“We all have a role to play”: Addressing workplace mental health


Our workplaces can have a profound impact on our mental health, for better or for worse.

To mark both World Suicide Prevention Day (Sunday 10 September) and R U OK Day (Thursday 14 September), we’re shining a light on the positive impact diversity and inclusion have on employee mental health with new data from our upcoming 2023 Inclusion@Work Index.

The theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, according to Suicide Prevention Australia, is “We all have a role to play”, which aims to raise awareness of the impact we have on each other’s mental health and encourage Australians to have meaningful conversations around mental health. Similarly, R U OK Day aims to encourage people to invest more time in their personal relationships – including colleagues – and build informal support networks by regularly checking in on each other’s mental health.

It is often assumed that mental health should be kept separate from the workplace. However, this isn’t always the best approach.

While poor mental health can develop separately from the workplace, work can impact our mental health in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, the workplace can prevent poor mental health and promote recovery, while on the other, it can instigate or aggravate poor mental health.

One key contributor to positive mental health outcomes at work is inclusion, according to early release data from DCA’s 2023 Inclusion@Work Index.

In a workplace context, inclusion occurs when a diversity of people (e.g. of different age, race, cultural and religious backgrounds, gender, sexual orientation etc.) feel respected, valued, and able to contribute and progress at work.

Data from the 2023 Inclusion@Work Index showed that workers in inclusive teams were six times more likely to report work had a positive impact on their mental health (57% in inclusive teams, compared to 9% in non-inclusive teams).

Inclusion at work index statistics
Source: DCA's 2023 Inclusion@Work Index

Company culture and management play a significant role, with the data indicating that workers with inclusive organisational climates and managers were nearly four times more likely to report that work had a positive impact on their mental health.

Flexibility was also found to positively impact employee mental health, which is understandable given the important role flexible working options play in inclusive workplaces. Workers who had access to the flexibility they needed to manage work and other commitments were almost four times more likely to feel their work positively impacted their mental health (45% vs. 12% who didn’t have access to the flex they needed).

Unsurprisingly, exclusion was found to negatively impact mental health, with workers who experienced discrimination and/or harassment at work twice as likely to report their workplace had negatively impacted their mental health (49%), compared to those who had not (21%).

Mental health is a workplace issue

Fostering mentally healthy workplaces not only has benefits for employees, it has benefits for businesses too, including improved safety, higher retention, enhanced productivity, and reduced costs.

In contrast, workplaces that negatively impact mental health can result in increased workers’ compensation costs, high staff turnover, higher absenteeism, potential penalties for breaches in work health and safety legislation, and loss of organisation reputation.

Ultimately, failure to provide a mentally healthy workplace can be far more costly than the expense of developing and implementing strategies to create a safe and healthy workplace.

Research estimates that working with employers to improve workplace mental health and wellbeing would result in $4.5 billion in savings for Australian businesses. It is also estimated that every dollar an organisation spends creating a mentally healthy workplace will on average have a positive return on that investment (ROI) of 2.3.

However, despite ongoing campaigns and initiatives encouraging education and support for speaking about mental health, efforts are yet to spill into positive change in the workplace.

Results from DCA’s 2021-2022 Inclusion@Work Index show that 42% of Australian workers with poor mental health did not discuss their mental health with anyone at work in the 12 months before the survey. This was the most common response for those self-reporting poor mental health, followed by discussing mental health with colleagues and team members (36%) and managers and supervisors (35%).

We need to address the stigma towards poor mental health in the workplace

Research shows that stigma on mental health can prevent employees from disclosing mental health and seeking support at work, and result in exclusionary behaviours like discrimination and harassment when they do disclose.

In fact, more than half of Australian workers would hide a mental or even physical health condition to avoid discrimination at work.

We can reduce this stigma and encourage Australians to comfortably access available support resources by using education strategies such as formal training programs and learning from those with lived experiences.

Considering managers and colleagues are the most common sources employees use to discuss their mental health while at work, DCA’s Mapping the State of Inclusion and Mental Health in the Australian Workforce recommends training employees and managers in mental health first aid.

According to the report, training employees and managers in how to recognise and respond to employees experiencing poor mental health can improve intention to provide aid, increase knowledge on mental health illnesses/conditions, and reduce mental health stigma.

The report also recommends training around managing crucial conversations at work. To help facilitate effective conversations around mental health, read this guide to Crucial Conversations in the Modern Workplace.

When it comes to workplace mental health, we all have a role to play. Check out these helpful resources to find out more:

If you or someone you know is struggling with poor mental health, help is available. See below for a list of mental health agencies:

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Brother to Brother 1800 435 799
Lifeline Australia 131114
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
MindSpot 1800 61 44 34
People Reaching Out to People (PROP)
QLife 1800 184 527
SANE Australia 1800 18 7263.