Summit targets mental illness in NSW workplaces

The NSW government is planning a sweeping new strategy to combat mental illness in workplaces across the state.

Peak mental health experts, and representatives from SafeWork NSW, unions and organisations including Uber, Google, Westpac, NSW Ambulance and the Department of Education will attend a two-day summit to design a blueprint for creating mentally healthy workplaces.

A discussion paper released on Friday proposed overhauling potentially discriminatory "risk-based approaches" that some businesses use to deal with mental illness, replacing them with proactive interventions aimed at preventing or mitigating mental health problems.

Employers would be benchmarked against a range of targets to monitor how well they address problems and make improvements.

SafeWork NSW will also push for national legislative and policy reforms to strengthen employers' obligations to creating mentally healthy workplaces.

"At any one time, one in six people of working age suffer from mental illness across Australia, which equates to 800,000 people in NSW, so this is a huge issue," said the Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean, announcing the summit on Friday with Mental Health Minister Tanya Davies.

Mental illness is now the leading cause of long-term sickness absences among Australian workers, overtaking back pain for the first time internationally as the most common cause of work incapacity.

A person with a severe mental health condition can have up to 42 days off work, in addition to normal sick leave, costing the state economy an estimated $1.5 billion a year, according to a 2014 PwC report.

The discussion paper warned that businesses adopting a risk-based approach to mental health might trigger "unintended consequences, such as tacit encouragement of recruitment screening, exiting workers who are experiencing mental ill-health and therefore increasing discrimination".

"Mental illness does not discriminate and can touch the lives of people anywhere, which is why prevention and early intervention strategies are key, and the workplace should not be an exception," Mrs Davies said.

Head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Program at the Black Dog Institute Associate Professor Sam Harvey said any strategy had to leverage the beneficial aspects a workplace can have in employees' mental health, as well as addressing the harms they can cause.

"Workplaces often respond to mental health problems once they occur, but increasingly there is a role for workplaces to prevent people from becoming unwell," Professor Harvey, a contributor to the discussion paper, said.

"We know certain types of work conditions increase the rate of mental health problems: workers who have insufficient control over their work situation, job insecurity and bullying and harassment. We need to try and reduce those problems," he said.

"But a workplace can also be part of an individual's recovery rather than something they lose when they are unwell."

The contributors proposed implementing a three- to five-year work program, training and resourcing including an online portal with tailored resources, tools and access to mentoring to help organisations creatementally healthy workplaces.

Professor Harvey said the strategy had to include measurable targets for businesses.

"What we want is for workplaces of NSW to be enhancing the mental health of people who work there and see where they need to improve," he said.

The Sydney Summit: Mentally Healthy Workplaces in NSW will be held on November 8 and 9. The government is aiming to roll out the strategy the first half of 2018.

Significant additional funding will be allocated to the strategy through the better regulation portfolio.

The exact amount will be determined once it has been fully developed.

The story Summit targets mental illness in NSW workplaces first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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