A former president of the Australian Medical Association has warned businesses they will need to embrace a "wellness culture" to hold on to staff in the future, as the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism – where staff at work are not functioning at their best – rise.
Dr Kerryn Phelps, a GP for 35 years, said the modern trend for employees to have up to 10 jobs in their lifetime meant unhealthy workplaces would lose out.
"A wellness culture will become important, and the default, if they want to attract and retain good people," she said.
Presenteeism costs Australian businesses an estimated $26 billion a year, far exceeding the $7 billion lost on absenteeism, the first female AMA president told the National Workplace Wellness Symposium in Barton this week.
Mental health remained a weak point for employers, with only half of working Australians reporting their employer provided support for those issues.
Dr Phelps said most of the most common health issues which impacted workers, such as physical inactivity, poor nutrition habits, stress and fatigue, needed to be addressed both during and outside work.
"Getting healthy cannot be a project or a fad. There will be detours and delays happen, but you need to catch the contagion of good health and find your new normal."
Employers had been put on notice by the suicide in Victoria of school principal Mark Thompson, with the state's WorkCover authority awarding a landmark payout to his widow this month after finding Mr Thompson's job was a major contributing factor to his death, and he was suffering workplace stress and worked up to seven days a week.
The respected principal took his own life in 2014 after a parent accused him of discriminating against their child.
"WorkCover recommended assistance for identifying and managing stress and distress in the workplace, with resilience training recommended," Dr Phelps said.
Minister for Workplace Safety and Industrial Relations Mick Gentleman told those at the symposium that about 4000 ACT workers had used the government's Healthier Work online resources this year, with 44 workplaces signed up to the program and another 23 joining.
The federal public service's worst rates of personal leave days was at Aboriginal Hostels Limited and the National Film and Sound Archive, where almost 400 staff took an average of more than 20 days of personal leave last financial year, according to an Australian Public Service Commission analysis.
It was a workplace trauma in 2013 which led Nicole Leishman to look for a way to care for the social and emotional needs of her blokey construction staff.
"I could see this could either make or break a lot of people, and we needed to harness that energy and put it into a more positive way," she said.
The co-owner of Delnas Metal Roofing in Fyshwick came across the ACT government's Healthier Work materials and used an initial incentive payment to arrange flu shots for her workers, host specialist health experts and deliver free skin checks.
The program, aimed at shifting the company's work culture, has grown to include an annual Tradie's Tuneup with a counsellor and a nurse on-site to test blood pressure and cholesterol levels as well have a general health chat.
Important results have followed: two men have had suspicious moles removed far earlier than they would have, and one worker was helped to get through post-traumatic stress.
"The absenteeism rate has also gone down, workers are sticking it out longer, and I take that to be they are more committed – instead of taking a week off for a cold it's a matter of days," she said.
Ms Leishman said the company was the first in the ACT to be given "silver status" as part of the government's Healthier Work program, with another 16 businesses now similarly ranked.