Right, I’ll say it: Australia’s work culture is woefully ill-equipped to deal with mental illness. In fact, it refuses to see mental illness as an “illness” at all, and that’s really damaging.

Over the last two years, one of the few positive changes we’ve seen to working culture is the importance of time off when it comes to physical sickness. It’s not perfect: some companies still force employees to work while sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses. And of course, Australian work culture by and large still treats people with chronic conditions and disabilities really heinously.

But in a lot of workplaces, there’s an increased understanding of the dangers of making someone work while they’re ill. Whether it’s the possibility of long COVID or chance of spreading illness, I’d like to think there’s been at least a small cultural shift to greater empathy with people who are physically unwell.

So why do we not have that approach to people with mental illness?

If most people wake up with a sore throat and a snotty nose, they’d have few qualms texting their boss and telling them they need a sick day. But as someone with anxiety and OCD, if I wake up with particularly bad intrusive thoughts, it rarely even crosses my mind to ask for a sick day. My mind works this way largely because of our wider societal approach to mental illness.

We’ve been socialised to believe they aren’t real illnesses, even though my OCD and anxiety can wreak far more havoc on my ability to work than a sore throat or a migraine.

State and Federal Governments, and working culture at large, are more than willing to talk about mental health. They’re far less willing to talk about mental illness though.

There’s nothing wrong with work initiatives that emphasise mental health and wellness. But ultimately there’s no use to them if companies are also unwilling to acknowledge the impacts mental illness can have on your ability to work and more importantly, your life.

One in five Australians self-reported as having a mental or behavioural condition according to the 2020-2021 National Health Survey. Despite that, we have almost no consistent or mandated workplace practises in place to support people living with mental illness.

Maybe in part that requires a wholesale system overhaul — but until we go all viva la revolution on capitalism, companies can still make important structural changes, whether that’s dedicated mental health leave or subsidised access to psychologists. While some companies do offer these initiatives, as a whole the rest of the country needs to catch up too.

Even regardless of work culture, our societal response to mental health is abysmal. It’s incredibly expensive and often only partially subsidised on Medicare, depending on the price of your appointment. Plus you have to go through the rigmarole of getting a mental health plan from a GP. Psychology wait times are also absolutely next level.

To make things worse from next year people will only be eligible for 10 subsidised mental health sessions per year.

During COVID, the Better Access Pandemic Support plan doubled the number of subsidised mental health appointments to 20. But that ends on December 31 2022 — meaning we’re suddenly only going to have access to half the subsidised sessions we’ve had over the last two years.

It’s time our governments, and our wider culture, acknowledged and confronted the importance of putting mental illness at the forefront of conversations about work. And with millions of Aussies dealing with some form of mental illness, the fact we don’t have better systems in place is a massive, dangerous oversight.

If you need mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online

Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.

If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.

Image: The Office