Make leaders accountable for shaping inclusive, mentally healthy workplaces

Leith Mitchell, Diversity Consultant and Career Money Life Supplier talks about the responsibility of organisations for their employees mental well being.

Last month, Jeff Kennett, the Beyondblue chairman called for performance bonuses of chief executives to be partially tied to the mental wellbeing of their employees, a proposal supported by the Business Council of Australia. Kennett’s proposal to make business leaders accountable for shaping mentally healthy workplaces has been reported as radical by some sections of the business community.

Yet workplace stress is acknowledged globally as a major challenge to the wellness of employees and wellness of businesses (WHO, 2003). In Australia, workplace stress impacts individuals more than any other facet of their life, including health, relationships and future hopes or aspirations (Lifeline Australia, 2009). Buck Consultants Global Survey reveals amongst corporate global wellness trends, the primary focus for Australian workplaces is on mental health initiatives to improve productivity, reduce employee absence, and improve workforce engagement.

Employees may develop mental illness prior to employment or during employment. Many manage their illness without impacting on work; many may require workplace support for a short period of time, while a minority will require ongoing workplace strategies. It is often assumed that mental illness develops outside of the workplace. However, an ‘unhealthy’ work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress and exacerbate, or contribute to, the development of mental illness.

I regularly facilitate Diversity & Inclusion workshops with Boards & Executive teams, and discuss the criticality of an inclusive culture- where people feel psychologically safe to not only express viewpoints, ideas and perspectives- but also psychologically safe to disclose personal circumstances if/ when they may impact performance. Catalyst Australia defines psychological safety as willing to take risks regardless of rank or status, freely speak up about problems and tough issues, confident that honest mistakes will not be held against them, and trust leaders, managers and teammates will not act in ways that would undermine their efforts or work. When discussing psychological safety, I ask senior leaders and managers to question how inclusive their culture really is; how psychologically safe can employees come to them with a personal issue, such as mental health. I ask for estimates on how many people in their workforce may identify with a mental illness. Rarely does anyone come close to the statistics.

In Australia, it's estimated that 45 percent of people will experience a 
mental health condition in their lifetime.

In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety (Beyond Blue). The Australian Human Rights Commission asserts that one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year. The full extent of mental stress in Australian workplaces is not fully known, as not all workers seek or receive compensation, however the highest occupation with claims for workplace mental stress are professionals (Safe Work Australia, 2013).

The drastic outcomes of not managing mental health are more well known; if you are aged between 15-44, suicide is the leading underlying cause of death. Kennett feels employers are increasingly recognising the damage that mental health can cause to the morale of their employees- particularly when it involves suicide. Despite Kennett’s optimism, manager opinions may be lagging.

Nearly half of all Australian senior managers believe none of their 
workers will experience a mental health problem at work and donot have 
any programs in place to support mental wellness in the workplace 
(Human Rights Commission). 

Of those organisations who are aware of the impact of mental health in the workplace, focus has been limited to targeting personal interventions such as raising awareness and discussion, and providing availability for individuals to access programs or services such as EAP. More broadly, most Australian organisations seek to raise awareness of mental health through one-off events. Medium blogger Jenni Hill provided an analogy as to the potential effectiveness of this one-off approach  “imagine if we had a day each year when we all went around asking cancer patients if they were “okay”, yet didn’t fund practical medical help for them or give them any hope,”.

Kennett’s proposal goes to the heart of the limitations of this approach.

We know what gets measured in business gets done.For real change in 
the corporate sphere of mental health, targeted holistic interventions
are required at a structural, cultural, interpersonal, and personal 
dimension driven by leadership.

Kennett suggests structural change; developing a specific strategy on the value of mental health to achieving business goals- understanding the why- with clear action plans and governance. Measures include Key Performance Indicators on mental health in all leaders scorecards- ”I would have the board establish a KPI for the CEO, in terms of the conditions of the workforce, and I would have the CEO prepare the KPI for their direct reports”. Kennett addresses cultural change; by requiring senior executives submitting to an independent mental health assessment by a psychologist each year demonstrates commitment from leaders.

Organisations such as Lendlease have developed targets to have as many people qualified in mental health first aid as physical first aid. Leadlease’s CEO states that an organisation with a strong culture can lead and make a real difference “mental health is non-negotiable; it needs to be measured and reported on in the same way as safety”.

In a previous role as IBM’s Diversity Recruitment Leader for 8 regions, I was involved in piloting IBM’s Australia & New Zealand corporate mindful meditation app with Smiling Mind available for all employees, tracking perceived stress levels. Over a twelve month period, the use of Smiling Mind resulted in an increase of overall employee well-being, and a significant reduction in stress (HRD, 2014).

Google’s Search Inside Yourself program has been offered to thousands of Google employees to help take leadership to higher levels of effectiveness, purpose and meaning.

In Australia, organisations such as Deloittes have undertaken mental health awareness training, mandatory for Partners, and now available for Directors and Managers.

Mitchell Services finds many organisations approach workplace wellness 
in a similar way to Diversity & Inclusion- with minimal strategic 
focus or linkage to achieving business goals- and with a compliance 
focus, or a programmatic focus where outcomes are limited to raising 
awareness, such as R U OK days. Many employees report the value of 
initiatives such as R U OK day including raising awareness, having 
conversations, but then it’s back to business as usual. 
Developing and implementing a strategy with targeted actions and 
measures aligned to business goals- owned by leadership- can lift the
significance of creating inclusive cultures and cultivating mental 

A third of Australian workplaces are yet to develop any wellness programs citing a perception that they were too expensive, not a business priority, or lack of resources to drive such an initiative. Can your workplace afford not to?

Mitchell Services collaborates with organisations to mindfully cultivate diverse, inclusive and well workplaces. Mitchell Services conducts Workplace Wellness Assessments to develop a baseline for the business case/ Workplace Wellness strategy, including action plans and measures.

Leith Mitchell, Director Mitchell Services, is finalising her Masters of Wellness studies in 2016 at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Read more from Leith Mitchell

Career Money LIfe now offers health and well being programs. Find out more


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