The Elephant in the Boardroom Executive Summary

Elephant Report Featured
34% of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86% of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the price. What can be done about this?

This report aims to provide insights and recommendations to address the greatest hidden productivity crisis affecting Australian workplaces today: employee absenteeism and presenteeism caused by depression and stress disorders. In compiling this report, we’ve gone straight to the source, asking affected workers what they feel should be in place to help them cope better at work.

The full report can be downloaded HERE >>

Over 70% of change efforts fail to reach stated objectives, because employee health is inadequately planned for. This often manifests in harmful stress, an epidemic which now costs the Australian economy at least $11.6 billion per year. Research estimates that 12% of employees rate their stress extreme (8, 9, or 10 on a 10 point scale).

Mental stress claims overload the workers’ compensation systems of each state, totalling 33% of payouts nationwide, of which 33% relate to work pressure and 22% to harassment or workplace bullying. Comcare’s average mental stress claim costs $250,000. This is just the tip of the iceberg; in 2010, 70% of employees who reported experiencing work-related stress had not applied for worker’s compensation.

Many excellent reports take an academic approach to identifying the problem and proposing broad, systems-based solutions. Unfortunately, practical next steps are noticeable by their absence in some of these reports.

Key findings of research

Our research highlights the complications that can stem from having a mental, as opposed to physical, illness. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is that 86% of people with a mood disorder would rather suffer in silence than discuss their condition with work colleagues. Many fear that disclosing a mental illness will lead to workplace exclusion and compromised career prospects, and with 83% of respondents reporting experiencing stigma in some form as a result of their mood disorder, this fear is not without merit.

When survey respondents were asked what would make the biggest difference from a work policy and attitude perspective, the responses were:

  • 89% thought mental health disorders should be treated equally to physical illnesses;
  • 87% said that income protection and life insurance policies should not discriminate against mental illness;
  • 79% responded that organisations should have an employee rights policy which ensures performance is judged objectively and discrimination is prohibited;
  • 74% felt that workplaces should provide an integrated mental health and physical wellness program; and
  • 74% suggested that there should be better information available to them from the organisation’s intranet.


What helps most in prevention and recovery?

There are four main ways to help someone struggling with depression, known as C.A.R.E.:

  • Compassion – or emotional support. When a supervisor or someone at work cares about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity
  • Access experts – the biggest regret of both those with depression and their carers was that they didn’t seek an accurate professional diagnosis and treatment plan earlier. Finding a mental health savvy GP can be difficult, but is key to navigating the mental health system and getting the right treatment and support.
  • Revitalising work – clearly seen by respondents as an important component of recovery and wellbeing.
  • Exercise – borne out by mounting clinical evidence that exercise contributes significantly to recovery.
Key recommendations
  • Teach managers and team members how to ask “are you OK?”: 51% of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress isspeaking to someone at work”. This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask “are you OK?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. In contrast, a resource which many employers rely on to provide assistance to workers with stress, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), was judged effective by only 8% of respondents.
  • Provide practical and anonymous resources: with 86% of respondents unwilling to discuss their condition with workmates there is clear need for anonymous or private access to C.A.R.E. information and resources. Whether available via an organisation’s intranet or downloadable in the form of a smart phone app, these resources must be both practical and evidence-based. To accommodate different learning styles, multimedia delivery would be optimal.
  • Form a panel of mental health savvy GPs: the acknowledged benefit of an early and professional diagnosis presents a strong case for organisations to help employees quickly and easily access mental health savvy GPs. A mental health professional panel could provide expert assistance to employees when required.
  • Offer a physical and mental wellbeing program: employees with a positive mood are 31% more productive, sell 37% more, and are 300% more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from an integrated program that builds employee physical and mental wellbeing is almost self-evident, especially in light of exercise being judged so important for recovery.
  • Understand employee work strengths: work is an essential element of wellbeing. Tom Rath’s (Gallup, Inc) book Strengths Based Leadership finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600% more likely to be engaged at work, and 300% more likely to be satisfied with their lives. Martin Seligman in his book Flourish provides numerous case studies highlighting how recovery from mental illness can be enhanced by coaching people using their strengths.
  • Addressing discrimination in insurance: those with a history of mental illness may experience difficulties in obtaining various forms of insurance. Discriminatory practices may include either refusal of insurance at the point of entry or denial of claims on the grounds of non-disclosure of a previous mental illness. Since 2002, beyondblue and the Mental Health Council of Australia have collaborated to address these discriminatory practices and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Although this is a complex area, the findings of this research confirm the value in persisting with reform efforts.

The rise of absenteeism and presenteeism through mental stress-based claims continues as much of Australia’s business community fails to acknowledge the issue at all, let alone implement effective strategies to deal with it. Head-in-the-sand management is clearly not working. The surprising and raw first-hand feedback from afflicted employees offers a compelling case for relatively simple and inexpensive solutions which could be implemented by organisations and potentially make a big difference. We ignore this elephant in the boardroom at our peril.

Graeme Cowan is an author and speaker who helps people build resilience and mental fitness, to thrive through change.

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