Mental Health Return to Work

Return to Work Outcomes for Mental Health Lagging?

Mental health statistics are climbing. 

In 2007, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimated that 1 in 5 Australian adults had experienced symptoms of a mental disorder in the year prior to the survey. They suggested that nearly half (46%) of Australian adults will experience a mental health disorder throughout their lifetime (1).

Staggering numbers, even back in 2007. Especially since, according to the World Health Organisation, mental health conditions have risen by 13% between the years of 2007 and 2017 (2). And if we consider the more recent years, it’s no surprise that Covid19 has pushed anxiety and depression rates up even higher still, as shown in this Australian sample (3).

The good news is that awareness is also increasing, and mental health conditions are on the radar now as a public health concern that desperately needs addressing. The silence has been broken. Resources and support for those with mental health conditions are more readily available than ever, and the stigma around mental health is on its way out. 

Change is already in place, which is great. But there are still some areas where mental health treatment lags behind other health conditions. And working in the compensable schemes space, we are often exposed to this first hand. 

We know how important work is for well being. Last week’s blog touched on the concept of work even being considered as a form of therapy! But unfortunately, the workplace response to mental health conditions still appears to be lacking compared to other health conditions. 


Stats, Stats and More Stats…

The following information is taken from the 2018 National Return to Work Survey (NRTWS) (4). 4,602 Australians receiving workers compensation were interviewed by telephone. Their condition was categorised as: Fractures, Musculoskeletal Disorders, Other Trauma, Mental Illness, or Other Diseases. 

Notable differences can be seen in the mental health cohort compared to the other cohorts. These first 3 statistics demonstrate the differences in perception of workplace reactions* for mental health conditions compared to all other conditions (Table 5 and 6).

  1. 72.4% of mental health respondents reported thinking that they would be treated differently by people at work when putting in a workers’ compensation claim, compared to the average of 32.2%.
  2. 46.4% of mental health claimants felt that their supervisor thought they were exaggerating or faking their injury/illness, compared to the average of 22%. 
  3. 38.8% were concerned they would be fired for submitting a claim, compared to the average of 21.5%.

Return to work mental health

In terms of their employer’s support (Table 8):

  1. Only 28.4% of the mental illness sub-group agreed with the statement: ‘your employer helped you with your recovery.’ The average for all conditions was 65.1%.
  2. 37.5% agreed that their employer made an effort to find suitable employment for them, compared to 71.3% on average.
  3. Only 42% felt that they were treated fairly during the claims process, compared to 79.1% on average.

* It must be acknowledged that these subjective and opinion-based questions will of course be influenced by the mindset and thought patterns of the individual answering them. These negative responses may therefore be influenced by negative thought patterns consistent with mental health conditions. 


In terms of communication:

Only 42% of those who experienced mental illness were contacted by their supervisor about recovering from their work-related injury or illness, compared to an average of 62.7%.


What does this all mean?

These statistics show that the workplace response to mental health conditions is lagging behind compared to other conditions. And it suggests that the support provided is insufficient to meet the needs of many individuals who have taken time off work due to their mental health condition.

This may be due to:

  • Lack of education in the workplace regarding how to deal with mental health conditions, 
  • Potential for avoidance of difficult, personal, (and possibly emotional) conversations,
  • Judgement and old fashioned views around mental health conditions (i.e. “just harden up”, “you shouldn’t let your personal challenges impact on your work” etc),
  • Lack of awareness or disregard for the extent of disability that mental health conditions can create. 

It’s clear that there is room for improvement!


Moving Forward for a Brighter Future

A different, more supportive, more empathetic approach may be needed when dealing with mental health conditions in the workplace. If this support can not be generated from within the workplace, then utilising someone with experience working with mental health is valuable to facilitate communication between the individual and their employer. When we are working with mental health clients who are experiencing challenges with returning to work, this is when we bring in the help of our Rehab Provider friends!

We know how important work is for psychological health. Being able to achieve sustainable return to work outcomes for all is key to promoting a productive and healthy workforce. 



Author: Yolanda van Vugt 
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health


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