Ideas in Action

May 4, 2015 | Posted by: Nick Field

The public value of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

As you are reading this, 1 in 6 Australian workers will be experiencing a mental illness. Many others will be experiencing the initial signs of mental illness including insomnia, worry and fatigue. Depression and anxiety are now the leading cause of long-term sickness absence in the developed world. They are also associated with presenteeism, where an employee remains at work despite their condition causing significantly reduced productivity. In Australia alone, poor mental health at work is estimated to cost the economy over $12 billion per year including over $200 million worth of workers compensation claims.

While the dollar values are striking, there is a significant human cost as well. We know that meaningful employment is integral to recovery from mental illness, yet there is a tendency for these individuals to be marginalised from the workforce. In reality, research shows that the majority of mental illness seen in the workforce is treatable, and possibly even preventable.

From an organisational perspective addressing mental health in the workplace can increase productivity, and employee engagement. For the individual, it means a healthy, balanced life and psychological wellbeing. For the community, addressing mental health in the workplace significantly benefits the economy, by improving productivity and reducing associated costs, especially if mental health becomes the primary focus, with an emphasis on prevention.

Mental health and wellbeing in the public service

Mental health is an issue close to Maria Katsonis’ heart. She is a public servant, blogger, lecturer, mental health advocate, journal editor and now Maria Katsonis can add published author to that list. Maria is the Director of Governance at the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), and after four years of hard work in her spare time, her debut book/memoir “The Good Greek Girl” was released in April.

The origins for her new book stem from a bout of depression in 2008 and time spent in a psychiatric ward. Driven by the desire to give a voice to mental illness, she collected stories from across the public sector and was struck by the secrecy and stigma. Learning a new craft in creative writing and developing a voice, she enlisted the support of a writing mentor and structural editor. The book evolved into a story of not only her experiences with mental illness, but also a story of her origins, influences and childhood. With a draft manuscript there were numerous rejection letters, which served to teach her more humility and self-belief.

“Rejection hurts and if it doesn’t, you don’t want it enough”

Maria drew upon her learnings from the public sector of the importance of not “self censoring” and taking “opportunistic risks”. This led to a publishing deal with Jane Curry in Sydney and their selection of the book title.

Maria describes herself as an ‘accidental public servant’ with an unconventional career path. She quit her Economics degree after being drawn to student theatre at Melbourne University, a decision which led to a decade as a Theatre Manager, Producer and Arts Management consultant for touring shows. The latter gave her exposure to Arts Victoria and arts policy, attracting her to the bureaucracy. After five years the desire to broaden her public sector experience led her to successfully apply for a Master’s in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Returning to Melbourne, she has held central agency roles with the State Service Authority and DPC. She combines her current role advising the Secretary, Special Minister for State and Premier on public entities and institutions governance; with lecturing in public policy at the Melbourne School of Government, Melbourne University alongside Professor Helen Dickinson.

“Work to live, don’t live to work”

The year ahead for Maria brings organisational changes at DPC, the book launch, more teaching and the continuation of her “staying well plan” with a focus on cooking, sunshine, staying connected, exercise, mindfulness and just enjoying the simple things in life. There is also the possibility of more creative writing and a book on the rise and fall of central strategy units in government and the corporate world. This year, Maria has also become a member of the new editorial team of the Australian Journal of Public Administration. Working alongside members from three universities she is considered the team’s “prac-ademic”. She is keen to see the journal evolve with a digital strategy, greater relevance to practitioners and a greater diversity of contributions.

In the long term, Maria will strive to contribute to public value as a public sector policy maker and an advocate for mental health in the workplace; operating at the inter-sections of individual value, capacity and support. She also hopes to remain a good (if unconventional) Greek girl.

Maria Katsonis. Photo: Simon Schluter (The Sunday Age)

More information is available at “The Good Greek Girl” is now available in paperback following a recent launch event at Readings in Carlton, where it made their list of the most anticipated releases of 2015.

Mindful in May

Mindful in May aims to help people and workplaces achieve mental health and wellbeing.

Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that can help our minds keep up with demands of our increasingly complex world. There is now compelling evidence supporting the fact that mindfulness meditation when practised regularly, can lead to:

  • Structural changes in the brain associated with enhanced mental performance
  • Reduced stress and it’s negative impact on the body and mind
  • Improved physical and mental well being
  • Reduced genetic ageing through its protective impact on gene expression and degeneration
  • Increased happiness
  • Enhanced immune function

To support good mental health, members of the Cube Group team will be taking up the Mindful in May challenge. In order to create a habit of mindfulness, it requires just ten minutes of meditation a day for the 31 days of May. This is an opportunity to learn to meditate with guidance from experts in the field, while raising funds for clean water projects.

To find out more, visit

Information and statistics provided by The Black Dog Institute. For more information on workplace mental health visit: or

Maria Katsonis

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