Employers need to stop seeing mental illness as a barrier to employment and instead see the value in diversity, argued former prime minister Julia Gillard in a speech on diversity and mental health on Thursday.
“While some are locked out of meaningful employment, the vast majority of these people work. They value work. They are highly productive,” said Gillard, delivering the Diversity Council Australia’s Anna McPhee Memorial Oration on Diversity & Inclusion.
“Yes, they may need flexibility, reasonable adjustments, time off from time to time. But who doesn’t? And too often, all employers see is a diagnosis, not the value of the richness of experience these people bring. Too often employers view mental health in the workplace through the lens of deficit and risk.”
Indeed, even disclosing mental illness to an employer can be “career ending”, she noted.
Gillard, who is now chair of charity Beyondblue, emphasised that mental illness touches a huge number of Australians.
“The one in five working Australians affected at any given time by mental health challenges. The one-in-two of us who will experience poor mental health at some point in our lifetime.
“The one million Australian adults living today with depression. The two million with an anxiety condition.
“The more than 200 who, every day, feel so desperate they attempt to end their own lives.
“The eight a day who die by suicide. A terrible figure that is more than twice the national road toll.”
Gillard spoke about Sarah, a young South Australian woman.
“Sarah knows that if she discloses her mental health diagnosis in a job application or interview and she is competing against an equally qualified person with no history of mental illness, she won’t get the job,” Gillard explained.
“And that, she argues, is a lost opportunity.”
She quoted Sarah on the value that people who have faced poor mental health can bring:
“Somebody like me who has come through a tremendous amount of adversity, who has come out the other side with my intelligence and my humanity intact, has a massive number of skills.
“They might be difficult to write up in a resume, but when you can get yourself through things like feeling chronically suicidal — with the challenges of the services the way they are — if you are still standing on the other side of that, you have some amazing skills to contribute.
“We tend to think that people with mental health problems have a whole bunch of characteristics. We create these misconceptions that they are disorganised, unreliable, flaky, not very skilled, not very educated.
“… Quite a lot of the stigma we have around mental illness is [drawn from the] characteristics of people who have not been treated very well.
“They are characteristics of people who have been long-term unemployed. They are characteristics of people who are not used to being treated as if they have worth.
“We have created that problem and we need to be the people who solve it.”
If we could create mentally healthy workplaces free of such stigma, “the benefits would be enormous”, Gillard continued. “Work can be incredibly good — or incredibly bad — for our mental health.”
And Australian employers aren’t doing as well as they think they are.
“Three years ago, Beyondblue surveyed more than a thousand employees from all kinds of workplaces, sectors and industries across Australia,” she said.
“We found 71% of CEOs and senior leaders believed they were committed to promoting the mental health of their staff. But only 37% of their staff agreed.”
Beyondblue’s Heads Up initiative aims to help both employers and staff navigate the vast and sometimes dubious wellness sector by providing a guide to the resources and tools that are useful.
More open and accepting cultures can help build healthier workplaces, Gillard believes.
“When it comes to mental health at work, we all have good days and bad days and occasions when we need time off. Just as we would if we had a migraine or a bad case of the sniffles. It’s only natural.
“Imagine what we could achieve if we moved away from thinking of the one in five of our work colleagues with mental health conditions as different or separate.
“It shouldn’t be that hard given we all have a 50/50 chance of experiencing a mental health challenge at some point in our lives.”