Transcript of Georgie Harman’s address at the 2018 Executive Business Luncheon


Tuesday 1st May 2018 
12 noon to 2pm
National Press Club of Australia

Official Transcript
Georgie Harman
CEO beyondblue




Mental health in the workplace is everyone’s business

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet – the
Ngunnawal people – and in a spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge
Elders, past and present.

I love the simplicity and ballsiness of AFFIRM’s mission statement –

To understand mental illness and find ways to beat it.

It’s resonant with beyondblue’s DNA: how we work.

Today I want to tell you a little about how we’re translating the kind of
evidence that AFFIRM is uncovering into practical advice, resources and
services for people and families.

And I want to talk a little about why creating a mentally health workplace
is an essential 21st-century skill and a key to individual and
organisational success.

A friend asked me the other day how I remain optimistic and upbeat when I
spend so much time surrounded by depression, anxiety and suicide?

Fair question.

But the answer is easy.

I love my job.

And because I love what I do, I can see beyond the tough days and the

I know if I make a mistake I’ll learn a lesson, pick myself up and have
another go.

I can do what I do because I have fantastic people around me – from our
Board, staff and volunteers to the heart and brains trust of beyondblue: BlueVoices – people who have a lived experience of
depression, anxiety and suicide.

I’m constantly encouraged by new ideas …

  • by people defying stigma and speaking out about their experiences to
    inspire others to think and take action
  • by technological advances that make it easier for people to connect
    with peers and access professional support where and when they need it
  • by people who climb Mount Kosciusko in their undies or who do a whip
    around at a work morning tea and raise the money that means beyondblue’s counsellors are available 24/7 on our digital and
    phone Support Services.

And like everybody else at beyondblue I work there not just
because it pays the bills.

But that doesn’t make us unique.

It is true of most workplaces.

Work doesn’t just give us an income.

When we work, we create. We build stuff, fix things, solve problems,
imagine, invent and implement.

We co-operate.

We collaborate.

We contribute.

It gives structure to our days, a sense of purpose and opportunities for
social interaction.

Good work and mentally healthy workplaces protect, and even improve, our
mental health and well-being.

That’s important because one in five Australian employees is likely to
experience a mental health issue every year.

And almost half of us will experience a mental health issue in our

Think about that: That’s either you or the person sitting next to you.

About beyondblue

was set up by the irrepressible Jeff Kennett in 2000.

It was a start-up with nine staff and a single purpose: to raise awareness
about depression.

Our remit now includes anxiety conditions and suicide prevention.

Today beyondblue is named as the third most reputable charity in

We were the top ranked not-for-profit in the 2017 Australian Financial Review’s list of this country’s most
innovative companies.

And there were over 8.5 visits to our website last financial year.

We are often the first port of call for people making their first,
tentative steps toward recognition, referral and recovery.

Today we continue our core work of stigma reduction and awareness-raising.

But today, the people we are here to serve are expecting more and different
things of us.

We need to find new ways to not just help people recover from and live as
well as possible with mental illness, but modernise health and community
care systems.

We do this through behaviour change –

  • whether that is systemic and policy-driven
  • or in settings like workplaces, schools and online
  • or at an individual level from prevention, early intervention or
    support at the worst time in people’s lives.

But perhaps our biggest transformation has been in developing rigorously
researched and evaluated new service models that challenge the status quo.

We identify a need, attract funding from non-government sources, and design
and pilot new services.

Once we have the evidence they work, we advocate to have them scaled up,
commissioned by governments and embedded into the system.

And then we deliberately exit.

So that we can move to the next area of profound need.

For instance,

In our NewAccess program, trained coaches – with oversight by clinicians –
provide early intervention support for people with the emerging signs and
symptoms of anxiety and depression.

An independent evaluation found NewAccess:

  • is clinically successful and economically viable: with a 67.5 per
    cent recovery rate
  • appeals to Australians and overcomes stigma – it’s free, it requires
    no medical referral, sessions are delivered face-to-face or over the
    phone, there is no labelling and practical exercises have great appeal.

The model is now being commissioned by primary health networks and is
available in regions populated by six million Australians.

But we still have our work cut out for us:

  • One million Australian adults a year struggle with depression.
  • Double that number are hit by debilitating levels of anxiety.
  • But 37 per cent of people who sought professional help for an anxiety
    condition had been experiencing symptoms for over a year.
  • Almost one in five waited longer than six years.
  • Untreated depression is one of the most significant risk factors for
  • In 2016, 2,866 Australians killed themselves.

That’s eight deaths today, tomorrow and every day.

And about 200 suicide attempts.

Every day.

The greatest predictor of a suicide death is a previous attempt.

That’s why beyondblue is so determined to see another one of our
action research projects – The Way Back Support Service – available to
every person discharged from hospital after a suicide attempt.

Working alongside them in the community, our support workers literally help
people find their way back to living.

We focus on the three months following a suicide attempt when people are at
most risk of another attempt.

We link people to treatment, and help them make and stick to a suicide
safety plan.

We help them to identify and resolve the things in their lives that
contributed to the suicide attempt – job stress or unemployment,
relationship challenges, financial crises, isolation, loneliness.

Today, The Way Back is being trailed at six sites – with more coming online
– and has supported more than 1,600 people.

We know all Australian governments are deeply concerned about the suicide

But this issue is bigger than any one government or mental health
organisation and it does not have a single solution.

It starts – and ends – with each of us.

Even in our working hours.

Mental health in business

Because in business – as in life – the numbers are too big to ignore.

And poor mental health has a profound economic impact for regional and
national economies.

Just this morning, Fairfax reported that mental ill-health costs the
Australian economy almost $60 billion a year.

KPMG – commissioned by Mental Health Australia – estimate that realistic
improvements in mental ill-health rates could improve workforce
participation rates by 30 per cent.

The report – Investing to Save – also estimated the cost of mental
ill-health to workplaces at:

$12.8 billion in 2015/16…

➢ with $9.9 billion of that attributed to presenteeism.
Turning up to work but not being productive.

The way we manage mental health in the workplace is vital at a
macroeconomic level, but is also imperative for every organisation, because
ignoring it comes off the bottom line.

Not only that, employees are now factoring company reputation, inclusion,
flexibility and culture into their choices.

Across Australia and across industries, engagement surveys show mental
health is top of mind for the current and future workforce.

  • A mentally healthy workplace is second only to salary in what matters
    most to employees.
  • Around 90 per cent of employees believe that mental health is an
    important issue for business yet only 50 per cent say their workplace
    fits that bill.
  • Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth survey found mental health was the
    number one concern nominated by young Australians.

The good news is that every dollar of investment in mentally healthy
strategies at work yields an average return of $2.30.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is no different to other business
improvement projects – it requires leadership, adequate resourcing, a
comprehensive strategy and an action plan.

It means minimising harm, promoting protective factors and having positive

In 2014 beyondblue launched, a one-stop shop for
employers, staff and managers looking for a new approach to mental health
at work.

It’s free and gives ‘how to’ advice and tools to improve participation and

Since launching Heads Up we’ve seen a seminal shift.

Today many businesses understand why it is important to establish and
maintain good mental health and wellbeing practices.

In fact, advising business on culture change has become an industry in

But we’ve found that many workplaces focus largely on supporting people
with existing mental health conditions.

Of course, this is essential.

But it is so much more.

A mentally healthy workplace is one that prevents illness and protects
mental health.

It addresses known risks such as such sustained heavy workloads,
unrealistic deadlines, poor communication and job design, and uncertainty
about roles.

It is a workplace that also encourages collaboration; promotes self-care.

It fosters an anti-bullying culture and stares down stigma.

Essentially, it enables everyone to achieve their best possible mental

And that requires, strong, committed leadership.

While it’s important to continue to raise awareness, and persuade employers
to take action, beyondblue’s emphasis has shifted to helping
organisations implement practical and cultural change.

We have adopted an industry approach to health services, and police and
emergency services agencies, and support other sectors.

Later this year you’ll see the results of some of that work when we release
findings from a mental health survey of 21,000 Police and Emergency
Services personnel.

This work is ground-breaking – in fact, world leading – for its depth and

And, crucially, we are turning our focus on small business.

Over 40 per cent of employed Australians work for small businesses, and
face a unique set of risks to their mental health.

In consultation with small business owners we have already adapted Heads

As I speak, we’re consulting with key small business intermediaries to
determine the most effective way to reach small business.

And what is already apparent is the lack of research evidence about the
mental health of our small business community.

That’s why beyondblue will conduct a secondary analysis on the
data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey –
HILDA – to determine the prevalence of and factors contributing to
psychological distress among small business owners and their employees, and
how this compares to medium and large businesses.

And we’ll share and use these insights to identify best-practice approaches
to engage and support small businesses.

What is mental health?

All that said, understanding what mental health at work looks like can be
tricky if you don’t know where to start.

People often ask me what mental health and mental illness looks like. And I
say it looks like people just like us.

It’s our families, our friends, our colleagues, our footie teams, our

The World Health Organization, defines mental health as

“a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her
own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work
productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to the

Not one of us would argue with that.

Confusingly though, ‘mental health’ is often used as a substitute for
‘mental health conditions’ – such as clinical depression or anxiety.

One way to explain the difference is to accept that our mental health is
not fixed or static.

During our lives, we move back and forth along a continuum in response to
life stressors and experiences.

If we think about a sliding scale – colour coded like a set of traffic
lights if you will…

At the green end people show resilience and high levels of wellbeing.

This doesn’t mean they never experience challenges to their mental health.

But they draw on a range of coping mechanisms and a supportive environment
to face difficulties as they come along.

People at this end – in the green – are likely to proactively look for ways
to develop their resilience and enhance their knowledge and self-care

It’s very common for people to experience anxiety and stress when the
pressure is on – when they’re in the amber zone.

Yet these feelings are not clinical anxiety or depression – in the red –
until they become more severe, long-lasting and interfere with daily life.

From a workplace perspective, it’s not enough to wait until people are in
the amber or red and then act.

You want to create an environment where as many staff as possible are in
the green, so that they are thriving, productive, and enjoying being at
work; fully engaged.

And you want an environment where if people move into the amber, they know
that it’s ok to put their hands up and to ask for flexibility or support.

This is where your attitudes and influence come to the fore.

Think about it – do you feel and react the same way if one employee or
colleague has depression and another cancer?

The brain is just an organ. It may be the most complicated organ in the
body, but it is still just a mass of biological matter that is susceptible
to disease just like a liver or a lung.

People don’t discuss the way they’re feeling at home or work … or go to the
doctor … if they think they will be judged by others to be not capable of
coping, have a flaw in their character, be thought of as a burden or be
overlooked for a promotion.

We need to let people know that asking for help is a sign of strength.

We need to all be prepared to start a simple conversation and ask

So how do you do this?

  • Let the person know if you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour or
  • Encourage them to talk about what’s going on (how they feel, what
    they’re thinking, what they’re doing differently).
  • Listen. Don’t judge. Telling them that their life is great is not
  • Help the person to find information.
  • Suggest they see a doctor or health professional and/or help them to
    make an appointment. You could offer to go with them.
  • Reassure them they are not alone and there is hope that things can
    get better.

If you think someone may be at risk of suicide:

  • Take all warning signs seriously.
  • And often the hardest of all: Talk about it and ask direct questions
    – are you thinking about suicide? Have you made a plan?
  • You can’t ‘put the idea of suicide’ in someone’s head by talking
    about it.
  • You won’t make things worse.

In fact, just knowing someone can see them and cares is often the first
step in averting a crisis and encouraging a person to reconnect and find
hope, support and advice.

Better mental health at work starts at Heads Up. I encourage you to sign up

In conclusion

All workplaces are political and to some degree, always will be.

But sometimes office politics and can eclipse workplace policies and
processes, making simple tasks complex and organisations ineffective.

Add a culture that discourages disclosure of stress and mental health
challenges, where long hours, hierarchical structures, and constant
pressing deadlines are the norm…

…and you have a petri dish of psychological distress.

The cure is to find the sweet spot between what you and your staff want and
need and what your business has to deliver.

A mentally unhealthy workplace can be a battleground between self-interest
and the need to get along for the greater good.

Collaboration and co-operation — where individuals work together for the
benefit of an entire group — may seem at odds with the competitive nature
of business.

After all, we are told, it’s a jungle out there.

But I don’t believe that.

I believe the argument for competitive energy within the workplace is
overplayed and out of date.

The truth is that we must co-operate to survive.

And most of the time we are accommodating of each other.

Co-operation and collaboration are part of nature, right down to the
cellular level.

It’s in our DNA.

We literally would not be here without it.

People are more productive at work when they are committed to their
organisation, when they have work mates they can rely on, when they have
clear boundaries and responsibilities, realistic goals and workloads.

They are more creative, suffer fewer health problems and rise to positions
of leadership more rapidly.

And so, creating a mentally healthy workforce cannot be an afterthought.

In every corner of the economy, we need to continue to stress that
maintaining good mental health and tackling mental ill health are the
bookends of a mainstream social, economic and bi-partisan political issue.

Together, working collaboratively, we can make a difference.

And that is why I love my job.

“Mental health in the workplace is everyone’s business”