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Mental Health Matters: Dispelling the Stigma

“There remains a common misconception that mental health is a personal failing, rather than a legitimate health concern. This stigma can stop people from getting the support and treatment they need, both on a personal level and in their workplace.

Sarah Soncini

Content warning: This article discusses themes of mental illness including bipolar depression and hospitalisation.


Much ground has been covered in recent years to increase awareness and acceptance of mental ill-health.


Society has come a long way with knowledge and understanding of these issues; the importance of making it a priority, how to support those around us and being aware of the various supports available.


About 3.4 million Australians saw a health professional for their mental health between 2020-22, according to mental health organisation Beyond Blue. People are becoming more open and willing to engage professional mental health services.


However, there remains a common misconception that mental health is a personal failing, rather than a legitimate health concern.


This stigma can stop people from getting the support and treatment they need, both on a personal level and in their workplace. In turn, this can impact employee experience and workplace productivity.


A third of our lives


Considering we spend a third of our lives at work – a staggering 90,000 hours on average –we must direct efforts to help reduce existing stigma around mental ill-health, especially in the workplace.


The World Health Organization estimates 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety — at a cost of $1 trillion to global productivity. And in the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer Survey of 13 countries, 72 per cent of respondents said they trusted their employer to do what is right on health-related concerns.


ANZ Chief Financial Officer and executive sponsor of the ANZ Mental Health Network, Farhan Faruqui, says one of the biggest drivers of sustainable productivity is the health of your organisation – economically, physically and mentally.


“At ANZ we strive to foster a healthy workplace ecosystem through a number of programs, training and initiatives. For example, encouraging connectedness through our hybrid work model is really important as we need to ensure our people feel supported and connected, no matter how or where they work”.


“These supports include our Employee Assistance Program, a global online Mental Health Awareness course for both leaders and employees and the Healthy Me Digital portal.” 


“We also have a Mental Health First Aid program currently available in some of ANZ's locations, with more locations to follow”.


Removing the stigma


If your doctor told you an organ in your body wasn’t working properly, causing severe impairment to your physical health and you needed hospital treatment – would you feel comfortable telling your employer and colleagues you needed time off for your health?


What if that organ was your brain and the doctor suggested you go to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. How comfortable would you be sharing this information with your employer and colleagues – or would you just not go?


Unfortunately, many people don’t get the help or treatment they need for mental illness, due to the fear and stigma involved telling their employer. 


I am no longer ashamed to say I have admitted myself to hospital for my mental health numerous times. Most recently I spent the first month of 2024 in hospital for my bipolar depression.


Prior to this, my last hospital admission was a decade ago - the world was a very different place. Back then I was told I couldn’t tell people the truth about my admission; that if people knew it would be career limiting. I would lose friends and be judged harshly by society.


I was very lucky to have a supportive manager who would make up a story (anything other than the reality) to protect me from harsh judgement in the workplace. In a time when you need understanding and support more than ever, ironically it can be one of the most lonely and isolating experiences.


Raising awareness


Farhan recognises the importance of equipping and empowering leaders with the right tools, knowledge and resources to support their teams. This includes training in ANZ's global online Mental Health Awareness for Leaders course and educating our workforce on the steps to reducing mental health stigma.


“Our people leaders play a critical role in their team’s wellbeing. Providing training to build knowledge, preparing leaders to recognise distress signals and most importantly encouraging open communication is a step we can’t overlook if we want to close the gap on stigmatisation,” Farhan says.


“Not addressing this can cause further stress on our people’s mental, physical and emotional health and in turn, have an unfavourable effect on our workplace ecosystem.”


“The sharing of personal stories, just like Sarah’s, is really important to open the lines of communication and help to normalise these experiences. The mental health network at ANZ is dedicated to shaping a mentally healthy workplace where our people thrive and it allows a community of people to come together and have these conversations.”


Ten years on, I have grown and evolved. As I continue down the path of authenticity, I have stopped feeling ashamed and started to celebrate my growth and resilience. When I realised I couldn’t get through this depressive episode on my own, my husband and I made the difficult decision to have me admitted to hospital.


I knew this admission would be different, I no longer felt shame for putting my hand up and asking for the help I needed. I was able to be completely honest with my manager, my colleagues and my family and friends about my deteriorating mental health, and they were all very supportive.

To show their support my work team sent me flowers, daily messages, home-cooked meals, vouchers and visited regularly. During my stay, I asked for a vase for the flowers, but was told they didn’t think they had one, ‘because people didn’t really get flowers here’.


This was when I realised, while things were different for me, I was the outlier. Every time a clinician visited my room, they were first surprised by the numerous bunches of flowers in my room – and then subsequently ‘flabbergasted’ when I told them they were from my work.


I knew once I started to feel better, I wanted to share my experiences not only to breakdown the stigma associated with going to hospital for mental ill-health, but to challenge people to revaluate their own preconceptions.


I truly believe the support I was offered is a testament to the workplace culture at ANZ and the hard work and dedication of the Mental Health Network to lead by example and encourage open dialogue about mental health in the workplace.


The support and acceptance I received took weight off my shoulders and allowed me to focus my efforts on getting better.


How you can help

Here are some ways you can support a colleague who is receiving care for mental health.


Ask how you can support them – There is no one size fits all when it comes to support, different people may need different things. If they aren’t able to communicate how they would like to be supported, here are some things you can do:

·      ask the person if they would like a visit while in hospital

·      bring in or send home-cooked meals and treats

·      simply sending messages of support, or even flowers or vouchers

·      regular check-in messages to see how they are


Hold off on return-to-work questions – When I was admitted to hospital, I had no idea how long I would be there or how long it would take me to start feeling better. The best things my manager did was not ask me to estimate my ‘return to work date’ and reiterated I need not worry about work and to focus on getting better. Removing the pressure to get ‘better’ by a set date significantly reduces stress and allows a person to solely focus on their recovery.


Remember, the road to recovery after hospital admission takes time and it may be different for everyone. The journey of getting better after a mental health episode isn’t linear, you experience many twists, turns and setbacks along the way. Don’t expect the person will be able to bounce back to how they were previously, it takes time and conscious effort to continue to get better. Be prepared they may need some adjustments when they return to work, as being in a mental health facility for a significant period can have a huge impact on your life. From my own experience, it can take a while to re-establish a home/work routine and it takes patience and prioritising self-care.

Sarah Soncini is a Journey Expert, Data Capability, Founder and Chair of the Mental Health Network at ANZ.


Where to go for help

If you, or someone you know needs help or support, please go to BeyondBlue.org.au or call 1300 22 46 36. Beyond Blue has a range of resources to help support people’s mental wellbeing.  You can also contact Lifeline at LifeLine.org.au or call 13 11 14.


ANZ’s global Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available for support services for ANZ employees and immediate family members (over the age of 16), 24/7.


For information on other services that can assist with navigating difficult circumstances visit anz.com.au

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