29 November 2018

How leaders can help create mentally
healthy workplaces.

Statistics can sometimes overwhelm. The figures pile up, and we lose sight of what the numbers mean. Take, for instance, the statistics around mental health in Australia:

  • One in seven Australians will experience depression in their lifetime.
  • One-quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime.
  • One in nine Australians is currently experiencing high or very high psychological distress.
  • Around eight people die each day in Australia by suicide.

These statistics detail how common mental health issues are in our country. These numbers take on a human dimension when we think about how mental health issues have affected us all in some way, whether personally or through family and friends. Indeed, The CEO Circle has been touched by depression, anxiety and unfortunately suicide, as have almost all Australians.

The prevalence of mental health issues prompted me to think about how we could change the conversation around mental health for our CEO Circle members, in their workplaces, and in our workplace too. 

The CEO of Beyond Blue, Georgie Harman, is an esteemed member of the Circle, and she and the beyondblue team have been an invaluable source of information and inspiration in helping us to share the message with our members in the hope they too can positively influence their workplaces. Online resources like Heads Up have been especially useful in giving leaders and organisations the tools to implement better mental health strategies, policies and programs in the workplace.

Recently, The CEO Circle and beyondblue teamed up to hold two very special breakfast panel discussions, held in Melbourne on August 22 and Sydney on September 7, on the issue of mentally healthy workplaces. 

The three panel speakers at the Melbourne event were the former Prime Minister of Australia and the Chair of the Board of Directors at beyondblue, The Hon. Julia Gillard AC; the CEO of beyondblue, Ms. Georgie Harman; and beyondblue ambassador and the founder and Executive Chairman of the John Hopkins Group, Mr. John Hopkins. At the Sydney event, Ms. Gillard and Ms. Harman were joined by Mr. Paul Howes, Partner KPMG Australia and Director beyondblue. 

The discussions provided valuable insights into the importance of mental health in the workplace and how leaders can make their workplaces mentally healthy. The panel speakers also talked at times poignantly about their experiences with mental health in the workplace and beyond.

John Hopkins talked with great candour about his lifelong battle. He took us deep into his lived experience of depression. 

"I don't feel like a victim. I've had a wonderful life. A great life. But I'd say to you, hopefully without anyone thinking I'm being sorry for myself, that I've had great sadness for about 70% of my life. And it really is a deep sadness. Another word I could use, and if you could please accept I'm not exaggerating, is a dread that sits with me," he told the audience.

Paul Howes also spoke, at times with wry humour, about his anxiety and depression. He also spoke soberingly about one of his tasks during his time as the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union — signing bereavement cheques for members who had died before retirement age. 

"On a regular basis, you'd look at these death certificates and see the cause of death, increasing numbers over a period, death by asphyxiation, death by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, car accidents and so on. It was very clear we were having a major issue with members, mainly men in their mid-40s in economically depressed areas, taking their lives," he told the audience.

Julia Gillard made an observation that resonated with many in the audience: leadership models are changing. It was a positive development away from the ‘hero' model, exemplified by the corporate warrior mentality, to one that valued ‘enabling' leaders, those who used their intelligence and humanity to better themselves and their teams.

“What does the leader do that models good behaviours? What does the leader do that brings the best out in the team and helps them be the most productive and engaged they can be? And I think this mental health agenda fits so well with that new model of leadership,” she said.

It was a reminder that leaders can change their environments. Leaders play a significant role in shaping the culture of a workplace and have the power to create mentally healthy workplaces. Positive change starts with one person. Be that person.

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, please seek help from your GP, or from Beyond Blue by calling 1300 224 636 to speak to a trained mental health professional. For suicide and crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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