Something I’ve noticed about my generation is that beneath a culture that emphasises getting ahead, we tend to leave ourselves behind
The internet has brought a welcome wave of knowledge into our lifestyles however with that we also now have an ocean of worries. The job market only gets more competitive, there always seems to be something you should be doing, something to improve in. With so many things to worry about the way we’ve learnt to keep afloat is to stop worrying about ourselves.
The world has a mental health crisis. We live our lives with missing limbs and organs without them being acknowledged or treated. In Australia almost half of us, 46%, will experience mental illness in our lifetime. The onset of mental illness most commonly occurs during youth and adolescence (18-24 years) with this age group also having the highest prevalence of mental illness. This all seems to time quite coincidentally around the age that many of us enter the workforce.
On average 33% of waking time was found to be spent in the workplace, pre-pandemic of course, however, the intertwining of work and daily life means is causing work to become one of the leading daily stressors in Australia. Work is no longer separated from the home, many tasks such as emailing and answering calls cause work stress to be brought home. A data study by Milner found that in Australia, individuals with poor working conditions had statistically significant declines in mental health compared to individuals who weren’t in the workforce. Excessive workload, low wage growth and stigma are common causes in Australia for declines in mental health, with a study by Melchior finding young workers with high psychological demands at work were twice as likely to develop depression and anxiety disorders.
While attitudes towards mental health vary wildly across cultures and within communities, a particularly vivid demonstration of the deadly interaction between workplace environment and mental health is in Japan where death due to overworking has its own word: Karoshi. Working hours in Japan are notoriously high, with a fourth of the wage-earning population working more than 80 hours of unpaid overtime per month. These incredibly long working hours are combined with a strict work culture where a survey found that 63% of Japanese respondents feel guilty for taking paid leave. Despite this, however, the OECD found that Japan had the lowest productivity among G7 nations according to its Compendium of Productivity Indicators.
Support Makes (Economic) Sense
Our mental health is, or should, be important to us. This should be obvious. What is a little less obvious is why it should be important for our workplaces? The general vision seems to be a push for productivity, output, more done in less time and in this pursuit, it feels like the mental state of those working to produce is an HR interview afterthought.
The treatment of mental health as a problem for the employee rather than the employer poisons our economy and life balance. Without taking into account non-diagnosed mental fatigue and illness, on average 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness with this being the most prevalent illness amongst working-age people. This creates the problem of presenteeism, where despite being unwell workers continue going to work but perform at a level less than optimal. Presenteeism, despite being acknowledged less than absenteeism, accounts for higher costs in losses. Even before pandemic conditions, mental health-related lost productivity and health system costs in Australia added up to an estimated $43 to $51 billion annually. This skyrockets to $180 billion lost when including the economic impact of diminished health and shorter life expectancies in the affected. Globally, WHO estimates $1 trillion is lost annually to mental health-related lost productivity.
These losses should be placed in the hands of the employer to recover rather than placed into the hands of the employee to be treated as extra self-care homework. In 2016 WHO found that investing $1 into treatment of depression and anxiety resulted in a return of $4 in health and productivity. Despite the benefit to the company and the economy, solving the mental health crisis seems to still fall to the employee with 1 in 8 GP visits in Australia being related to mental health issues but 1 in 3 dropping out of the therapy programs after a mere two sessions due to out of pocket costs.
It is not a lack of trying or effort which causes the decline of mental health and despite the loss in productivity, many companies fail to see the economic sense in building proper support programs or balancing workload which means that many do not have the time or resources to afford the support they need.
You can’t expect the anchored man to float without a lifebuoy.