How Australian businesses can combat depression and anxiety – and its $4bn-plus economic drain

As the two most common types of mental ill-health in the workplace, depression and anxiety are escalating at an alarming rate while costing Australian employers more than $4 billion each year.

Depression is set to become the second-highest cause of productive time lost to the global economy by 2020, behind only heart disease, making this an issue that no organisation can afford to ignore, warns iHR Australia Senior Workplace Relations Advisor, Dr. Leigh Hodder.



Right now, Hodder says Australian employers are writing off six million work days every year to mental illness related absenteeism. A further 12 million work days are lost to presenteeism – when the employee turns up to work, but fails to be productive.

“In Australia, we’re losing $4.3bn each year [in lost productivity] to mental health conditions. At any one time in any given year, 20% of Australians will experience a mental health illness, while 48% of all Australians will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lives,” Hodder says.

“At a human level, we need to understand what these statistics mean – which is that we’ve got a 50% chance of it being us. So how would we like the workplace and the people in it to treat us?”

A number of factors are to blame for increasing levels of depression and anxiety, including relationship breakdowns, general anxieties around safety driven by the 24-hour news cycle, and “the fake life presentation on social media”, Hodder says.

“People are on the whole more depressed and anxious than they’ve ever been. Part of the problem is that we’ve got too much choice, too much entertainment and we’re on call all the time. We’re just not wired to do that,” she explains.

The impact of these issues, both to the organisation and the individual, can be far-ranging, but within the workplace they can breed issues like lost productivity, low morale, poor performance and a toxic culture.

Hodder says stress-related worker’s compensation claims have also doubled in recent years, to the point where “they’re now costing over $10bn per year.”

“While that may paint a picture of doom and gloom, there are things employers can do to tackle these issues,” she explains.

These include:

  • Mental health training. “We need to train HR and OHS professionals and front line managers, and we need to train the rest of the workforce, in how to recognise and have the conversation around mental ill health and its impacts,” Hodder says.
  • Encouraging compassion. “The first thing that needs to happen, in order for all of those layers of training to sit well, is cultural change around wellbeing in the workplace. We need to have compassion, understanding, and courage – because it’s a very courageous thing to do, to disclose mental ill health to the employer.”
  • Addressing discrimination. “Discrimination in the past has been overt and covert – and because the stigma is still there, the discrimination is still there. The stigma is reducing; it’s not entirely gone, but it’s reducing, and we need places like the Fair Work Commission to have a really good understanding of the intricacy of managing mental health.”

An employer has a legal and moral responsibility if they suspect an employee has mental health issues, Hodder adds.

“Realistically, the employer has three legal obligations: to not discriminate, to maintain the employee’s privacy, and confidentiality. And to provide a reasonable adjustment to their role. Just like if someone broke their leg and there would be adjustments made to their role, the same applies with a mental health issue,” she says.

“We’re seeing some very interesting psychological injury claims, which are taking around two years to resolve. That’s a lot time for that person to be suffering and a lot of lost productivity in the workplace.”


To gain a better understanding around managing mental ill-health in your workplace, consider iHR’s Managing Mental Ill-Health in the Workplace training for managers and HR practitioners. The full-day course guides you through the key principles of effectively and sensitively managing mental health in the workplace, with a focus on relevant legal responsibilities and risk management strategies.