Beyond Blue Chair Julia Gillard delivers WorkSafe Victoria Health and Safety Month keynote address

31 October 2018

Julia Gillard

31 October 2018



I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and, in a spirit of reconciliation, pay my respect to their Elders – past and present.


Thank you, Cameron [Ling] for the warm introduction and thanks to WorkSafe Victoria and especially its Chief Executive Clare Amies for the opportunity to be here.

I want to start by sharing with you my first memories of an occupational health and safety issue. It was during my uni days, when during a hot Adelaide summer, I worked in a food van at Memorial Drive during the tennis.

Day after day in scorching heat, I was frying chips and Chiko rolls and grilling steak sandwiches in a caravan.

As I think I’ve proved during my political career, I am not really someone who sweats much. But in the van, my hair and uniform were drenched within minutes of starting my shift.

I distinctly remember one of my 15-minute breaks – I would get a few of them each day during a 12-hour shift.  I was delighted to have a little bit of time to sit in the stands and watch the tennis.  I remember thinking to myself, “oh, it’s nice and cool out here”.

Then I looked at the scoreboard, and saw it was 37 degrees.

During all this work and heat, the Occupational Health and Safety standards consisted of the boss coming around every four hours to give me two salt tablets to take to keep me from fainting and from falling into the chip fat or onto the grill.

Workplace safety standards have certainly changed since then, and for the better.

Identifying and removing hazards to physical safety in workplaces has become the norm.

It has taken many years to get to this point, but research shows the efforts have not been in vain.

Between 2003 and 2016, work related fatalities dropped considerably.

In 2003, workplace deaths numbered 259, reaching a peak of 310 in 2007.

By 2016, work-related deaths had dropped to 182.

But any death is one too many.  Every death is a tragedy and the ripple effect across families, friends and work colleagues means many more are left emotionally injured and traumatised.

So I give you the following number, not to diminish how much more we have to do to keep workers physically safe, but to give you a sense of the enormity of the challenge in keeping people mentally healthy.

In 2017, 3,128 people took their own lives in Australia – the highest recorded rate in the past decade.  

Over seventeen times more than fatalities at work.

So today, I want to talk to you about what you can do in your workplace to:

  • Prevent suicide;
  • Be a mentally healthy environment; and
  • Create a culture where stigma and discrimination are no longer a barrier to people seeking support.

And now is the right time to be having this conversation because we have come a long way since the days when anxiety, depression and suicide were seen by many as resulting from personality weaknesses.

Much of the credit for that goes to Jeff Kennett and it seems particularly appropriate to pay a tribute to him given we are in Jeff’s shed.

In 2000, Jeff Kennett established Beyond Blue, to bring depression and anxiety out of the shadows.

He had to deal with considerable backlash from people who weren’t ready to accept mental health conditions were real.

But Jeff ploughed on, resolutely sure that it was the right thing to do.

All that work by Jeff, and the advocacy and efforts of so many others, means we already have the need to address mental health at the forefront of our minds.

Because we want to support the one in five employed people in Australia who will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

Because most, if not all of us here, will know someone who represents that one in five.

Because some of us might even be that one in five.

But most importantly, because that one in five is not just a number – it is a person.

Your presence here today tells me you are committed to creating workplaces that support the five in five.

By that I mean – not only supporting people before their mental health conditions progress to crisis stage, but designing jobs, implementing policies and practices, and building cultures that help everyone to thrive.

In the same way that our emphasis on physical safety has evolved and improved in workplaces over the years, we are now seeing the same momentum building towards psychological safety at work.

Beyond Blues workplace journey

Beyond Blue has focused on workplace mental health since 2004. 

At that time, Beyond Blue was one of the few organisations promoting workplace mental health, and workplaces were, on the whole, unaware of the critical importance of mental wellbeing.

In 2014, Beyond Blue launched our Heads Up initiative with the support of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance. 

Simply put, Heads Up is an initiative with an audacious goal of encouraging all workplaces around Australia to make psychological safety at work just as important as physical safety.

The initiative consists of the Heads Up website, which contains an extensive range of free resources and tools to support workplaces and individuals within workplaces to improve mental health at work. 

The website is supported by a national engagement strategy – we have a small team of Workplace Engagement Managers who travel around Australia to meet workplace stakeholders and promote our workplace mental health resources.

It is also supported by marketing activities.

When we first launched Heads Up, much of our messaging and the focus of our marketing concentrated on why mentally healthy workplaces are so important.

We made the case for business leaders to invest time and resources into creating mentally healthy workplaces by promoting the human case, the legal and compliance case, the business case, and the opportunity to be an employer of choice.

After approximately two years of focusing on ‘the why’, much of our audience asked Beyond Blue for more information.

Therefore, we now focus on how business leaders can create mentally healthy workplaces and the practical steps involved.

For some, this approach was effective, but our evaluation told us we missed an important step relevant to a large segment of our audience.

We found that 93 per cent of business leaders believed in the importance of workplace mental health, and furthermore, most thought they were addressing it effectively in their workplace.

However, their feedback on the actual actions they were taking belied this.

While believing they were addressing mental health effectively at work, our evaluation found that only 31 per cent of senior leaders exposed to the content took action to make their workplace more mentally healthy.

And only 25 per cent indicated that they were committed to developing a mental health plan or strategy. 

Workplace mental health is still a relatively new concept and it is understandable that it will take time for business leaders and organisations to get the hang of it.

For us at Beyond Blue, this meant that we'd done a good job on the ‘why’ and we'd made a start on the ‘how’, but we'd missed a critical step – the ‘what’.

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

What does it actually look like?

This led to our latest campaign, which we like to call the ‘it's more than just a fruit bowl’ campaign.

We targeted workplace leaders with information about the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace.

We sent mock job applications to real leadership positions advertised, letting employers know about the attributes of a mentally healthy workplace and reminding them to look for people who could deliver on these.

The campaign has only recently finished, and we are still awaiting full evaluation, but early results, anecdotal feedback and website visits are promising.

The reality is we need different messaging for the myriad of workplaces and varying levels of sophistication within them. 

What we have seen since the launch of Heads Up is that the focus on workplace mental health is changing – there is now a momentum building behind mentally healthy workplaces which has never been seen before. 

Let me talk you through some of the things that we have observed.

A changing landscape

At a Commonwealth level, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of workplace mental health – not as a nice to have, but as a national priority to improve participation and productivity.

Federal Health Minister, The Hon Greg Hunt, has shown a keen interest in the health and economic benefits of mentally healthy workplaces.

This interest is also very evident, of course, with the announcement this month of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the impact of mental health on the Australian economy.

While the Terms of Reference aren’t yet published, we understand it will help us identify the roles that employment, workplaces, education, justice and housing can play in reducing suicide.

State and Territory governments too are focusing on workplace mental health. 

Over the past 12 months, they have invested heavily in workplace mental health, far more so than has ever been seen. 

Victoria, with a key role played by WorkSafe, has led the way with the announcement last year of significant funding toward the WorkWell initiative. 

And there are a range of other government stakeholders on board –workplace health and safety regulators, like WorkSafe Victoria, small business commissioners, and a range of government departments taking action to support their own staff.

And business leaders are starting to heed the call across individual organisations and peak industry bodies.

We are also seeing this across commercial operators, with growing numbers of training, conference and consultancy firms offering services to businesses to enhance mental wellbeing at work.

There is ‘bottom up’ pressure as well, from a workforce with high expectations. 

In research commissioned by Beyond Blue in 2014, it was found that a mentally healthy workplace is second only to pay in what employees are looking for from their workplace. 

And this is certainly true of the workforce of the future.

We know that millennials are looking for working environments where they can bring their values to work.

Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth Survey report found that mental health is the number one issue for young Australians, in particular coping with stress. 

And we are hearing this from workplaces as well.

From professional service firms, to elite sport leagues, to small business organisations, staff want to see mental health meaningfully addressed in their workplace.

There is unprecedented support for workplace mental health action in Australia and I believe that we are on the brink of major change.

The way we are collectively thinking about workplace mental health is fundamentally changing. 

Where we once might have considered psychological safety at work in terms of how we could meet regulatory compliance, many now see it as a way to go far beyond simply staying on the right side of the law.

Where we may have previously considered workplace mental health as supporting only those who are unwell, many now recognise that mentally healthy workplaces are for everyone. 

At Beyond Blue, we think the best way of understanding mental health and its dynamics at work is to see it along a continuum. 

Because mental health is not a static state.

Our mental health changes, from one day to the next, and even every hour.

The continuum is a common language that everyone understands, and the colours green, yellow, orange and red, help people think about where they’re at on any given day.

When you’re in the green – you are flourishing. You are sleeping well, your thinking is clear, your mood is stable and you are engaged and productive at work. 

When you’re in the yellow – you may start to notice some changes. It might be more difficult to sleep, you may notice feelings of irritability and impatience and it might be more difficult to concentrate.

When you’re in the orange – you start feeling overwhelmed and doubting yourself. You may start noticing symptoms of mental health conditions such as lower mood and persistent worrying.

When you’re in the red – you’re experiencing increasing severe symptoms and difficulty coping with daily life. You may be at risk of self harm or suicidal behaviour. You’re in crisis.

Your position on that sliding scale can be influenced by:

  • Your underlying physical health.
  • What’s going on in your life: relationships, money worries.
  • And of course, factors at work.

It is now being recognised that mentally healthy workplaces are not only important for those in the ‘red zone’, but also for those in the amber zone.

Because a mentally healthy workplace is one where the individual, or their colleagues or manager, realises that something is not right and support is sought early.

A mentally healthy workplace is also one that keeps as many people as possible in the green zone.

It is an environment where people can thrive and be their best.  

This is quite different from previous messages, which spoke primarily about having compassion for co-workers who had been diagnosed as unwell.

Basically, there has been a shift from focusing on employees with mental health conditions toward the broader view of protecting the mental health of all employees and considering the opportunities workplaces have in supporting positive mental health to capitalise on employee productivity and engagement.

That means investing in wellbeing is seen as a strategic priority, with a return on investment for employers as a result of moving beyond the mere avoidance of costs associated with claims and absenteeism to operating at a level of sustainable high performance.

And the benefits are substantial.

Employees who consider their workplaces to be mentally healthy are four times less likely to take time off for mental health conditions.

Staff in mentally healthy workplaces are more engaged, more motivated and more likely to go above and beyond in their roles.

Their morale is high and they look out for each other.

They care about the business and their colleagues.

They have well designed roles, tasks are clear and there are open lines of communication.

Workloads are, on the whole, realistic and staff have the resources to do their jobs well.

Staff can operate with appropriate autonomy and are empowered to contribute to and make decisions.

They are not afraid to speak up when they are struggling, knowing this will have no bearing on how people see their capability to do their job or jeopardise their standing for a promotion.

They will be supported – whether they have a mental health condition or not – by good leaders and managers, a positive culture, great policies and processes – so they can be at their best.

And the benefits don’t end once people have finished their shifts.

Mentally healthy workplaces create positive ripples in the community.

Because our mental state at work will not only have an impact on our productivity, but also on our lives, our relationships, our thoughts.

This is not to say employees won’t face stress, challenges or pressure – this is a fact of life.

However, what is important is that staff are able to draw on coping mechanisms and supports to effectively manage any difficulties as they come along.

And there are, of course, economic benefits too.

Working together to drive real change

The Mental Health Australia and KPMG Investing to Save report released this year presented the economic case for continued mental health reform.

The report made three recommendations:

  1. To support people with mental health conditions gain and maintain employment, and to maintain the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce.
  2. Minimise avoidable emergency department presentations and hospitalisations.
  3. And invest in promotion, prevention, and early intervention.

Neither recommendation will make an impact if implemented in isolation.

As the Lancet Commission proposed earlier this month:

The agenda of global mental health should be expanded from reducing the treatment gap to reducing the global burden of mental health disorders by concurrently addressing the prevention and quality gaps, and extending the scope of treatment to include social care.

We must tackle mental health conditions from every conceivable angle.

We must support workers in their place of employment and ensure people who live with a mental health condition have equitable access to jobs.

We need early intervention strategies so we can reduce the burden on our health system.

And we need to continue talking about mental health, break down stigma and create environments where people feel safe to seek support. 

All three recommendations must work in unison if we are to achieve real positive change.

We must include every facet of society – governments, the mental health sector, workplaces, education settings, health and emergency services, and the public.

And we must stay the course, even if at times that seems hard and overwhelming.

Where to from here?

There is no doubt, that the increased focus on workplace mental health has had an unintended consequence for employers. 

The plethora of information now available has left some employers confused about which information to follow, which conference to attend, which model to apply.

There is a need for a uniform framework endorsed by government, regulators, business, unions and the mental health sector that provides consistent, simple, trusted advice and implementation support to every Australian workplace. 

Working on a getting that done is now the priority of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance of which Beyond Blue is a part.

That framework, called the National Workplace Initiative, will detail what works and provide clear, step-by-step processes for taking action and hands-on implementation support.

The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance will seek input from many stakeholders about the National Workplace Initiative.

So when your turn comes to contribute, make the most of it.

Have your say.

Make the initiative as robust as can be.  And do so with vigour and vision.

The history of improvement of physical occupational health and safety teaches us that significant positive change can occur when governments, businesses, unions, workplace safety regulators, and the community work together for a common purpose.

That means in mental health, that only by collaboration and learning from each other, can we ride this current wave and transform workplaces for the better.


I started my contribution today with my story about a hot caravan, chips, Chiko rolls, steak sandwiches and salt tablets.

A tale about how rudimentary standards for physical safety were when I was a uni student.

But imagine if more than 30 years ago we had said ‘let’s start talking about mental health at work’. 

That would have been viewed as ridiculous. Or even scandalous.

No one wanted to talk about mental health back then.

Things like depression, anxiety, bipolar and schizophrenia were never spoken about openly. 

Any conversations were held in hushed tones behind closed doors. 

I remember all that silence all too clearly. 

My father was a psychiatric nurse and for the early part of his career the dominant ethos was to shut the mentally ill away behind big walls and locked gates.  Out of sight, out of mind and certainly not part of the conversation.

A meeting on mental health at work would have been lucky to fill a phone booth.

But look where we are now, in a room full of people eager to have and continue the conversation.

And even more importantly, I hope, wanting to drive for change.

I know that in urging you to better address mental health at work that I am asking a great deal.

The dimensions of the task are big.

45 per cent of us will experience a mental health condition in our lifetime. 

And still today, less than half of us are not seeking support early enough.

Eight Australians take their own lives every single day. 

For everyone who loses their life to suicide, there are another 30 who attempt. 

That is approximately 240 people every single day who feel desperate enough to try and take their own lives. 

These numbers are shocking, a national crisis, and we need to do all that we can to change them.

But the upside of improving mental health at work is enormous too.

Workplaces can play an incredible role in reducing these disturbing statistics.

There was a time when improving physical occupational health and safety would have seemed an insurmountable challenge. 

When people would have shrugged their shoulders and said ‘what can you do? Lots of jobs are inherently dangerous’.

But look how far we have come in reducing workplace deaths and injuries.

And we did that because people decided not to accept the status quo and to find the best evidence of what works to keep people physically safe.

Now we have another opportunity to make a profound difference in the lives of workers – once again, by deciding not to accept the status quo, getting the best of evidence and then using it to create workplaces that support everyone’s mental health.

Let’s grab this opportunity and make the most of it together.

Thank you.