Disability Employment Australia’s Conference: Keynote by Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman ‘Mental Health in the Workplace’

10 September 2018

I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and pay respect to Elders past and present.

I also acknowledge the millions of Australians who live with, or support someone with, a mental health issue. Many of you are here today. We have lost too many others.

I would like to thank Rick Kane and Disability Employment Australia for the invitation to share my thoughts today about mental health in the workplace.

And today I want to channel the aspirations and righteous demands of the people I get paid to serve.

People who live and work with mental health challenges.

People who value work. Who want meaningful, good work.

Who want to make a contribution to their communities, our society and the economy.

So, today I want to remind us all to challenge any lingering assumptions when it comes to the way we think about people with psycho-social disability and the contribution they make to the productivity, diversity and wellbeing of the workforce.

But I also want to focus on all of you – on your aspirations and righteous demands to work in a mentally healthy environment.

To be equipped to manage the change, the stress and pressure, the sense of responsibility I’m sure you feel to your clients.

Because too often when we come together as service providers, as stakeholders, at conferences and events like today’s we focus only on the needs of others.

Of course we should.

But we forget sometimes to pause and reflect on how we’re doing.

Does our sector have the right culture and mindset to adapt, to continually improve, to take a good hard look at ourselves?

Even if that long stare is uncomfortable.

Are we determined enough to keep looking ahead – to meet the minds and hopes of people with physical and psycho-social disability – even as we are buffeted by the winds (or even cyclones) of change?

And are we resilient enough?

Do our workplaces have the cultures, leadership, job design, policies and supports that allow us to thrive?

…So we can be our best selves and do our best work for the people we get paid to serve.

Your sector – like many others, including the one I work in – is undergoing significant change. 

Some days – and stay with me here –

…we even start the day with one Minister and end the day with a new one…!

Rick has given me a glimpse into the agenda of the past two-and-a-half years with the introduction of the NDIS and the recent transition from a market share model to a market driven model.

How you are embracing the NDIS’ founding principles of choice and control, engaging at a deeper level with the people who need your services, opening up your books and your services to be accredited to an even higher standard.

By anyone’s reckoning, that’s a big serving of change.

Workplace inclusion

Now I’d like you to imagine how quickly the Australian economy would slide to the bottom of the OECD rankings if 50 per cent of the population was locked out of work because of their gender.

Now – and again, stay with me here – imagine that the 50 per cent being excluded were men.

It’s ridiculous, I know…

Yet, at best, we seemingly make assumptions about the capacity, capabilities and contribution of the lifetime experience of nearly half of us.

At worst, we seemingly accept the exclusion from work of people living with mental health challenges.

If we want to take a good look at the numbers, that simply doesn’t make economic sense.

Australia would never open its doors for business.

Because nearly 50 per cent of Australian adults will experience a mental health issue in their life-times.

One in five working Australians are affected at any given time by mental health conditions.

It’s absurd to think that they unhook their depression or bipolar or PTSD and leave it at the door of their workplaces.

They are bringing their mental health challenges with them as they work productively alongside us in our offices, schools, shops, hospitals, banks… and employment support services.

They are running our companies, baking our bread, mowing our lawns, researching solutions that will make our future lives better.

They are sitting beside you today.

They are managing their mental health and holding down a job and meeting family responsibilities and having coffee or a beer with mates on the weekend, just like us.

And just like us, they value work.

But most of the time we don’t even notice they are there.

We haven’t a clue what they are going through because they choose not to tell us.

Their challenges are often invisible.

Research tells us that mental health is the issue Australian workers feel most uncomfortable discussing with their managers.

As an aside, this is at odds with broader community sentiment – mental health has never been more top of mind for us as a nation.

For example, Mission Australia’s recent Youth Survey found it is the number one concern nominated by young Australians. 

As a result, the workplace experiences of those living with mental health conditions are divided:

•             There are those who join our teams who have experienced poor mental health
               in the past and there are those who become unwell, perhaps even because of a
               toxic work environment or unreasonable and unrelenting job stress.

•             There are those who choose to disclose they have a mental health issue and
               those who do not.

We have:

•             Those who disclose after they have been employed

•             and those who reveal their mental health condition when applying for a job.

Those who disclose too often live in fear of being ‘managed out’ or being seen as less skilled or capable than they were the previous day, or being overlooked for a future promotion or for a place on the team tasked to deliver an exciting new project.

Those who have no choice but to disclose – in the recruitment or placement phase – know this will affect their chances of securing the position.

Because too often a current or a potential employer hears only the diagnosis.

They consider a job application or a work placement through a lens of risk, of deficit, of a workers’ compensation claim in the making.

They can be myopic when it comes to a candidate’s work history, the community contribution they make, the personal and societal challenges they have overcome.

Too often the value of the experiences these people could bring with them is left unexplored, are overlooked, or dismissed.

Consequently, many who live with, manage and are open about their mental illnesses struggle to find a job.

They struggle to find the right kind of job.

They may also struggle to keep that job once they’ve found it.

For employers and employment service providers that brings an extra challenge.

I can see the new parameters – where providers are paid on placement with milestone rewards the longer a person stays in a job – certainly working for those with physical disabilities and potentially working better for those with psycho-social disability than the old policy and funding structures.

But as you all know, people who live with psycho-social disability have individual needs that are not static, but episodic.

A ‘placement priority’ bias…

Rushing to place someone in a job – any job – is not just the wrong thing to do, it carries a risk of doing more harm than good.

An ‘any-job-will-do’ attitude isn’t good enough for the employer – whose needs will not be met and who may be discouraged from future engagement – and certainly not for the employee.

Because exposing people to the risk of failure, exclusion, of being overwhelmed or potentially even discriminated against can have profound implications for their mental health.

At the very least it can result in employees feeling disengaged. And less productive.

And, of course, this is true for all of us, regardless of whether we are or have been affected by poor mental health.

These are complex and variable issues requiring nuanced responses.

When it comes to placing people with psycho-social disabilities it’s about the right job.  And the right job that lasts.

Sustainability of employment.

Work is good

It’s easy for people like me to take for granted the physical comforts, the workaday routines, sense of belonging and wellbeing that come with a job.

So easy to take for granted little things like:

•             Paying $3.50 for a skinny latte, no sugar, here’s my Keep Cup…. thanks

•             Sharing a laugh with colleagues or a grumble about the traffic

•             Getting home at the end of the day to a place you can afford to heat or cool.

It might sound ordinary – even boring – but, as you know, people who don’t have it, crave it.

Riding that participation train, knowing you are contributing, being connected to a social network through work, is good for all of us.

Because jobs are about much more than just paying the bills.

Having the right job opens possibilities for participation in other areas of life, and interactions that greatly enhance our sense of wellbeing.

And finding a good job for or hiring somebody who has disclosed a mental health issue or psycho-social disability is such a profoundly important thing to do.

It sends out a message that we see their value and benefit.

And when it comes to a mentally healthy workplace, I am not talking about free fruit and holding hands and humming.

This is about constructive employment.

The benefits aren’t limited to individual participation – there’s a strong business case supported by hard research – telling us that diverse and inclusive workplaces provide unequivocal wellbeing, productivity, and bottom line benefits.

Benefits of diverse and inclusive workforces include:

•             increased opportunities for creativity and innovation as diverse groups of people
              work together and capitalise on their unique qualities;

•             improved customer perceptions which influence purchasing and loyalty, as well
              as better understanding of customers from diverse backgrounds;

•             higher retention rates for existing staff as well as a greater ability to attract and
              retain talent.

Sarah K. Reece……an artist, writer and peer worker recorded a video for the South Australian Mental Health Commission.

In it she explains how diversity enriches a workplace and why we need to stop filtering out people with mental illness at the recruitment stage.

Sarah’s words are even more powerful because she speaks from experience.

She knows that if she discloses her mental health diagnosis in a job application or interview and she is competing against an equally qualified person with no history of mental illness, she probably won’t get the job.

And that, she argues, is a lost opportunity: for herself and for the employer.

But it is best you hear this from Sarah herself [play video].

Somebody like me who has come through a tremendous amount of adversity, who has come out the other side with my intelligence and my humanity intact, has a massive number of skills.

They might be difficult to write up in a resume, but when you can get yourself through things like feeling chronically suicidal – with the challenges of the services the way they are – if you are still standing on the other side of that, you have some amazing skills to contribute.

We tend to think that people with mental health problems have a whole bunch of characteristics.

We create these misconceptions that they are disorganised, unreliable, flakey, not very skilled, not very educated. Quite a lot of the stigma we have around mental illness is (drawn from the) characteristics of people who have not been treated very well.

They are characteristics of people who have been long-term unemployed.

They are characteristics of people who are not used to being treated as if they have worth.

We have created that problem and we need to be the people who solve it.

Mentally Healthy Workplace

So if we change our thinking – away from risk and deficit – to see the value of these kinds of skills and experience – we won’t miss out on Sarah or others like her.

Whether we come at it as professionals charged with finding employment for others.

Or as employers ourselves, who are committed to creating mentally healthy workplaces.

Leaders of multinationals, police forces, footy teams are starting to listen and heed the call to take meaningful action in this sphere. 

Beyond Blue and others in the mental health sector are working with employers, unions and peak bodies across many industries to drive action on mental health at work.

In industries with higher than average suicide rates, such as doctors and the health services industry, with ambulance, police and emergency services, construction, agriculture and mining.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is no different to any other business improvement project – it requires unwavering leadership, a clear strategy, adequate resourcing, an action plan and KPIs, and a culture of continuous review and improvement.

It is within the reach of every workplace, and it is simply what we all strive for:

•             People at all levels of the organisation have a shared vision of, and commitment
              to, making it a mentally healthy workplace.

•             Work demands are realistic and balance the needs of the staff and the employer
              and don’t pose a risk to the mental health of individuals. 

•             Everyone feels comfortable speaking openly about mental health and mental
              health conditions, without fear of stigma or discrimination.

•             As a result, there is a culture of respect and inclusivity.

It starts with creating work environments that are safe from a physical and mental health point of view.

It is one that empowers its managers and staff with mental health literacy, so that everyone is aware of the warning signs and knows to seek help.

And when someone does notice a change, they have the confidence to have a conversation with that person, to check in on them.

And, of course, it is a workplace where, if someone does slide into a crisis, they will not fear stigma or be discriminated against.

They will be supported – just as if they had a physical ailment – and enabled to stay at work or return to work as quickly as is appropriate.

But we need to make it as easy as possible to achieve these outcomes.

Four years ago, Beyond Blue launched Heads Up - a national initiative to support any Australian employer to build a mentally healthy workplace.

Heads Up is an online place where employers large and small can sign-up and access all they need to know to establish a mentally healthy workplace.

It gives every employer from any industry practical advice and tools to create mentally healthy workplaces, improve participation and productivity.

It includes our new How To Guide, a step-by-step manual on how to develop a holistic and sustainable workplace mental health strategy and action plan.

And it’s free.

But perhaps we need to go even further than this.

Perhaps employers who win government contracts should be committed to creating mentally healthy workplaces where stigma, discrimination and bullying are not tolerated.

They should have in place policies and procedures that ensure theirs is a mentally healthy workplace where everything that can be done to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees has been done.

Signing on to Heads Up is a standard clause in Beyond Blue’s supplier contracts.

To this end I would urge Disability Employment Australia to encourage your members and the employers they work with to sign up to Heads Up.

Because this isn’t just about the people you are here to serve.

It’s about you too.

Employment service providers should be leading by example to ensure your workplaces are also mentally healthy.

Costs and Benefits

If we could create a nation of mentally healthy workplaces, the benefits would be enormous.

Because the alternative is costing us dearly.

According to a KPMG report commissioned by my peak body, Mental Health Australia, Investing to Save, released just a few months ago, mental ill-health costs the Australian economy almost $60 billion a year in direct and indirect costs, including lost productivity and job turnover.

That’s more than four per cent of Australia’s GDP.

Mental health conditions are the leading cause of our national, non-fatal disease burden – with anxiety and depression, alcohol abuse and personality disorders accounting for almost three-quarters of this toll.

The cost of excluding people with disabilities from the workforce is enormous:

•             Young people with a disability aged 16 are twice as likely not to be in any form
              of education, employment or training (NEET) as their peers. (1)

•             By the age of 26, young people with a disability are more than three times as
              likely as other young people to agree with the statement “whatever I do has no
              real effect on what happens to me”. (2)

•             Forty-nine per cent of people with a disability of working age in Britain do not
              work and are at considerable risk of living in poverty, with severe consequences
              for their families and children. (3)

But as Stephanie Foster, Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Public Service Commission puts it: “the statistics, the economics, don't tell the story that matters most.

“What shapes mentally healthy—or unhealthy—workplaces are the experiences of every individual who has lived with a mental health condition, or cared for, or loved, or lost, someone with a mental health condition.”

By listening to, genuinely involving and truly engaging people with personal experience of mental ill health, we can build a deeper understanding of the environments that we want to – and need to – create...of the workforces, we need to build and of the opportunities we must develop.

We need to find more work, better work and new kinds of jobs that make the most of people’s skills.

Peer Workforce

Jobs like peer work, which I don’t think we have really opened our minds to and thought more creatively about in different industries.

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about an important new book: Peer Work in Australia - a new future for mental health.

It is about the powerful and deeply meaningful work that peer workers undertake, including being a vital component of a multifaceted team and being agents of culture change.

The book has been written and produced by a collaboration of 29 leading mental health ‘lived experience’ peer workers, advocates and allies from across Australia including the incomparable Janet Meagher A.M.

Janet was an inaugural National Mental Health Commissioner, past secretary of the World Federation for Mental Health and a founding member and patron of several mental health consumer organisations.  She has lived with schizophrenia since the early 1970s.

She is one of the smartest, most thoughtful, compassionate and fierce people I know.

I would give her a job in a heartbeat, but she would only chuckle at me.

And then run rings around me.

It is only fitting that this book is the first in the world to articulate the need for further development of more specialised elements of peer work practice.

After all, in the early days, peer work practice was a uniquely Australian response to need.

It evolved from a disruptive consumer-led movement – Janet was one of them – of the late 1980's that recognised the power of empathy – the unique way people with personal experience of mental illness support others facing similar challenges.

Peer workers use their lived experiences purposefully to help others find their own paths to recovery, self-agency, self-advocacy.

To their strengths, capabilities and possibilities.

And they use their professional experience in ways that no other profession can replicate. Their work bridges the gap between people accessing services and those who treat and support them. 

After years of us not keeping pace with other countries, Australia has seen phenomenal growth in the peer workforce over the past five years.

But it is time to see those unique skills rewarded with positions above the baseline, with movement into management level.

We need to see peer workers employed more broadly than the mental health services sector but also other sectors.

And we need employers to recognise the value of lived experience in creating mentally healthy workplaces and its contribution to them becoming employers of choice.

There is so much more that could and should be done to engage and unleash this powerful workforce.

Those of us here today are uniquely positioned to help change this.

I cannot think of a better sector than yours to lead by example.

Details of how to buy your copy of Peer Work in Australia - a new future for mental health will be available on the Mental Health Australia website following its launch on September 12.

Diversity and leadership

The 2013 Deloitte report Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? found that employees are twice as likely to feel engaged at work when their workplace is more diverse. 

It spells out that engaged employees are twice as likely to stick with their employer, advocate for their organisation and be prepared to “go the extra mile”.

This is important because replacing one skilled employee is estimated to cost 75 per cent of that person’s annual salary.

A mentally healthy workplace was found to be second only to salary in what matters most to employees surveyed by Beyond Blue in 2014.

And this is certainly true of the future workforce. 

We know that millennials are looking for employers and roles that align with their personal values. 

Achieving this kind of work environment takes leaders who are prepared to lead by example and talk openly about mental health and preventing suicide.

What you say matters as well as what you do.

I say this because Beyond Blue asks leaders to be true to themselves.

To be authentic and to ask for help when they needed it.

And in the interests of full disclosure, it’s time I shared a little of my own story with you.

[Work was the thing that kept me focused. If it can happen to me as CEO of Beyond Blue don’t think it can’t happen to you.]

It’s ‘both and’…

Imagine what we could achieve if we moved away from thinking of the one in five of our work colleagues with mental health conditions as different or separate.

It shouldn’t be that hard given we all have a 50/50 chance of experiencing a mental health challenge at some point in our lives.

As Sarah says:

There is the culture of fear around mental health diagnosis. Around somebody having a label.

We think it means they are incompetent. We think that it means they are dangerous. We think that it means they are unskilled or that they are unsafe.

Workplaces need to think differently about people with mental health problems. They are losing out and we are losing out.

We tend to think it is an ‘either or’ deal.

You create a workplace that is highly profitable, or you go the social responsibility route and you look after all the vulnerable people.


Research doesn’t back that.

You invest in your workplace.

You look after your people. They look after you.

It is not an ‘either or’.

It’s a ‘both and’.

So, my message to you is:

Put your own oxygen mask on first; think about how mentally healthy your workplace is and take steps to change it or improve it.

Then take a step back and think about how we conceive psychosocial disability.

The fault line is attitudinal. The temptation to homogenize psychosocial disability is very strong.

But there is a lot of difference, a lot of variance, between individuals.

It’s time to change the conversation from deficit to one that says these people are quite amazing.

We have a choice—let's make it the right one.

You never know.

There might just be a Sarah K Reece waiting to enter from stage left…



1. The Equalities Review (2006) “Interim Report”

2. Burchardt (2005) ‘The education and employment of disabled young people: frustrated ambition’ (JRF)

3. Lyon, N., Barnes, M. and Sweiry, D. (2006) ‘Families with Children in Britain: Findings from the 2004 Families and Children Study’, Department for Work and Pensions Research Report 340.