Start the conversation: National Mental Health campaign kicks off in October

Start the conversation: National Mental Health campaign kicks off in October

With experts warning of a “second wave” of mental ill-health in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, the conversation to better support people in the workplace is a hot topic.

As national mental health campaigns kick off in Australia this October and with World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October, now is a great time to take a close look at what you are doing to support the mental health of your people.

Each state and territory has a separate annual mental health campaign running in October, to raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing. For business, this is an opportunity to remind staff about their mental health programs, support employees experiencing mental health issues and to take an organisational approach to reducing stigma associated with mental health conditions.

A mentally healthy workplace is one that protects and promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for depression and anxiety, for the benefit of the individual, organisation and community.

Research shows that mentally healthy workers are more productive and present, while the flipside reveals mental illness as one of the leading causes of absenteeism, reduced engagement and lost productivity.

In addition, poor mental health takes a heavy financial toll on Australian employers. According to the 2018 KPMG and Mental Health Australia report, Investing to Save poor mental health in the workplace – prior to COVID-19 – cost an average of $3,200 per employee with mental illness, and up to $5,600 for employees with a severe condition.

This research found that mental ill-health and its flow-on impacts costs the economy almost $60 billion a year and demonstrated that improvements in mental health could advance workforce participation rates by 30 per cent. As these findings are pre-COVID, the cost to the economy and business is expected to rise substantially on the back of impacts from the pandemic.

On the upside for Australian business, research by the NSW Government found that businesses, which invest in workplace health promotions, could see a return of more than $4 for every $1 invested from reduced absenteeism and better productivity.

Mental health impacts of COVID-19

A survey conducted during the early days of the pandemic revealed a sharp increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression across Australia. Mild to moderate symptoms of these problems were being experienced by 25 per cent of people, with more than 10 per cent experiencing thoughts of being better off dead or self-harm.

Another survey in mid-August by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed this trend continuing with more than 40 per cent of Australians aged 18 years and older feeling high levels of anxiety, and around one in six reporting depressive symptoms.

The uncertainty around the consequences from the COVID-19 virus will linger for a while as the economic and mental health costs play out. Workplaces may indeed be changed forever, or at least the way we work will, because of this global pandemic.

Promoting mental health in the workplace

Maintaining a mentally healthy workplace is an ongoing process; it is more than simply putting a policy in place. To raise awareness and effect positive change, workplaces need to:

  • Provide access to mental health information and resources
  • Conduct regular mental health awareness programs and training
  • Include mental health education in staff induction and associated resources
  • Actively engage in Mental Health Month, World Mental Health Day and R U OK? Day

Critical success factors for an effective mental health program include managerial commitment and action, employee participation, development and implementation of policies, provision of the necessary resources and a sustainable approach.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently outlined several strategies for managers to support better mental health among employees.

Share your story:

Senior and team leader support is essential to create a healthy work culture. Team leaders talking honestly about their mental health struggles or providing insights from their experiences can open the door for employees to feel comfortable talking about mental health challenges of their own. It can also translate into a decrease in stigma, which is often the reason people don’t ask for help and seek the treatment or support they need.

Model healthy behaviours:

Role model positive day-to-day behaviours and actions, allowing team members to feel that they can prioritise self-care and set boundaries. Share your self-care strategies like exercise, mindfulness projects and ensure you maintain normal work hours.

Build a culture of connection:

Intentionally checking in with your team and each member on a regular basis is more important than ever. Start the conversation through dedicated meetings to discuss mental health issues and initiatives in an open and non-confronting forum. Invest in training for team leaders to assist with one-on-one productive and supportive conversations that go beyond “How are you?” Ensure you stay in contact and follow up after each conversation whether it is with the team or a one-on-one conversation.

R U OK? encourages business leaders and employees to build an R U OK? culture in the workplace by empowering R U OK? Workplace Champions . These employees take a lead role in encouraging and enabling peer-to-peer support and regular meaningful conversations in the workplace.

Offer flexibility and be inclusive:

There are a lot of changes going on as everyone settles into a ‘new normal,’ and, by checking in regularly, leaders can respond proactively to any issues that come up. Use this conversation to promote mental health supports and make flexibility the norm.

Communicate more than you think you need to:

Keep your team informed about any organisational changes or updates. Make them aware of available mental health resources and encourage them to use them. Be aware that shame and stigma can prevent many employees from accessing services so normalise their use.

HBR says the following strategies can help organizational leaders to set the framework for addressing mental health issues:

Invest in training:

Prioritise proactive and preventative workplace mental health training for leaders, managers, and individual contributors.

Modify policies and practices:

In reaction to the pandemic, revisit business rules and norms around flexible hours, paid time off and leave. Reframe performance reviews as opportunities for compassionate feedback and learning instead of evaluations against strict targets. In making modifications be explicit that these are to support the mental health of employees.


Run a simple pulse survey regularly to understand how people are doing now and over time. This can help you understand the primary stressors and needs of employees, helping to shape new programs and enhancing health and wellbeing support.

What’s happening in your state: October mental health events

Each state and territory runs either a month long or two-week mental health awareness campaign in October.

A collection of events is on offer and all businesses are encouraged to get involved. Events include forums, talks and webinars on mental health issues as well as your provision of awards and grants to organisations and individuals that have demonstrated momentous efforts in the area of mental health.

To find out more or to access resources go to:

ACT: Throughout October the theme for ACT is ‘Conversations and Connection’

NSW: Throughout October the theme is “Tune-In”

Victoria: Throughout October the theme is Mental Health Matters”

Queensland: Mental Health Week runs from 10 – 18 October, this year’s theme is “Take Time – For Mental Health”

Western Australia: Mental Health Week runs from 10 – 17 October, this year’s theme is “Strengthening Our Community – Live, Learn, Work, Play”

Tasmania : Mental Health Week runs from 5 – 10 October, this year’s theme is “We All Have A Role To Play”

Northern Territory:  Mental Health runs from Week from 5 – 9 October, this year’s theme is “Building Healthy Communities”

South Australia: Mental Health Week, 10–17 October, theme is “Every Person, Every Community”

Resources and further reading

Harvard Business Review

Wayahead: Workplace Wellbeing and COVID-19 Support

Blackdog Institute: How to support your staff during COVID-19

Heads Up: Strategies for healthy workplaces