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The Cost & Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme Cowan

The Cost & Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme CowanThe direct cost of depression to the United States in terms of lost time at work is estimated at 172 million days yearly. According to the World Health Organization, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada.

Australian Graeme Cowan, who experienced a horrific five-year mental breakdown, published a report on this topic called, “The Elephant in the Boardroom: Getting Mentally Fit For Work.”

A former Joint Managing Director with the management consultancy AT Kearney, Cowan now works with leadership teams to help them create Thriving Tribes that focus on both performance and collective mood.

Cowan’s new book “Back From the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar” can be found at I have the pleasure of interviewing him today on the topic of mental illness and the workplace.

1. What damage is stress and mental illness doing to the economy?
Thirty-four percent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86 percent of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the price.

While we can acknowledge the inevitability of change, at a deep level I think many of us struggle when change is actually thrust upon us. Ironically, many of these changes have been initiated to increase profitability, but most people I talk to say that their commitment and discretionary effort has withered due to stress and uncertainty.

In the 2011 R U OK? at Work Survey, 40 percent of people said they were “typically stressed out every day” while 12 percent rated their stress extreme (8, 9, or 10 on a 10 point scale). These harmful levels of stress lead to a decline in physical and mental health, low job satisfaction, and poor financial return.

In a report by Medibank and PriceWaterhouse, the lost productivity due to absenteeism and presenteeism from depression and stress disorders was estimated at 34 percent.

An analysis of workers compensation claims shows that mental stress claims now account for 33 percent of payouts.

2. What would make the biggest difference from a work policy and attitude perspective?

When we asked 2,676 people (79.5 percent from North America) who live with depression or bipolar what changes they would like to see in the workplace to reduce stigma, these were their top 5 answers.

What do you believe can be done to reduce the stigma associated with mood disorders in the workplace? (n=2,676)

Strongly Agree or Agree

Treat mental health disorders with the same care and compassion as physical illnesses.

89 percent

Prohibit health and income protection insurance from discriminating against mental illness.

87 percent

Have a mental health policy in place which lists all employees’ rights and prohibits an organization from discrimination

79 percent

Have workplaces provide an integrated mental health and physical wellness program.

74 percent

Have more information available on the organization’s intranet about treatments for mental illness.

70 percent

What’s interesting here is that nobody wants special treatment.

Employees suffering from mental health disorders simply want the discrimination, ignorance, and stigma corrected. In most cases, the changes don’t involve significant cost, compared to the potential expense involved in worker’s compensation claims or recruitment and retraining costs if an employee leaves.

3. What helps most in prevention and recovery?

Based on our direct research and reviewing other evidence, these are our recommendations.

  • Teach managers and team members how to ask “are you OK?”: 51 percent of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress is speaking to someone at work.” This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask “are you OK?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. In contrast, a resource which many employers rely on to provide assistance to workers with stress, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), was judged effective by only 8 percent of respondents.
  • Provide practical and anonymous resources: With 86 percent of respondents unwilling to discuss their condition with workmates, there is clear need for anonymous or private access to practical information and resources. Whether available via an organization’s intranet or downloadable in the form of a smartphone app, these resources must be both practical and evidence-based. To accommodate different learning styles, multimedia delivery would be optimal.
  • Form a panel of mental health-savvy primary care physicians: The acknowledged benefit of an early and professional diagnosis presents a strong case for organizations to help employees quickly and easily access mental health-savvy doctors. A mental health professional panel could provide expert assistance to employees when required.
  • Offer a physical and mental well-being program: Employees with a positive mood are 31 percent more productive, sell 37 percent more, and are 300 percent more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from an integrated program that builds employee physical and mental well-being is almost self-evident, especially in light of exercise being judged so important for recovery.
  • Understand employee work strengths: Work is an essential element of well-being. Tom Rath’s (Gallup, Inc) book Strengths Based Leadership finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600 percent more likely to be engaged at work, and 300 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives. Martin Seligman in his book Flourish provides numerous case studies highlighting how recovery from mental illness can be enhanced by coaching people using their strengths.
  • Addressing discrimination in insurance: Those with a history of mental illness may experience difficulties in obtaining various forms of insurance. Discriminatory practices may include either refusal of insurance at the point of entry or denial of claims on the grounds of non-disclosure of a previous mental illness. Although there has been some efforts to address these discriminatory practices and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, there still appears to be a long way to go.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

The Cost & Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme Cowan

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Therese J. Borchard

Therese J. Borchard is a mental health writer and advocate. She is the founder of the online depression communities Project Hope & Beyond and Group Beyond Blue, and is the author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes and The Pocket Therapist. You can reach her at or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

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APA Reference
Borchard, T. (2018). The Cost & Solutions to Stress and Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interview with Graeme Cowan. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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