Someone dies from suicide every 40 seconds. Each year, depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses affect approximately 20% of adults in Western countries. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that one-eighth of the world endures mental ill-health annually, and these numbers are based only on reported cases. The actual prevalence is likely much higher. Due to stigma, prejudice and discrimination, many individuals with psychological illnesses do not disclose their conditions.
Workplace mental health is a pressing and growing issue, requiring immediate attention and action. Traditional work team environments, structures and cultures are increasingly recognized as factors exacerbating mental ill-health. Employees at all levels are concerned about the consequences of discussing their mental health at work. They silence themselves due to fears of discrimination, harassment and losing their jobs.
In recent years, there has been strong evidence of a rise in mental illness in the working-age demographic. Numerous global trends have contributed, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, technological disruption and the changing nature of work. While work is our lifeline, unsafe work practices have amplified anxiety, stress, depression and social isolation. Long working hours with excessive demands, job insecurity, low job control, prejudice and discrimination, inequality, and multiple other risks have all contributed to increased work-related mental illness.
We spend on average approximately 90,000 hours working over our lifetime. But despite working in teams, 33% of adults face loneliness and psychological isolation. As 84% of suicides occur in the working-age demographic, it is vital that we combat these trends directly within our workplaces.
In addition to the devastating toll that mental disorders take on individuals, families and communities, depression and anxiety significantly impact the global economy. As highlighted by the WHO, the impact of mental health on the economy costs an estimated US$1 trillion annually. Furthermore, around the world, 12 billion working days are lost yearly because of mental ill-health. In the Australian context in 2020, mental health concerns were the most common reason for lowered productivity, impacting 3 in 5 workers.
Psychologically unsafe and mentally toxic workplaces impact both employees and employers. Left unaddressed, the consequences of these types of workplace environments are vast and far-reaching. These include exacerbated mental health symptoms, distrust and fear, decreased productivity, more sick leave and absenteeism, social isolation, discrimination and prejudice, bullying and harassment, OH&S violations, workers’ compensation lawsuits, a damaged employer reputation, increased turnover and associated recruitment costs, and further ramifications.
The good news is that for every US$1 spent on scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a US$4 return in improved health and productivity. All levels of an organization benefit by proactively facilitating safe, inclusive and healthy team environments.
Along with employee wellness, the benefits and advantages of better workplace cultures are immense. These include greater openness, connection and trust; retained knowledge and skills; higher employee productivity and loyalty; better team cohesion; decreased turnover rates; recognition as an employer of choice; and compliance with WH&S policies. In terms of systemic developments, the need to facilitate psychologically safe work environments is becoming increasingly recognized as an employer’s legal liability.
However, as previously mentioned, employees are often reluctant to and uncomfortable with discussing their mental health in work contexts. Most do not feel sincerely supported in disclosing their issues, concerns, and suggestions for improvement. They fear managerial indifference and the risk of losing their positions. I realized we need a science-backed, tailorable framework and implementation roadmap that is whole of organization, efficient and instructive – one that complements existing well-being and detection programs.
In 2020, I co-founded The United Project, a registered charitable foundation and non-profit, to address the rise in mental illness in workplace and team environments. After working as a senior executive for prominent technology and management consulting firms, my former career ended in 2015 due to my mental health deteriorating. My breakdown led to an eventual diagnosis of chronic treatment-resistant major depression. The toll has impacted every area of my life, including my self-esteem, identity and values. It is an ongoing challenge that I will struggle with for the rest of my life.
The silver lining is that my lived experiences inspired me to contribute towards a societal issue that needs significant improvement. I wanted to transform this negative experience into something positive, that would benefit others. Several years ago, I partnered with Greg Muller, and we established The United Project with the intention of reducing the incidents and severity of ill mental health and reducing the suicide rate, globally.
We quickly identified that to enact tangible and macro-level change, we needed to think differently about the problem. To reduce the number of employees with deteriorating mental health, it was necessary to focus on prevention through early detection. We shifted our focus toward creating an intervention model so that people are supported well before they endure the worst effects of mental ill-health at work.
The United Project’s vision is to unite the efforts of the world’s leaders, employees, and industry to deliver proactive, sustainable change in workforce mental health.
We seek to unite teams through a shared commitment to mental wellness, promoting belonging, connection, trust, gratitude, resilience, and individual value. Our goal is to eliminate work-related mental health discrimination and decrease suicides. The United Project embraces intelligent, scalable technologies, with a focus on early-detection tech that provides personalized insights and support. To create lasting change, with our partners, we focus on driving enterprise-wide commitment, integrating interoperable and intelligent data systems, and enabling cultural transformation.
Through the United Pledge (“commitment”), we encourage investment in mental well-being that embeds programs of acceptance with policy and systemic changes. Our United Cloud (“capability”) facilitates early detection of mental ill-health through artificial intelligence (AI), providing access to personalized, proactive intervention, delivered ethically, securely and confidentially. United Training (“culture”) enhances mental health awareness and conversations, connectedness, relationships and meaning. Lastly, our United Giving (“cause”) focuses on ensuring that everyone globally has access to preventative mental healthcare, including in developing countries.
The United Pledge, United Cloud, United Training and United Giving programs enable the commitment, capability, culture, and causes needed to build positive, psychologically safe, mentally healthy teams at work. Our programs facilitate personal and team wellness and resilience. They create healthier lives and boost team morale, connection and support. Importantly, they reduce discrimination towards members experiencing psychological distress and illness. Furthermore, they increase enterprise-wide accountability for staff well-being.
Together, our programs will reduce the incident rate/onset of mental health conditions; provide enhanced organizational performance (as productivity equals increased output/revenue per cost unit); facilitate systemic, sustainable industry change at all levels; and reduce the suicide rate.
We are currently looking for investors and early adopters of our products. If you are interested, please email email@example.com.
About the Author
Matine Rahmani, a co-founder of The United Project, had a successful career as a senior executive for prominent technology and management consulting firms across Asia, Europe and North America. He was previously a partner at IBM, Director at EY, Victorian General Manager at Noetic, and held Head of Strategy & Value Engineering positions at Infor and SAP. Matine holds bachelor’s and honors degrees in IT and Law, a Master’s in IT, and has received academic scholarships and awards. After experiencing a mental health-related breakdown, his former career ended, and he founded The United Project to make a tangible and macro-level difference in reducing mental ill-health and suicides among our people. He is married with three children, aged 7, 11 and 13, and lives in Castlemaine in regional Victoria, Australia. Matine loves sport and traveling and is happiest when he’s in nature.