Promoting communication and connection are vital skills for leaders to combat the mental health fallout for staff and customers during the pandemic, says Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation chief executive Damian Hill.

The 20-year super industry veteran stepped in “virtually” as CEO in July when CSC’s Sydney office was closed and the Canberra site, where most of the public sector and Australian Defence Force super fund’s 460 employees are based, was at half capacity.

“In my first two and half months, I have (physically) met four people and certainly not all my direct reports,’’ Hill says.

Speaking ahead of his session ‘Volatility, Anxiety and Amplifying Mental Fitness’, at Investment Magazine’s Fiduciary Investors’ Symposium on November 17, Hill says his introduction to about 70 per cent of employees was in a web-based meeting. Superannuation fund investors can sign up to FIS Nov here.

The former REST chief executive and inaugural chairman of mental health organisation SuperFriend, has been conscious of making sure staff and customers stay connected while the working world remains remote.

“It’s not optimal. Like all organisations, we had to make change on the fly and we stood up our crisis management team specifically about that. We launched additional mental health support with regard to our staff during this period,’’ Hill says.

“We needed to over communicate. Our staff are further removed from their managers but in many respects they feel closer to their managers with a lot more one-on-one time happening through the circumstances.

“We have a peer-support network, optional online sessions with psychologists, and we try to encourage people to share their experience working from home, both the good and the bad.  We encourage our people to perhaps exercise together or meet in a cafe … or eat lunch together to stay connected.

In August, CSC partnered with SuperFriend to support customers and staff and help reduce the stigma associated with mental health, equipping people with important skills to thrive at work.

It has also partnered with crisis support service Lifeline in October to do mental health training for CSC’s call centres to support customers in response to Lifeline’s forecast of suicide rates to increase by 50 per cent in the coming months. Calls to the service lifted by 30 per cent nationally during the pandemic.

Hill’s advice to business leaders is not to be “afraid of the conversations” about mental health with staff.

“It’s the right time for leaders to lead and show that it’s okay to have these conversations and de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace,” Hill says.

With one third of the Commonwealth Superannuation Fund’s 800,000 members in retirement phase, support was particularly important for those customers to remain connected while CSC made more than 700 calls to active contributors to offer free general financial advice as they were telling CSC they felt less financially secure during this time.

Meanwhile mental health was the largest cause for total and permanent disability claims and worth 40 per cent of income protection claims for the Fund’s insurance, Hill says.

“We’ve had to remain vigilant, we’ve to continue to listen to our customers, we have to look at our claims experience to see where they are, we need to continue to look at engagement with our agencies,’’ Hill says.

“Mental health, in particular, is a long game.”

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