Over the last few years, we’ve seen a huge surge in awareness around the importance of protecting our mental health.

Campaigns such as R U OK? Day – held in September – aim to spark frank conversations and push the issue of suicide prevention into the national spotlight. Many councils choose to take part in the initiative and host related events and workshops in their communities.

Further to this, many local governments are examining their own practices and pushing for deeper cultural changes within their own organisations.

Our ‘focus’ this month is Training and Professional Development and it is heartening to see a strong thread running through the stories is the importance of mental health and wellbeing for council staff.

Mental health in the workplace is a complicated, but practically universal, issue. It is estimated one in five Australians experience a mental health issue each year and this has big implications for business. Beyond Blue-commissioned research found that mental health conditions result in 1.1 million days of absenteeism annually in Australia, and cost companies $11 billion. (Another story is ‘presenteeism’, in which employees are at work, but unable to properly perform their job.)

Victoria’s Worksafe Annual Report – published in September – shows an uptick in claims of ‘mental injuries’ in workplaces. According to the report: “Mental wellbeing in the workplace is an increasingly challenging area for employers.” It found 45 per cent of employees aren’t back at work within six months after they have made a mental health-related claim.

Worksafe has indicated it will announce a program to help employers tackle mental health issues later this year. In Western Australia, the State Government recently announced a $500,000 partnership with University of Western Australia to fund improved mental health programs in workplaces across the state.

Councils featured in this edition have implemented a vast range of programs that work towards a healthier culture, including: walking plans, exercise classes, and health check ups.

National Mental Health Commissioner Lucinda Brogden has warned organisations to also not ignore the harder stuff when it comes to ensuring a healthy workplace. She told a finance conference earlier this year: “We try to jump to the positive – introducing the yoga, the fruit bowl, the staff party – but you have to work on reducing the negative before you can introduce the positive.”

She said tackling a negative, psychologically unhealthy culture is equally as important as introducing positive programs, and added: “Every dollar invested in making our workplaces mentally healthy and free from psychological risk yields, on average, a $2.30 return.”
Addressing mental health in a meaningful and long-lasting way may not be easy, but the benefits – for staff and organisations – are priceless.