appropriately this can have an impact on productivity in the workplace.

“Another key consideration is the development of mental health problems following a physical injury.”

Cameron also noted that there has been a lot of activity around mental health awareness and early intervention over the past five years.

“For example, sessions in the workplace on mental health, and in particular Mental Health First Aid, aims to improve early intervention.”

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) have also been a fairly common service in large employers for some time, with the aim of providing professional services to people who may be experiencing a mental health problem.

However, Cameron said one of the challenges with both of these examples is making them meaningful and ensuring that they have a positive impact.

“Just sending someone to an MHFA course on its own is not going to have a significant impact,” she said.

“You need to consider what your ask is of that person and how you create a culture where people feel that they can seek the assistance of someone within the workplace around mental health problems.”
Far too often Cameron said EAP programs are a tick-a-box exercise where an employer will feel that they have done what they need to by simply having one in place.

For it to be effective, however, the workforce’s communication preferences need to be considered – would digital solutions or face to face see better take up of such a service?

“Again, the challenges of culture and, in particular, trust are overarching requirements for success with early intervention initiatives such as these,” she said.

“The challenge is for employers to turn their attention to the topic of prevention – how can they design work to reduce some of the psycho-social risks that may lead to mental health problems?”

There are a number of steps OHS can take in the process, and Cameron said that being aware of all the factors that may contribute to good or poor mental health in the workplace is critical.

 “Are there challenges around work pace? Or the scheduling of work? Are people exposed to trauma on a regular basis?” she asked.

Observation and data can help inform some of this, however, engagement and meaningful consultation across the workforce is needed to close the circle.

Once the factors or risks are understood, she said they need to be addressed and this is where many employers start to feel lost.

“However, in an environment of collaboration with a culture that has high levels of trust, ‘test & learn’ can be effective,” said Cameron.

“For example, if workers are saying that work pace and high cognitive load (eg complex tasks) are an issue trial having regular breaks throughout the day, or standardise some processes to reduce the need for decision making, and then evaluate these changes with workers to see if there has been a positive impact.”

The Productivity Commission report also made a number of recommendations to address these issues:

  • Making psychological health and safety as important as physical health and safety.
  • Workplace health and safety agencies develop and implement codes of practice to assist employers, especially small employers, better manage mental health risks in the workplace.
  • Provision of medical treatment for mental health-related workers compensation claims, irrespective of liability, until the injured worker returns to work or up to a period of six months following lodgement of a claim.