An Investment Magazine roundtable sponsored by AIA.

Mental health and wellbeing are increasingly top of mind for employers yet remain a big challenge. Differences in individual circumstances, types of work and even sizes of businesses, make it tricky for leaders to find the right approach.

At a recent Investment Magazine roundtable sponsored by AIA, leaders from super funds, life insurers and the health industry gathered to discuss how to better support good mental health and wellbeing for employees. The consensus was that more could be done to provide financial stability to employees, improving their financial wellbeing and, therefore, their general mental health.

This might include more flexible super options for those forced to leave work, or more diverse claims packages that consider mental health issues.

In the short-term, however, the focus has been on simply opening lines of communication within workplaces.

Super funds and insurers are among the companies leading the way.

AIA Australia’s group strategy manager, rehabilitation and claims, Simonie Fox, began by saying AIA is eager to help create change. She said there was a great deal of responsibility on business leaders to build strong relationships with employees so they could speak up about mental health.

“It requires leaders to share authentically and create a safe environment for real conversations,” Fox said. “This means people can put their hand up and say, ‘I’m struggling at the moment’, and the leaders know firstly, how to have the conversation, but secondly, how to support that employee [in remaining] at work.”

National workplace health and safety manager at The Reject Shop, Keith Govias, was invited to the roundtable to share his experience creating these types of conversations.

Govias said The Reject Shop used data to begin its journey, studying where injuries occur and what the outcomes of those incidents are for employees.

“Everyone has HR policies, but how many managers have the skills and resources that are relevant to a worker who is going through a traumatic or life-changing experience?” Govias said. “We looked at the challenge from a holistic perspective to build a safe environment where people could talk about any injury or any incident they had.”

REST Industry Super has been using the experiences of The Reject Shop in particular. General manager, strategic relations, at REST, Craig Hobart said the fund had focused on having better conversations with employees, but had also tested new strategies, such as its buddy system.

“When someone joins the organisation, the first person they’re introduced to is a buddy,” Hobart said. “It’s been extremely powerful.”

Head of people at Sunsuper, Simone Blumberg, said the fund had similarly helped support its employees by empowering leaders to take a more active role. This had also involved teaching them to start conversations.

“Our key message is that it’s not a standalone wellbeing program, it’s integrated and embedded into our strategy,” Blumberg said. “Leaders need to live and believe it.”

Having meaningful conversations can be difficult at larger companies, however, director Wellness Centre of Excellence, at PwC, Kate Connors said. Perfectionism among employees has also been a challenge at PwC, she said.

“Perfectionism is a risk to psychological health,” Connors explained. “This is why we created a new program to help our people feel safe, to see role models and see that they can have open conversations.”

As part of the PwC program, employees who have experienced mental health issues have been encouraged to share their stories in a series of video profiles.

Chief executive of EMLife, Katherine Gobbi, shared a story from her time as operations manager on the police force, where case managers were forced to handle trauma on a regular basis, which later led to mental health issues.

“I was really struggling to get the attention from leadership that I needed to get the investment for a cultural overhaul,” Gobbi said. “I’m fortunate that I was able to articulate what was an emerging crisis.

“Once the leadership understood what was happening and felt empathy about the issue, there was a connection between them and employees.”

In a similar story, team leader, injury management, at the Department of Planning and Environment NSW, Yvonne Barretta, said there were many people having mental health problems during her time at a large technology company.

To help, her team built a case to convince leadership that urgent action was required to help these struggling employees.

The roundtable’s chair, SuperFriend chief executive Margo Lydon said overcoming the challenges of large workplaces and opening a dialogue with employees took courage. To this end, SuperFriend helps super funds and insurers build better mental health and wellbeing programs and systems.

AIA national rehabilitation manager Joanne Graves said that, in her experience, the best support systems start early, with a preventative approach to mental health issues.

“It’s about being aware that people aren’t coping,” Graves said. “Then, as they need support, you can offer it and help them stay at work.”

Govias agreed with this sentiment and added that it also helped employees feel like they could comfortably return to work after suffering in some way.

Work as a solution

The idea of recovery at work has become crucial to improving the mental health of those who have suffered either a physical or mental issue, SafeWork NSW work health and wellbeing manager Erica Rubic said.

“If you can stay at work, your chances of recovery increase,” Rubic said.

The way work is delivered to employees could still be improved upon, however, said health industry independent director and consultant Suzanne Jones.

“I get to speak to all types of stakeholders and what’s not changing is the reframing of work,” Jones said. “People don’t think work is as effective as meditation or treatment. But if you get it right and fit the right person with good work, you can reduce treatment needed or the need for medication.”

This shift in mindset can take time, national manager, education, at Sunsuper, Joshua Van Gestel, told the group. He said that when his team first conducted general employee roadshows, many people didn’t understand the need for a specific session about mental health. But persistence is paying off at Sunsuper.

“We did a roadshow this year and the perception completely changed because we talked about building financial resilience to help with people’s broader wellbeing,” Van Gestel said.

Talking about financial flexibility can definitely help relieve an individual’s stress, Jones added.

“If someone needs to work less because they aren’t well, then the conversation needs to be had about what it means to their income and their super,” Jones said.

The conversation needs to be led by the employer around repackaging super, she said.

Of course, different businesses with diverse employee bases make the job of helping employees challenging, director of injury prevention and rehabilitation at the NSW State Insurance Regulatory Authority, Christine Baird, said.

“There are great opportunities for all types of businesses, not just the big ones that have worked out what to do,” Baird said. “We’re looking at ways we can pull levers to help each. We’re looking at a
co-regulatory response and want to engage in different ways, because it’s not a one-or-the-other scenario.”

Optus takes a broad approach. The telecommunications company’s manager of health and wellbeing, Megan Kingham, said mental health and wellbeing was central to the way the company works.

“Mental health doesn’t just sit over there, it’s part of our safety program,” she explained. “It weaves into everything we do. People need things at different times. So, you need to be able to have conversations on all things that may eventually lead to intervention.”

Managing director of Prestige Health Services Australia, Noni Byron, reiterated that transparency was paramount in any program, not only between employers and employees but also for health professionals who are invited inside a workplace to help.

Finally, the question of measurement came up. Connors said PwC was looking to include a workplace health index into its people survey. Jones supported this idea and said it wasn’t hard to take an interest in measuring how employees feel.

The group concluded, however, that there was generally too much complexity in the health and wellbeing space, and that navigating the number of providers in the industry was among the main challenges.

Some of the suggestions for handling this included having an industry forum or even pitch sessions that could help funds and insurers pick the most suitable providers for partnerships.

Lydon said SuperFriend was developing a national framework at the regulatory level that would help. This would include an aspirational view for all workers and guidance for employers on how to keep everyone engaged in good work.

As this discussion revealed, better employee engagement is integral to improving mental health and wellbeing across Australia’s workplaces.


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