Superfriend’s Margo Lydon, Wayside Chapel’s Jon Owen, Hostplus’s Shane Fielding and Rezilium’s Kamal Sarma

Australia and New Zealand are emerging as world leaders in addressing mental health, experts and business figures say, building on existing momentum to battle Covid-19 not just as a threat to physical health and the economy but also as a mental health threat with the potential to drive more people to suicide.

Superannuation funds have found themselves at the coalface of a mental health crisis that could ultimately take many more lives in Australia and New Zealand than Covid-19 itself. But while the situation is grim, it is also a, exciting time for mental health advocates who have long been calling for a more wholistic and integrated approach.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second feature in a series of articles and video excerpts Conexus Financial has published across Investment Magazine and Professional Planner. You can read the first feature here, along with personal stories from Australian Winter Olympic gold medallist Alisa Camplin AM here and Carden Calder, the managing director and founder of Blue Chip Communication, here.

Speaking at a recent virtual roundtable discussing the profound impact of the coronavirus on society’s mental health–hosted by Investment Magazine and AIA Australia– Margo Lydon, the CEO of workplace mental health organisation Superfriend, said now is the most exciting time she has seen in her 20 years of mental health advocacy.

“We have got governments listening, we have got business listening, we have got every Australian listening,” Lydon said. “Everyone’s mental health has been challenged at some point in the last four months. People who didn’t think they had a mental health challenge at all and had never experienced anything, have had time and because of the significant change, have had time to question their own well-being including mental health.”

Before Covid-19 there was already momentum in Australia. The federal government’s National Workplace Initiative has seen $11.5 million set aside from the 1019-20 Federal Budget over four years, with the aim of providing a nationally consistent approach to workplace mental health, whether it be for a sole trader, a small business or a large corporation. Lydon also praised the work of the National Mental Health Commission chaired by Lucinda Brogden AM.

Now the onset of Covid-19 is likely to be a catalyst for significant change in how Australian society accepts and addresses mental health. Lydon said Australia is one of few countries taking genuine leadership to include mental health in its discussion about the pandemic while most countries refer to it as a health and economic crisis.

Coordinated response

But the key is to galvanise this opportunity to create lasting change, Lydon said, to “bounce forward”, not bounce back. There needs to be good mental health and well-being training across the superannuation industry for anyone who is leading people or dealing with members or employers, and this influence could filter out more broadly to the business world, she said.

“We are really just at the point right now where we’re starting to come out to our partners–employers around the country–and really start to talk to them about what it is that they actually need,” Lydon said. “We’ve got an enormous amount of evidence here in Australia of what works. We’ve got great range of tools and resources. We’ve heard many of them today. It is about pulling it together.”

Super funds should look at more ways their insurance arms can pay for treatment and “get closer to the member at the time they need them most,” she said. This could be something as simple as paying the gap between the medicare rebate and the cost of treatment, or enabling the member to increase the number of government-funded counselling sessions beyond the current limit of 10.

The industry should also lobby for legislative change obligating employers to notify an employee’s super fund when an employee is on workers compensation, enabling early intervention which can play a crucial role in recovery.

“That is when we’re going to get really genuinely early intervention happening,” Lydon said. “We know with mental health conditions, the earlier you can intervene, the earlier you can get to appropriate and really well supported help, the better your outcome, the better the recovery, the better the whole economic as well as social elements are.

“I think there’s an enormous amount this industry can be advocating for collectively that would actually benefit all funds, all members, insurers, as well as the broader society, and we’re certainly at super friend very keen to do that.”

Sarah Hellwege, a psychologist and mental health consultant at Superfriend, said Australia had managed a highly coordinated response to the physical health threats of Covid-19, but needed to show a similarly coordinated response to its threat to mental health, particularly in the area of looking at precursors and modelling for potential impacts.

“We know that a third of the population are already vulnerable,” Hellwege said. “And when we look at the current pandemic, we know that unemployment, economic insecurity and poverty are significant risk factors for mental illness. So I think…more broadly we need to look at predictive modelling. I think there’s a call for more modelling around what do we need to anticipate? [What are] the services are going to look like? We need to really ramp up coordinated care for mental health services.”

Educating leaders in different fields about their own mental should be a priority, she said, because this would enable them to better help and support others in their workplaces. Superannuation funds are well positioned to do this through their extensive contacts with employers and employees.

“People get well at work,” Hellwege said. “So we need to create a place where people can be at work when they’re not at their best, to get better, when they’re at work. So it really comes back to our role and at Superfriend the role that we do around educating our people leaders to be the best that they can be, so people can stay at work and we’re all part of a system which is supporting each other.”

Boosting member engagement

Member engagement has been a perennial challenge for super funds, with a lot of members seeing their automated superannuation payments as a kind of set-and-forget mechanism that will matter then they’re old. But during Covid-19, this has drastically changed.

The early release of superannuation has provided a lifeline for families who have lost their livelihood. Call centres have been swamped with enquiries about insurance status and what other forms of cover are available. And with financial stress playing a major role in the distress many are feeling right now, member services such as financial advice have a big role to play.

For accommodation- and hospitality-focussed superannuation fund Hostplus, the crisis has opened a way forward to make deep improvements to the services it offers to its young member demographic.

Head of insurance, Shane Fielding said in the area of Total and Permanent Disability claims alone, 38 per cent of the claims for those aged 16 to 25 were for mental illness and 28 per cent was a lump sum benefit related to suicide. The next group 26 to 30, suicide was around 33 per cent of all claims paid out for those members.

Fielding sees opportunities to support members towards better financial and mental health, which could ultimately prevent some conditions from getting to the point of a TPD claim. This could include education about financial literacy and financial security. With most funds not having income protection benefits as part of their default structure due to how expensive they are, there is a need for more tailored models of support, he said.

“We don’t do enough as a society to to educate Australians on how to be financially healthy,” Fielding said. “The fund can play a role there through financial literacy, but you know our financial advice models are really set up for retirement planning. They’re not set up to help members with their financial needs during their membership from when they joined the fund–at age 15, in our case–through to retirement.

Lump sum and income protection benefits in particular should come with more than a payment and a friendly goodbye, Fielding said.

“I really think we need to redesign insurance within super and that’s going to require some significant changes to the…legislation to allow that to happen,” Fielding said. “[It should be a benefit that fits the needs of the individual so that when we get to that critical point that we have to pay someone out if they’re never going to work again due to a mental illness, we’re there to support them on an ongoing basis with their financial needs and mental health needs, whatever else we can support them with. Because the end of the day, if we’re not there for them, then they’re going to be falling back on social services.”

Good information

Funds also have a social license to play a greater role in educating workplaces, Fielding said, acknowledging superannuation funds aren’t doing well enough with health and wellbeing programs at the moment.

Two tranches of Hostplus member research during Covid-19 found at least 40 per cent of members said they would trust their superannuation fund to provide them with education and material to support their mental health as well as their financial health.

“So I think that sort of gives us a bit of license…to actually push more out to them and provide them with that sort of educational material and supporting material as part of their membership of the fund so that they’re better equipped if an incident does occur with their mental health that causes them a need to claim against the fund,” Fielding said.

While the task of educating a nation about mental health may seem daunting, there are some small changes people can enact that can make an enormous difference to their mental wellbeing. One is simply ensuring adequate sleep.

Damien Mu, CEO and managing director of AIA Australia and New Zealand, described the results of his health assessment from AIA Vitality Ambassador Dr Jaime Lee. He earned 95 out of 100 and felt like he was superman. But two results within the assessment stood out for their extremely poor scores: restorative sleep and stress recovery.

“My restorative sleep was six out of a hundred and my stress recovery was 36 out of a hundred so, you know…that’s not very healthy and wasn’t helping my mental well-being at all,” Mu said. “We have our “extra hour of sleep” campaign because we now know sleep is such an important aspect and I’ve just tried to live life a little bit slower. So it wasn’t until I got some of that data that I realized that I wasn’t potentially going to be around for my kids. And actually I wasn’t operating at my full mental well-being capacity.”

Kamal Sarma, director of strategic leadership development firm Rezilium, and a former monk, said the concept of “mental hygiene” could help people better protect their minds, particularly during difficult and distressing times.

“You know, I remember as a monk we were taught about how to protect our minds,” Sarma said. “We are very conscious of what we put into our mouths but not very conscious of what we put into our minds.”

“We are kidding ourselves that we are more connected, we are not. Just because you like my post on LinkedIn, I’m not feeling any sense of connection to you,” Sarma said. “I think we need to create connected cities, connected communities and connected organisations. We’ve lost this ability to do this.”

Honest conversations about mental health needs

During the onset of Covid-19, the first step for Sydney’s Wayside Chapel–an essential frontline service dealing with society’s most vulnerable people––was to start normalising talking about fears and worries, and also getting tested.

“In the first week there was an element of shame if you felt like you needed to go get a test, and now we kind of celebrate it,” said Jon Owen, the Wayside Chapel’s pastor and CEO. “We have daily staff forums on Zoom, we have about ten per cent of our workforce work from home, we’ve had one apply to never come back into the office since then and I think she is the first of many. What we’ve found is there has been no drop in efficiency there.”

Suzanne Gibson, co-founder of Headsmart Psychology, said Covid-19’s impact on the workforce would hopefully create lasting change in how employers view work-from-home arrangements, reducing stigma towards people who need to work that way. While there was no doubt Covid-19 had been tough on many of her clients, some of them actually did better under the changed working conditions.

“I have a bit of a specialty in working with people with chronic pain, and so what I actually saw for those people, especially those people who work, is that having the restrictions but having a requirement to work from home–having everyone else in the same situation that they have currently been struggling with–was actually helpful for their mental health, it was normalising,” Gibson said.

High achievers with chronic pain sometimes struggle with guilt about not being able to be in the office as much as their peers, and feel they aren’t living up to expectations,” she said.

She said workplaces that facilitated honest conversations helped build a greater sense of a shared experience, normalising fears and enabling greater self-compassion. Some people feel distressed at their own level of distress during this difficult time, when in reality this is a normal reaction.

“They feel distressed about their distress, you know that it feels like there’s something really wrong with them and they shouldn’t be feeling that way,” Gibson said. “And so…sending that message that there’s some normality to this, I think…reduces some of their distress.”

Leah Plimmer, head of insurance services at Sunsuper, said she believed working from home and better workplace flexibility would be a lasting positive legacy to come out of Covid-19.

“It’s going to be one of the benefits of this,” Plimmer said. “To all the naysayers who have historically said working from home can’t work, you know from an operational perspective we’ve certainly proven that it can. When you put trust in people they give it back to you tenfold and that’s certainly what we’ve seen at an operational level.”

Wrapping up the conversation, host Colin Tate, CEO of Conexus Financial, ended the roundtable with a shout-out to frontline workers battling Covid-19, but also to some of the less celebrated actors in these difficult times: financial planners across Australia who were already dealing with the disruption of their industry following the Hayne Royal Commission.

“They are dealing with their clients all day, every day, whilst also trying to reinvent their own businesses, and literally in many cases, survive,” Tate said. “So hang in there financial planners, the work you do when you provide great advice is transformative for all Australians and it’s important work.”

He also gave a shout-out to insurers and people working in superannuation funds.

“In the Superfund area, there’s 12 to 13 million people who majority have their only insurance through the work that you do,” Tate said. “If you work at a super fund, you’re also looking after our national savings and the future retirements of every Australian. I couldn’t stress how important that work is. So just take a moment to thank yourself for the work that you do that often you are not acknowledged for, or often no one even is aware of.”

Ben Hurley is a journalist and editor with more than a decade of experience in the industry. He has written for The Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly, The Guardian and a range of specialised and industry publications.
One comment on “Local super industry leading the world on mental health during Covid-19”
  1. Avatar Meg (Marguerite) Anklesaria

    A significant article Ben – how uplifting to hear the work of our superannuation leaders in acknowledging the impact of mental health within the workplace and ways to support those that need it. Thank you!

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