As many as one in five workers are suffering a mental illness at any time, so employers must begin to see their condition as 'normal' and learn how to harness their potential, a mental health expert told The Safety Conference in Sydney, presented by Australian Exhibitions and Conferences.
Fay Jackson of mental health advisory service, Vision in Mind, says employers should view mental illness as simply part of doing business.
"You can expect 20 per cent of your staff to be affected by illness in any 12-month period," Ms Jackson said.
"If one in five people have blue eyes, one in five have blonde hair, and one in five have a lump in their nose or some other minor physical defect and these three scenarios are considered 'normal', then in turn we must get used to the idea of mental illness being 'normal', it is just a different kind of normal."
Ms Jackson, who has controlled her own bipolar disorder, said a more accurate title for people with mental illness might be "Psychologically Diverse Citizens" and that employers should embrace people with mental health issues.
"There are positive aspects to a person experiencing mental illness. We must commit to learning them," she said.
"It is highly possible to have people with mental illness on staff who can be 'value adding' employees that give your company the leading edge. People with controlled mental illness can increase productivity, are often 'thought leaders' and diligent workers if supported and acknowledged as valuable and their talents utilised."
Citing international and Australian statistics, Ms Jackson said the prevalence and cost of mental illness was so great, it could no longer be ignored. Depression alone is estimated to reduce productivity by 40 per cent and, left untreated, costs the employer and estimated $9,660 per annum for each person who has undiagnosed mental illness.
"While Karoshi (death by overwork) and Karojisatsu (suicide as a result of overwork and stress) as legal terms originated in Japan, Australia and New Zealand have set legal precedents in support of these principles in court," Ms Jackson said.
"There is no turning back and only a foolish company would deny the need to be proactive in preventing stress and mental illness in the workplace. The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2020, mental illness will be the leading cause of illness and subsequent loss of revenue in the first world.
"Directors, managers and staff of Australian workplaces can have 20-20 vision and enact positive, forward thinking changes to the mental health and safety of its workers to ensure this does not take place and that litigation towards managers and companies is minimised," Ms Jackson said.