Breakfast with John Brogden

John B.jpg“Workplaces need to be redesigned to promote mental health, or there will be consequences,” says this business leader with a lived experience of mental health issues.

Story by Warren Heggarty, pictures by Neil Fenelon

While in the Northside Clinic following a very public attempt on his own life, John Brogden’s psychiatrist assured him that things would get better. “Why are you teasing me?” he thought. 

The former NSW Opposition leader’s fall a few days earlier came as a result of inappropriate comments he had made in a pub. The end of his political career in 2005 had been so precipitous and so complete that he could not see any hope. To make matters worse, the media showed no mercy and continued to attack even after he had resigned. 

Having had such a high profile, John received many messages from people he didn’t even know. He even received one on a piece of fluoro yellow paper all the way from the Northern Territory. “Mr Ogden [sic], we all make mistakes, that’s why pencils have rubbers on the end of them.”

“We commonly have CPR machines in workplaces now, but we have just as much need to be prepared for mental health problems as cardiac arrests.”

“It’s a different world now,” says John. “When I later became head of Manchester Unity Insurance, I decided to go public about taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist. The PR person was horrified. ‘Oh God, no don’t do that!”’

If you had cancer, for example, you might expect some empathy or sympathy in the workplace, but with mental health issues, the approach has often been disciplinary!


We commonly have CPR machines in workplaces now, but we have just as much need to be prepared for mental health problems as cardiac arrests. 

Workplace mental health is the “next front line.” Presenteeism, where people are at work but are not really able to do their best because of stress, is a growing problem. 

Pretty soon, because we’re not getting it right, John predicts there will be massive litigation which will change the legal framework to ensure that mental safety is recognised as much as physical safety. Designing a mentally healthy workplace – a reflective workplace – “is the smart thing to do. It makes not just good sense, but good dollars-and-cents to provide a healthy workplace.”


Towards the end of his political career John says, “I was spinning out of control, trying to keep busy to blot out my problems.” He described a meteoric career rise in politics. A member of Parliament at 27, an Opposition front bencher at 30, and leader of the Opposition at 33 (a record young age for Australia). 

“Everything was going well, but I was miserable. Behind the scenes I was very angry. I was a horrible person to work for.” Although Mark Orr pointed out diplomatically that three of John’s closest friends used to work for him at that time, so they must have seen the good side. 

John described a work schedule that was anything but healthy. Sometimes working from 6AM till 11PM six or seven days, a cancelled engagement would see him trying to organise an alternative appearance, instead of having a night off. 

We have read stories about people in various professions, especially young doctors and lawyers, having to deal with crushingly long work hours. 

Life outside work 

John’s wife Lucy, a psychologist, worked on a report which found that people cope better when they have a life outside of work. Sleeping in the office won’t do you any good, but coaching Netball will give you an alternative positive focus for your energies. This is especially necessary in professions like law and medicine where negative things are often unavoidable focal points in your work life.

Being able to share his story openly is important to John, and it is even more important that he is in the public eye and in leadership positions. Currently he is Chair of Lifeline and CEO of Landcom.

John expressed alarm at the recent nine per cent rise in suicide figures. “It’s frightening that we’re going backwards.” He says we need to set a target to reduce that figure by, say, 20% in five years.

John acknowledges that because of its success in assisting people in crisis, Lifeline has become associated with a negative message that needs to be presented more as a positive message of hope. 

So if you are struggling anytime and need to borrow some hope to get you through, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

Brogden and pals.jpgABOVE (FROM LEFT): Mark Orr (CEO of Flourish Australia) Prof Elizabeth Moore (Chair of Flourish Australia) Carmel Tebbutt (CEO of Mental Health Coordinating Council), John Brogden and Charles Moore (CEO of the Sydney Olympic Park Authority). PHOTO NEIL FENELON


Mental Health Month Business Breakfast THANK YOUs

The breakfast was hosted by Flourish Australia at our Figtree Conference Centre as part of Mental Health Month. Our thanks to Warwick Pye from Schepisi Communications and Sasha Stepanovic and Fiona Welch, from AMPS Technology, for donating the raffle prizes.

It was our pleasure to acknowledge the $600 raised by our friends and neighbours at Mirvac through the power drill raffle they ran recently.

It is fantastic to see people and businesses, helping out where they can to make a difference. We were able to raise $1,045 from the raffle for the “Young People’s Formal Project”.

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