Dawn O’Neil AM speaks at the Women’s Mental Health Lunch
The state of women’s mental health in Australia is in crisis and we need more action.
oneinfive are on a mission to cure mental illnesses by funding ground breaking discovery research into the causes of mental disorders. They are changing the face of mental health through research and resources to help those experiencing mental illness. We were delighted to partner with oneinfive for their Women’s Mental Health Lunch on June 17 2022 at the Grand Hyatt Melbourne to raise funds and voices for action on women’s mental health. Dawn O’Neil AM, Breathing Space Mental Health Ambassador and former CEO of Lifeline and Beyond Blue, spoke at the event. Here are some of the hard-hitting facts and excerpts from her address.
“Women experiencing poor mental health has been a part of our human condition since records were written. Throughout history we have done diabolical things to people with a mental illness and treated them abominably, especially women. The good news is that after many a long battle to shift systems and attitudes, we have come a LONG way in improving both attitudes, behaviour, services and treatments – but we still have a long way to go.
The holy grail in my view is that we achieve PARITY in our treatment, research, attention, care, dedication to finding cures etc, for a person experiencing poor mental health with those who experience physical health issues.
I want to make the case today that women’s mental health is both a human problem and a systemic challenge. It’s a story of compounded inequalities. And where we can make a major difference is in the workplace.
It is important to recognise the social and environmental factors that contribute additional burdens for women and girls, compromising their mental health.
- Discrimination, inequality and inequity, poverty, emotional and economic abuse, family, domestic and sexual violence, and financial disadvantage are all symptoms of a broken society and system. Poor mental health is inevitable for women in the face of these challenges.
- Intersectionality, of course, compounds the discrepancy, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women between the ages of 25 – 34 dying from suicide at a rate three times higher than their non-indigenous counterparts, and one in three migrant or refugee women having experienced some form of domestic and/or family violence in Australia.
- Societal culture plays a huge role. Women do an average of 75 per cent of the world’s total unpaid care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning. Here in Australia, we have 1.6 million informal female caregivers, and one-third of these define themselves as the primary caregiver.
- The rise in hybrid work and the increase in remote learning as a result of the pandemic have blurred the boundaries between care and career. When society needs working parents to do both, women’s self-care is too often the compromise.
- New challenges have emerged for women too. Abuse against women online is at epidemic levels. In March 2022, the eSafety Commission in Australia joined a global partnership to end cyber violence against women. But a great deal of work still needs to be done.
During COVID, domestic violence against women spiked. We have all heard the statistic that one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner. 1 in 3 women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15. And 1 in 5 women has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.
All these factors lead to emotional, social and financial stress and anxiety, and can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, trigger new or recurring conditions, and impede recovery. At the same time, limited availability of gender-specific or gender-responsive services means women may not be able to access the support they need. I note that just last week it was announced Australia will open its first women-only mental health facility for those women escaping family violence. We need MANY more of these.
According to the National Mental Health Commission: Around 1 in 6 women in Australia will experience depression and 1 in 3 women will experience anxiety during their lifetime.
Postpartum depression impacts 1 in 6 women during their first year after birth. Women also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders at higher rates than men. (National Mental Health Commission, 2022). Proactively dealing with women’s mental health is complex. Responses need to be multifaceted, with shared responsibility.
Mental Health in the Workplace
With so many societal issues negatively impacting women’s mental health, the workplace has both a responsibility and an opportunity to make mental health a priority, and ensure the culture supports respect, personal achievement, confidence and resilience. Sadly, nearly a quarter of workers (22.3%) believe they have a mental health condition and 43% say their workplace caused it or made it worse.
Mental health is a dual responsibility – while there are elements within our control as individuals, there is also a legal obligation of workplaces to ensure a mentally healthy workplace and a moral obligation of society to protect our mental health.
Psychological safety is now legally on par with physical safety. It is a Director’s duty of care to ensure everything that can be done is done to protect workers safety – of both kinds, AND to make sure work is safe for those returning after a psychological illness.
Here are the 5 priority actions I believe every workplace needs to take to address mental health generally, and women’s mental health in particular.
- Have an organisation wide mental health strategy, one that understands the issues and establishes protocols for gender and intersectionality
- Take a systematic approach to identify, minimise and eliminate psychological risk – bearing in mind that giving visibility to mental health, requires people to feel safe in speaking about their lived experience
- Involve & educate: the Board, leaders & employees, speaking about mental health regularly and openly – providing training e.g. in mental health first aid & compliance
- Ensure adequate immediate and follow-up support, both internal & external, including EAP; other counselling; and particularly return to work strategies
- Adopt an ongoing mechanism to monitor & respond mental health risks throughout the workforce, taking into account the changing environment (e.g. COVID)
We need more than ever before to deepen our understanding, increase our awareness, our literacy, our alertness and build in good behaviours and work practices for mental wellbeing in ourselves and in others. So what does this look like in practice?
As you may know, I am an Advisor and Ambassador for the Breathing Space program designed by CLA where we have evidence-based programs designed to make a difference – and measure the results. In 2021 a program delivered with an executive team in Melbourne had the following impact:
- 13% increase in psychological safety
- 19% increase in proactively developing trust
- 21% decrease in feeling overwhelmed by workload
- 22% increase in flourishing (Corey Keyes, Mental Health Continuum)
- 82% of the Executive team made proactive change to support their wellbeing
In 2022, the Breathing Space program is being rolled out with the next level of leadership across the organisation.
Great news for all the executives, but how are these programs impacting women specifically?
- 61% of the executives in the Breathing Space program outlined are women
- 77% of staff opting for a recent wellbeing check-in at a Melbourne hospital were female
- At a regional health service 94% of check-ins were taken up by women
- We just signed off an insights report for a renowned research institute that showed a clear majority of women are responding with expressions of interest to the offer of ongoing wellbeing coaching. They report feeling burned out, overwhelmed, with high work expectations and pressure. Many report family issues, interpersonal conflicts at work, and a lack of career pathways beyond retirement.
- Wellbeing is a core component of every leadership development program we offer at CLA including women-only programs at DELWP and Reece Group
Our workplaces are a vital part of building a strong healthy society and protecting everyone’s mental health, especially women’s. We all know that the tone is set at the top, and it begins with Boards and the C-Suite.
It has been said that the silver lining of COVID is the greater ease with which we discuss mental health, own up to our own sliding scales of wellbeing, and break down the stigma of mental health. Lets use this opportunity of more openness to be the change we want to see and shift the needle on the attitudes and behaviours inhibiting good mental health for all women.
It is vital to understand that it’s much easier (i.e. less difficult, less disruptive to our lives and less time consuming) to set up a proactive comprehensive mental health plan. It’s when we are reactive that we risk only dealing with the visible problem, the quick fix, the immediate, one dimensional solution. This framework of awareness, behaviour and leadership is a change practice we can readily apply in all our workplaces and use to redefine how we work and ensure the mental health of our society tomorrow.”
Questions for reflection:
- How confident are you to talk about your own mental health as a leader?
- How equipped is the team to identify and support each other in promoting good mental health?
- How proud is the organisation to report on its mental health and wellbeing measurement indicators and grow a reputation for workplace wellbeing?
- How does your mental health strategy tackle the compounding impacts of gender and diversity?
If you would like to discuss Mental Health and Wellbeing initiatives for your workplace, reach out to Therese Joyce.