NSW employers are failing to address the mental health of their workers appropriately, with the construction and scientific industries among the worst performers, a rigorous new benchmarking tool shows.
Fewer than one in 10 (8.8 per cent) of the state's workplaces have an integrated and sustained approach to mental health, according to an independent survey of more than 2000 employees across NSW businesses.
The workplaces were assessed using a new benchmarking algorithm created by workplace mental health experts as part of a sweeping "Mentally Health Workplaces in NSW" strategy being developed by SafeWork NSW.
Close to one in five employers had only a basic awareness of mental health issues and viewed mental health as an individual's responsibility, the lowest level of capability measured by the benchmarking tool that assessed workplaces.
Just under 60 per cent had either taken limited action or had shown an intention to act, while only 13.55 per cent had taken effective action.
The construction, professional, scientific and technical sectors were the worst performing industries by a significant margin, while retailers, mining and utilities were the top performers on average.
"Information, Media and telecommunications", "Public admin and safety", "Transport, postal and warehousing" and "Manufacturing" also performed poorly either through a lack of awareness or a failure to respond effectively to mental health issues.
Workplaces in Sydney, Wollongong, the South Coast and south-western NSW performed below average, while some areas on the North Coast, Newcastle and regional areas were above average.
Medium- to large-sized workplaces were more likely to have stand-alone mental health policies than smaller workplaces.
NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Matt Kean said the tool provided the most comprehensive research ever conducted about mental health in NSW workplaces.
"These findings show nearly half of the businesses have no measures in place that specifically address mental health in the workplace," Mr Kean said.
"That's quite a staggering statistic when you consider that one-third of our adult life is spent at work and that work can have a significant impact on our mental health."
Mental illness is now the leading cause of long-term sickness absences among Australian workers, overtaking back pain for the first time internationally as the most common cause of work incapacity.
A person with a severe mental health condition can have up to 42 days off work, in addition to normal sick leave, according to a 2014 PwC report.
The total annual cost of mental ill health to NSW employers is an estimated $2.8 billion.
An analysis by researchers at the University of Sydney's Centre for Health Economics Research and Evaluation and the Brain and Mind Centre found businesses that invested in workplace health promotions could reap a return of more than $4 for every $1 invested by cutting absenteeism and improving productivity.
"There's a real opportunity here for businesses to introduce valuable mental health programs in their workplaces while having a considerable impact on their business' bottom line," Mr Kean said.
Minister for Mental Health Tanya Davies said the findings showed there was more work to be done to help businesses support staff with evidence-based mental health strategies in the workplace.
"This research will help inform our Mentally Healthy Workplaces Summit next month so we can have productive discussions that address some of the key areas for improvement identified in these findings."
The story Half of NSW businesses have no mental health strategy: survey first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.