Monday 09 October 2023

Cultivating a mentally healthy workplace

Hannah Sturrock, National Head of Engagement, Advertising Council Australia.


“Life at home is crazy, and with work pressures on top I’m really struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“By the time I get to Friday, I’m so burnt out. But the expectation is that this is normal and I should just suck it up.”

“I want to say something about the client’s behaviour but I’m scared I’ll be taken off the account and lose my job.”

“I feel trapped and keep crying. I can’t sleep. It feels like the only option is to quit.”

These are some examples of what poor mental health might sound like at work.

We’ve all probably felt or heard something like this, at one time or another. The challenge is knowing how to respond.

October is World Mental Health Month. This year’s theme is “We all have a role to play” which highlights the collective responsibility for improving knowledge, raising awareness and driving actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health.

This is more than just a “tactical wellbeing campaign”. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees and are legally obliged to provide a healthy and safe workplace both physically and psychosocially. This is a legal requirement under work health and safety laws.

Our industry has a relatively high representation of people reporting an ongoing mental health concern that impacts their ability to manage day-to-day activities.

The Create Space census found:

  • 28% of respondents are affected by a mental health condition, exceeding the Australian population at 15%
  • 23% of our workforce reported being affected by ongoing stress – highest among those with caring responsibilities and also tending to skew female (26% vs male 20%) and middle managers (27% vs junior staff 21%)
  • A perceived lack of emotional and social support at work doubles among respondents who have mental health conditions or experience ongoing stress (22% versus 11%)
  • Mental health conditions were highest among gender non-conforming respondents, females, and in respondents aged under 35
  • Low reporting levels suggest there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, but we can see that sharing challenges can often be a positive step.

While no one should feel obliged to talk about their health issues, it’s indicative of an insufficiently supportive environment when so few speak out about their challenges.

Providing employees with a secure, on-demand, anonymous support service is one way businesses can encourage staff to proactively seek help.

To make this easier for members, ACA has partnered with Sonder – an EAP alternative with a much broader safety, medical, and mental health offering. Approximately 270 employees across ACA member agencies are signed up for the service which is designed to assist in self-care and provide preventative support.

Historically, employee uptake of EAPs has been around five per cent*. This is disappointing because a well-being support program can only deliver results if employees use it.

Anonymous data from January to June this year reveals that member activation rates for Sonder as of June 2023 is an impressive 47%.

Some of the reasons for higher utilisation rates include Sonder’s holistic wellbeing model, broad offering, proactive approach, and one-stop-for-help model which improves employee recall of where to go for support when they need it and helps build employee trust across all of the services offered.

However, an EAP service is just one part of the strategy. To improve mental health and reduce ongoing stress, businesses should design a multi-faceted workplace mental health program.

The Create Space action plan suggests three steps:

First – read, sign and share Mentally Healthy Minimum Standards. Signing the minimum standards is your opportunity to make a statement and show your people and the industry your commitment. There are more resources for individuals and employers on the website too. Leaders should talk openly about the Minimum Standards to destigmatise and encourage transparency.

Second – we can’t fix what we can’t see. The gap around disclosing challenges at work is partly fuelled by a lack of confidence about how the conversation will be handled. We’re asking the industry to educate staff using RUOK?’s practical workplace guide to spotting the signs, asking RUOK and responding with compassion when someone says no, I’m not.

And then – providing more avenues for support at work is critical. On top of an EAP or alternative, we’re asking the industry to become a Mental Health Skilled Workplace by training a percentage of staff in Mental Health First Aid and undertaking actions to encourage open conversations.

If you’d like to find out more about ACA’s partnership with Sonder and what it can offer your agency or business, e-mail us at

For more resources on Mental Health, check out the Create Space Hub and ACA members can watch a recording of our Mental Health Action Webinar with RUOK’s CEO Katherine Newton and Mentally Healthy’s Andy Wright.

Please get behind the next Create Space census on November 1.

Additional support services and resources:

*References: IBISWorld, Productivity Commission, Society for Human Resource Management, The American Journal of Health Promotion, EAPA UK.

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