When Mental Illness Comes to Work

By Peter Wilson

A recent incident at a major Australian airport saw an employee of one of the infrastructure utilities suddenly leave work in a distressed state, get into his car, drive through a car park barrier and crash into a bollard. The worker then abandoned the car and ran into a security area, setting off alarms, before being apprehended by guards.

The worker later reported that he had been experiencing a psychotic attack in which he believed he had to escape evil pursuers. Later interviews of his co-workers revealed he had been acting strangely prior to the incident, but no one knew what to do about it. That situation could have ended up much worse, but it also could have been avoided altogether if employees had known how to act on their early concerns. A few hours of workplace awareness training designed to identify symptoms of anxiety and emerging psychosis could have made a difference. Dare it be said, but greater training for the Germanwings co-workers of Andreas Lubitz may have prevented what happened on Flight 4U9525 last year, when the troubled co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane into a mountain, killing all aboard.

The statistics on mental illness should be enough to make any manager sit up and take notice. In Australia, 20 percent of workers experience a mental illness each year. Three million experience moderate anxiety or a mild depressive state, and another 650,000 experience a severe episode stemming from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. A further 65,000 experience a severe psychosocial disability.

The data from Australia are comparable to that of the rest of the developed and developing world, which means there is a good chance that your workplace will experience a serious mental health episode. Over a working lifetime from age 15 to 65, about 40 percent of us will be touched by some manifestation of mental illness at work, which means all of us will share in knock-on impacts. Half of mental health conditions emerge by the age of 14, and three-quarters by 25, so mental illness is likely present from the beginning of a working life. Failing to develop a pervasive response capability simply because companies deem it to be “too hard” is no longer acceptable.

Too little attention goes into helping those who must deal with the sudden outbreak of terror in their own heads

The Australian Human Resources Institute collects evidence from focus groups on workplace health and safety, and we find that most efforts target detection and training related to physical and operational risk issues. Risks presented by employee psychological or mental conditions usually lead to a “hands off” delayed referral to an offsite employee assistance counsellor or a clinical psychologist. In fulfilling their fiduciary duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace, boards and senior executive groups risk being blinded by the physical side of work and missing its mental malfunctioning dimensions.

There has been much progress in the past decade on alerting society to mental health issues. Inroads have been made on stigma directed at anxiety, but less so with psychosis and depression. The primary response to a psychotic event in most workplaces is to call the police rather than an ambulance. That is regrettable, because many workplace incidents should be handled medically rather than through law enforcement. Well-trained co-workers and managers would be aware of this.

Most businesses are running on empty with their mental health response capabilities. Governments highlight the need to report a potential terrorist, but too little attention goes into helping those who must deal with the sudden outbreak of terror in their own heads.


Peter Wilson is chair of the Australian Human Resources Institute and Secretary-General of the World Federation of People Management Associations. A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.

Article reprinted with permission from the World Federation of People Management Associations’ WorldLink newsletter.