The Business of Mental Health
Download The AGSM Business of Leadership podcast today on your favourite podcast platform.
This episode unpacks how COVID-19 has digitised mental health support services
Evidence of the physical toll of COVID-19 is everywhere. Illness, isolation and loss of income are just some of the examples of how we have been impacted by COVID-19. Crisis support service, Lifeline Australia reported a 40 per cent increase in service delivery, as Australians adjusted to new challenges at the height of the pandemic.
In this episode, The Business of Mental Health, we will be discussing how mental health support organisations are leveraging emerging technologies to provide better access and get bigger reach. We’ll also be looking at the impact of poor mental health in the world of work. And how can workplaces act now to help employees maintain their work-life balance.
Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean and Director at AGSM speaks with Thilini Perera, CEO of Lifeline International, about how the organisation has navigated the pandemic and what the future holds for support helplines.
Next, Professor Frederik Anseel, Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School and President of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology joins us. He shares findings from his research into the impact of COVID-19 on workplace mental health, as well as sharing how to create a more mentally healthy work environment.
- Professor Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean and Director at AGSM
- Thilini Perera, (AGSM MBA Candidate), CEO of Lifeline International
- Professor Frederik Anseel, Senior Deputy Dean UNSW Business School, President of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology
Narration: A quick note ahead of this episode: Today, we will be discussing themes of mental health, self-harm and suicide. If this isn’t the right episode for you right now, we encourage you to check out some of the other Business Of Leadership episodes that are available in this series.
If you need to talk to someone, and you are based in Australia, you can contact Lifeline at Thirteen Eleven Fourteen for crisis support.
Evidence of the physical toll of COVID-19 is everywhere. Illness, isolation and loss of income are just some of the all too tangible examples of how we have been impacted by COVID-19. And we are only just beginning to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on our mental health.
Crisis support service Lifeline Australia reported a 40 per cent increase in service delivery, as Australians adjusted to new challenges around life and work at the height of the pandemic. There has also been a marked shift in our collective attitudes towards mental health.
In this episode, we will be discussing how mental health support organisations are leveraging emerging technologies to provide better access and get bigger reach. What is the real cost of inaction when it comes to mental health? And is there still a stigma attached to mental health issues – or are we seeing greater understanding and acceptance?
We’ll also be looking at the impact of poor mental health in the world of work – how employees and organisations alike are coping. What impact did the pandemic have on employee work-life balance? And how can workplaces take action now to help employees maintain their mental health and wellbeing, for the benefit of the organisation and individual alike?
First up, Professor Nick Wailes: Senior Deputy Dean and Director at AGSM speaks with Thilini Perera:, CEO of Lifeline International, about how the organisation has navigated the pandemic and what the future holds for how organisations deliver crisis support.
Next, Professor Frederik Anseel: Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School and President of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology joins us. He shares findings from his research into the impact of COVID-19 on workplace mental health, as well as sharing what steps organisations can take to create a more mentally healthy work environment.
Now, here’s Nick Wailes speaking with Thilini Perera.
Nick Wailes: Hi everybody. It’s Nick Wailes: here, the Director of AGSM and I’m welcoming you to another edition of The Business Of podcast. This session is the business of mental health, really important issue and one that’s growing in everyone’s attention, and I’m delighted that our guest today is Thilini Perera, the Chief Executive Officer of Lifeline International. Great to have you here, Thilini and really looking forward to our conversation.
Thilini Perera: Likewise, Nick, and thanks for having me.
Nick Wailes: Really interesting to find out about you and how did you get to the role that you’re in now and what have you done in the lead up to that?
Thilini Perera: Yeah, thanks Nick. I didn’t start out thinking I would end up here to be honest. I studied to be a lawyer. I graduated, I trained as a lawyer and then somewhere along that journey, I joined Lifeline Australia in 2010 as part of their corporate governance and legal team. And I suppose, as they say, the rest is history, I actually started to appreciate and understand that all communities and people and families and friends are impacted by mental health and suicide prevention on some level. But the important thing is I actually appreciated that suicide is preventable and we can do something about it. And I say this because I grew up in Sri Lanka before I moved to Australia to study law. And we went through a civil conflict in Sri Lanka and tsunamis and a whole bunch of challenging situations. And so mental health and suicide prevention wasn’t widely talked about in an environment that I grew up in.
So, when I joined Lifeline Australia and understood that there’s so many things we can do together as a community to save lives, it really inspired me. And so I worked at Lifeline Australia for 10 years as part of the executive team. And then in July last year, I had a fantastic opportunity to take on the role as CEO of Lifeline International. And I grabbed it with both hands and now I have the opportunity to work with 21 Lifeline member countries across 20 countries around the world. And they deliver lifesaving crisis support services in all of those countries.
Nick Wailes: I think all of us have heard about Lifeline and we’ve watched on the broadcast where Lifeline is always the first port of call for people and we’ve all seen it, but really interested to find out how it’s organised. So, maybe you could talk about the organisation that you ran in Australia and how that’s structured and how that operates. But then also talk a little bit more about Lifeline International, the organisation you’re running now because I think very interesting to find out about those.
Thilini Perera: Yeah, of course. So how it works in Australia, Nick, is that anyone experiencing a crisis or suicide ideation can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or text us, or contact us on web chat. And it’s a national service, which means there’s thousands of volunteers and crisis supporters around the country ready to take your call or text or web chat and ready to engage with you. And basically, when you contact Lifeline, you enter the first a national call queue. And the first available crisis supporter anywhere in the country will answer that call and they will follow a practise model that’ll help deescalate the emotions of the person and work through the emotions, listen to them without judgement and with empathy, to bring them to a safe space and often even create a safe plan if they’re in crisis. Now, if someone contacts us and is experiencing imminent risk to their life or to someone else’s life or property, we will then work with police to work through the necessary interventions to save lives.
So in a nutshell, that’s how it works in Australia, but it’s not just the crisis intervention part that Lifeline Australia does. There are 41 centres across 60 locations around Australia. And each of those centres also deliver community-based prevention and postvention services. So they train the community to understand how to spot the signs of someone experiencing crisis or suicide ideation and what to do and how to respond in that situation. And then if we look across some of the Lifelines globally, they’re all organised in slightly different ways, depending on the community and country they operate in. So for example, some of our members across Africa operate not just a crisis line for suicide prevention, but concurrently align for child protection to deal with gender-based violence and HIV, because all of those things compound the mental health and suicide prevention situation in those respective countries.
So, it’s nuanced to meet the needs of that particular community. So, we might organise ourselves slightly differently, but the commonality is that everybody operates a crisis helpline. And basically, then you access a telehealth service to receive support from someone that you’ve never met before. And often it’s a one off interaction because if you call Lifeline, you’ll meet someone, they’ll talk to you. And then the next time you call, it could be someone else. So, it is very much a one-off interaction.
Nick Wailes: So, Thilini, I think all of us know that mental health is not only bad for our community, but it has an economic cost as well. And we’ve seen a significant increase during the pandemic of reported cases of mental ill health. Just help me, what’s the size of the increase of call on your services? And what are some of the estimates of the costs of mental ill health for the Australian economy, for example?
Thilini Perera: Yeah, Nick, just over two years ago, we were averaging a Lifeline Australia under 2,500 calls to our service per day. And in the height of the pandemic, we were regularly seeing more than 3,500 calls per day, which was a 40 per cent increase in terms of service delivery. And so, I think that’s a significant increase and wasn’t dissimilar to other parts of the world where there was a huge increase in demand for services.
Nick Wailes: As an organisation, you have to mobilise thousands and thousands of voluntary counsellors. You have to ensure that they’re trained. You have to have really robust systems in there. So how big is the organisation in Australia that actually is able to create and maintain that system?
Thilini Perera: Yes is a huge operation in that sense, as I said, we’ve got 41 centres that actually spend that time recruiting, managing, supporting volunteers, training them to come on the phones, supervising them. We have a duty of care not just to the person contacting us, but for the crisis supporter and the volunteer who takes the call to make sure they’re looked after, that someone’s debriefing with them, that there are supervision frameworks in place to support the person taking the call. There are practise models, reviews for quality control and safety issues, ensuring that we’re also meeting legislative requirements around safety and reporting, working with police on various aspects. And then there’s a technology side of it, the platforms, the ICT and how we can actually use it, the national infrastructure to ensure that there’s a seamless service.
Lifeline in Australia is working towards a system of an omnichannel platform where we can seamlessly text, call, use web chat and seamlessly move through systems and services across those channels as needed in the future and use those platforms interchangeably, hopefully in the future to manage overflow on one particular channel, perhaps as well. And speaking of, if we can explore that a little bit the role of technology in suicide prevention, I think it’s a very interesting time, particularly following COVID, that we are living in, that we can actually use technology in a way that we haven’t before across the world to ensure that more people can access help. So, because during COVID, we couldn’t actually meet people face to face and attend those really critically important face-to-face counselling sessions.
I know that most people turn to telehealth services in a way they hadn’t before. We’ve looked at numerous studies that show us across the world that the demand on crisis helplines increased significantly during the pandemic. People were stuck at home, they were experiencing fear of infection, loneliness, but they could still make contact with Lifeline in most different countries or crisis helplines and use those channels and telecommunications and technology to connect with someone to receive help.
Nick Wailes: That’s really interesting. So, you’re saying COVID actually showed how valuable these things are and what a significant role they can play in all of our efforts to improve mental health and reduce suicide. And that sort of became obvious. So am really interested in the technology because in some ways Lifeline is almost like a technology business, right?
The fact that it exists was the growth and use of telephones. And someone leveraged that technology to say, this is a great way for us to do these things. I’m sure that you guys are at the forefront of some of those PABX technologies and how do you reroute calls and all of those types of things. And then, but now you’re confronting sort of mobile, you’ve got different demographics using different channels and all of those sort of things.
We’ve got our core business, but we have to think about what are the new channels we add on and how we best to operate in social media, for example?
Thilini Perera: Yeah. Look, that’s a really interesting question. And we’ve been on quite a journey. So Lifeline started in Australia in 1963. And as you said, in 1963 using a phone to deliver a crisis support service was revolutionary. Hadn’t been done before. Then we move across to then moving to a text more recently and web chat. And in the future, no doubt will be social media and a number of other mechanisms. But for a long time, we now have a national service, but for a long time, Lifeline had a decentralised service where if you called from Canberra, your call would be answered in Canberra.
It was very much a localised approach to service delivery. Then somewhere in the 2000s moved into a national contact centre approach where you now leverage the different time zones in Perth and Brisbane and Adelaide and other places, even though there might not be huge time differences to actually say, hey, if we have a national call queue, it might not be that people might be in the contact centre in Canberra at that time, but it’s two hours behind in Perth. Then there are people there answering calls on a national call queue, and we can leverage this if we work together across all of the states.
And then we move into an omnichannel system that we are working towards now. And so into the future when we think about that, we absolutely have to keep our eye on the prize in terms of how do we meet people where they’re at? And that is really the critical question. We should not be dictating the channels ourselves. We should be understanding from help seekers. If we approach this service like any other service and have the help seeker, the person seeking help at the centre of what we do. And we put ourselves in that person’s shoes, how do we make it easy for that person to access help? What are the channels they want to use?
But even looking outside of Australia, we could talk about the US for a second. Over the COVID period and shortly in July, this new system will go live in the US. They’ve now created 988 as a centralised mental health crisis support, national suicide prevention number that will sit alongside 911 in the US. That is phenomenal. That is the first time we’ve seen a country actually consolidate resources in that way. And what it does is, we will see shortly when it goes live in July, what kind of a process they go through, how they live that new system out. We will no doubt learn from that and observe how things go in that space. I’ve also known that Canada is now approaching the 988 system themselves. And I know a couple of other countries that are looking at that, but why is that important?
For a couple of reasons in my perspective when I think about it, firstly and more importantly, if you are experiencing an acute crisis in that moment and you need to think about what that person’s mind frame is at that point in time, how easy is it for someone who’s experiencing extreme distress and turmoil to enter a system and go, there are these services here, I could access help here, can I use this system? There’s so many services and systems in place and someone experiencing distress, how do they navigate that? We need to think about how people navigate and find the care they need when they’re in that frame of mind. I wonder in the US, if we look back in a year once the system’s in place. If we talk to help seekers and go, was it easy as thinking about if I’m in physical danger, I’ll call 911, if I’m experiencing a crisis, I’ll call 988 and that’s the only decision you had to make as a help seeker. Does that make it easier to access that service?
Nick Wailes: That seems like an infinitely better situation than the one now. So, I want to come back and talk about the power of the network of Lifeline International and how you learn from each other and transfer ideas because I think that’s a really interesting area to explore that sort of innovation opportunities, but you sort of raised it there, which is that an organisation like Lifeline sits in a very complex web of mental health services, some public, some private.
And you play an important part there, but you are one part of a very complex ecosystem. And I think you might not have to know very much about it to know that looks very complicated and potentially very dysfunctional from the outside. And we’ve seen lots of example as COVID has hit and demand on services has increased. It’s very clear that there are challenges and gaps in the system. From a Lifeline point of view, how do you see that ecosystem and how does it work? Where do you fit in and where are the areas you’d like to see improvements or better coordination and those types of things?
Thilini Perera: Yeah. And look, I’ll focus on Australia. I have to say in my experience in more recent times, I see service providers working closer and better together than we have before. There is a coalition of the willing, so to speak, working together, talking through strategies, how do we each have our own space in this ecosystem and not duplicate effort because resources are already limited. So really understanding the ecosystem, what roles exist in that space, who is playing what part in that role so we don’t step over each other or duplicate efforts, but ensure each part of the ecosystem is covered. Those conversations I believe is happening across our industry and our sector, and I think that’s extremely helpful. It’s extremely encouraging. But if I look at the system, I personally look at it as a couple of different parts of the system.
You’ve got prevention. And that is when we want to try and intervene early to ensure someone doesn’t experience that full suicidal ideation and end up taking their life. So we intervene early in the prevention space. We then have the intervention space where someone’s experiencing ideation and we want to intervene to save a life. We then have postvention in that ecosystem and that is where someone’s lost someone to suicide. And we need to support them through a bereavement process. And then there’s aftercare and aftercare is where someone’s attempted to take their life. And let’s say, they’ve been then sent to hospital and then they get discharged and what happens next? Does that person go back to where they were before we found them and intervened? So you’ve got prevention, intervention, postvention, and aftercare broadly in our system. And there are different organisations and government services playing a role in each of those parts. To start with where I see Lifeline across that system is in every one of those areas.
And that is because you can call us or contact us at the first stage when you’re starting to feel distressed. So we can intervene early, work through that, give you a referral, put you into contact with your GP, whatever that is. We can do that early and stop people moving across that spectrum into the part where you need intervention, but you may well call us when you are at the point of wanting to take your life and it’s imminent. And we will then the service at that point is an intervention piece. And then postvention, you might be bereaving in that bereavement space, grieving over the loss of someone that you love and you can still call us and we will help you work through those emotions. And the same in the aftercare space, call us and say, I’ve just attempted to take my life a week ago, I’m in this space.
So for me, crisis helplines like Lifeline can sit across that entire spectrum of prevention, intervention, postvention, and aftercare, and it can be an effective accompaniment or aid to the acute services that sit in those spaces. I think the other part is, Nick, in terms of the ecosystem in itself, I’d like to see for someone in crisis when they enter the system who’s helping them navigate through the system and understand which services to access at which time are? I think the care navigator role is important and frankly, Lifeline plays an important part in that space. I don’t know that a lot of people know, but if someone contacts us, we often, you know, about 60 per cent of our contacts, we might put through to referral services. And so we connect them with others that can continue to provide that care and support.
So referral is a really important part of the system as well. And that care navigation role connecting the help seeker with other forms of care is equally important. In terms of where I think we could do with investment, aftercare has been very underdone, I think for a long time in Australia, so that when someone gets discharged from hospital, they could well go back to where they were. How do we ensure that we are providing the right support in that space? And having said that I will commend the government because quite recently, there’s been a huge investment announced to support universal aftercare in Australia.
Nick Wailes: Okay. Lots of great examples there and really interesting to see how that plays out over the next few years. I want to just spend the time that we had left because you’ve done a fantastic job talking about the role of Lifeline, how it interconnects with other services and the sort of aim of creating a model where people can reach out for help and have a seamless experience. But I think probably the people that we haven’t talked about in the role that we haven’t talked about is what’s the role of employers, leaders in organisations, the place where people live their lives. And I think that there’s a really important conversation in business to have about what is our responsibility to creating mentally healthy workplaces and playing a role there. Have you got some thoughts or reflections on that on what we should be thinking as leaders and the role that we should be playing?
Thilini Perera: I think when we consider mental health, good mental health, and as you said, Nick, we spent a lot of time at work and we therefore have a duty of care, I think, and responsibility as leaders to everyone in our organisation in that context. And if we think about the workplace, I think we’ve seen some great strides in Australia quite recently in this space has been a huge focus, particularly since COVID-19 to ensure we’re supporting our staff when they were working from home. And as we return to work, ensuring that mental health remains at the forefront of those initiatives. I wanted to probably give a shout out to the Corporate Mental Health Alliance that has been formed fairly recently. It’s been chaired by Steve Worrall, the CEO of Microsoft Australia. And it brings together business leaders and experts in suicide prevention on actually having these conversations and making resources available to the business community and to workplaces around how we approach mental health in the workplace.
So I’d really encourage people to look up the Corporate Mental Health Alliance. There’s some great resources on there, everything from how to balance high performance and mental health, how to start having the mental health conversation very early in our careers. There’s a lot of great resources on there, but I guess my focus on a couple of things because I know we’re running out of time as well, is that we need to have good mental health support policies in our workplaces, but it’s one thing to have the policy. But research showed us that most times staff didn’t know those policies existed. So once we have a policy, what do we do with it? Do we keep reminding people it exists that you can call EAP (Employee Assistance Programs), that these are the supports available to you or do we just have the policy and it’s there, we’ve ticked a box?
It needs to be a living, breathing dynamic document. We look at it regularly. We ensure it remains relevant. We let staff know those supports exist in the workplace. But the other thing is I think training and Lifeline provides a lot of great workplace training to leaders, to managers, to help them identify when someone is in distress, what are the signs we should be looking for and how do we empower each other in our teams to identify if someone’s going through a distressing period? What should we look for? And if we identify those signs, how do we respond to that? Not to be alarmed, not know how to respond, but how do we have the conversation? How do we link them in with key services and supports? I think that’s a really important part of not just having the policy, but training people to identify and be able to respond.
But again, I’ll come back to the data. We have so much data available to us as individual team leaders and employers. What does your data about absenteeism tell you? Is it telling you that this staff member’s burnt out? What does a performance data tell you? Are we just having performance discussions or where does mental health and good mental health and how people feel and look after themselves part of those discussions?
I think there’s a lot we can do to analyse the data in that space to understand what’s happening in our organisations in this space. And certainly, as we start to think about returning to work, I imagine there’ll be some anxiousness about coming back to a room full of people after we’ve all been locked away in our houses. How do we have a conversation with our teams that acknowledges what those anxieties might be? How do we work through them? How do we ensure we build in supports around our return to work plan? So that people know they can talk to their manager about it and not be afraid to bring it up. But I think the single biggest thing we can do as leaders is model that behaviour that it’s okay to ask for help, to talk openly about what we are doing to keep our health and wellness in check as well.
Nick Wailes: So I’m really glad you brought up that point because I’ve seen some examples recently of corporate leaders and people in senior roles openly talking about their issues around mental health.
And that being very open and those sort of things. And it seemed to me that was incredibly powerful way to signal that this is not a stigma, this is a part of life. And imagine for a lot of people in those organisations, they looked at that and it created a really great environment to start having those conversations. Is that your view about that as well?
Thilini Perera: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the president of Lifeline International is John Brogden, the chair that I work with and he has done so much in sharing his own personal story often in corporate settings about the journey that he went through, and how he lives, he calls it not lived experience, but living experience because it’s something that continues to this day, how he manages that talks about that. And I think a lot of people really appreciate that and that resonates and become relatable that it’s okay to be in these senior roles. We all experience difficulties and challenges.
How do we address them? And it’s okay to get help. It’s okay to put your hand up and acknowledge it and seek help. And that you’re not going to be considered as being weak or not being able to tough it out or whatever they might be thinking in that context. So I think it’s importantly, storytelling, I think, is really important in this space as is lived experience. And I think lived experience is important because those stories drive us all to understand mental health in a more deep way, but also understand how to get help. It normalises the conversation, but it also respects the experience of people who’ve lived through these distressing challenges to actually feed it into how we deliver services as well.
Nick Wailes: Now, we talked about some examples of innovations that you’ve seen around the network and some of them were community based or those sorts of things. But there is another layer of potential innovation, which is about leveraging data and predictive analytics and some of those types of things which can really have a potential to change the landscape for identifying mental ill health and suicide prevention.
Thilini Perera: Yeah. Look, I think that’s a very interesting space. We’re looking across to the US, there have been some really big studies around predictive analytics being used to actually look at risk factors and predict someone’s suicidality. And look, that can be life-changing if we can use that predictive analysis to save lives. But as you said, we need to look at those trials really carefully before we can think about even ever using that in a service delivery context because there’s that ethical component to where we’re crossing the line in terms of understanding, I guess, the ethics of using predictive analysis in this context, in terms of human life and thought processes and how we use that in a lifesaving capacity.
The other thing is there have been trials around speech and face analytics to help us identify if there’s a difference in the voice of someone if we’re speaking to them and if that can predict suicidality. So, there’ve been trials conducted in Boston around showing participants video footage and seeing the reaction on their faces and looking at understanding those emotional reactions on someone’s face and how that can predict suicidality and how we can use that to save lives. Similarly, testing voice around frequency, modulation, things like that from someone experiencing acute depression and at the point of suicidality versus those who might not be in a similar circumstance.
So, I think this whole world of AI (Artificial Intelligence) could open up huge possibilities, but as you’ve identified, we need to tread lightly, tread carefully. But I think the important thing is none of that can really ever displace human connection and the need to have that human connection, a sense of belonging, and empathy that we want to receive from others when we make contact at Lifeline. When someone contacts us, they’re looking for human connection, they’re looking for empathy, they’re looking for care. I don’t think you can ever replace that, but we certainly need to turn our minds to technology and innovation to see how we can enhance what we do in that human connection space. Because if it means we can get people better help in real-time, then we should absolutely consider it, but it will not in my view be displacing human connection anytime soon.
Nick Wailes: Great. So Thilini, I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you and all your colleagues and the thousands, thousands of volunteers that work at Lifeline for all the fantastic work you do. I think we probably don’t get a chance to thank people that are doing those roles very often. And I think for all of us, it’s been great. I’d really encourage anyone listening to do a mental health first aid programme or something in your role that you can do some training and some awareness because it can make a huge difference. But thank you for what’s been a really fascinating conversation and thanks for your time.
Thilini Perera: Thank you, Nick. And can I just encourage anyone who’s experiencing any distress, feel free to reach out to Lifeline, we’re here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we can be there to support you.
Narration: As Thilini points out, the pandemic has had a marked impact on the need for mental health resources. And it’s not just organisations like Lifeline – who specialise in mental health services – that have a role to play in supporting good mental health. It’s becoming a focus area for workplaces as well.
Professor Frederik Anseel says the boundaries between work and life balance were blurred during the pandemic, with signficant impact on mental health in the workplace. He explains how home-schooling, loss of income, isolation from peers, family and friends, and an uncertain future all impacted the wellbeing of employees and workplaces.
Frederik Anseel: Hi, I’m Frederik Anseel. I’m a Senior Deputy Dean Research at UNSW Business School, but I’m also an academic researcher. I study workplaces, and I study mental well-being, mental health in the workplace and how we can organise how we work, how we lead for healthy workplaces. And so, the past two years have been very interesting for me.
In the beginning, people that had, let’s say, steady jobs and were just moving back working online, that went, in the beginning, pretty well. And then suddenly, after a couple of weeks and months, and we see different rhythms across Australia, but also over the world. But then over the months, we saw different sort of distress and mental health problems arising. And that happened because the boundaries between work life balance were sort of jeopardised, undermined. We saw that people needed to take care of their children studying from home, homeschooling, and that created all sorts of problems. And what we see is sort of an increase in distress. And what we do not know yet is, will that rebalance? Will people easily recover or not? And that is something that is very difficult to predict.
What we’ve seen is a lot of people being without employment, not having an income or being very uncertain about how their future will look like. And because there were a lot of businesses that had a very uncertain future, would they survive or not? And so that created a lot of distress. And, the distress is, of course, that people start worrying while they’re doing their jobs, but also in the evening and during the night and there were a lot of sleep problems. And, as people start worrying, basically, people are draining their mental resources. And so, you get some sort of a cognitive fatigue.
And that means that people have trouble concentrating at work, and they become less productive. And because they become less productive, it’s almost a cycle. People notice that they become less productive, they start worrying about that as well. And they sort of said, “I need to toughen up. I need to get myself together. This is a crisis. I need to work harder.” And so, people were stuck almost in a cycle of, let’s say, self-talk, worry, more self-talk, observing how difficult everything was, also working from home, sometimes feeling lonely, isolated, not having their normal social support, their network that they could talk to. And so, you have this constant cycle, and that reinforced the problems. Some people got out of that sort of, let’s say, on their own, in their own family and getting themselves together. For others, it was very difficult.
And the interesting thing here, one of these myths around mental health is that you have strong people, and you have weak people. And that is a mistake, and this is wrong. We should not think about these things. When we think about mental health problems, also in the workplace, we know, let’s say, that probably one in five people, at one point or another, will suffer or struggle with a mental health issue.
And it does not mean that some people are more resilient than others or are the strong ones or not. What happens is, sometimes that, at one point in your life, you can easily deal with some problems, and you might have the same sort of problems six months later and not find a way to cope with them. And so, mental health is not something that is an individual trait or disposition, although, of course, you can build strength.
But what we see, it is a variable something that is influenced by time, coincidence, environmental stressors, your support network that you have. And so it’s very difficult to predict when somebody will struggle more with mental health issues or not.
Narration: Creating a mentally healthy workplace is today seen as an essential task for leaders across industries. But what is a mentally healthy workplace? And what are the steps business leaders can take to create one?
Frederik Anseel: A mentally healthy workplace is a workplace that recognises well-being, mental well-being, the importance of mental well-being, and that identifies and manages the risks that environment and organisational life can impose on well-being, and that creates an environment that helps people thrive and manage their own well-being. And, if you would look at mentally healthy workplaces, you basically would need to look at also in different stages or different aspects of it.
And one aspect would be preempting mental health problems, so that would be more prevention. And so that would mean that you, as an organisation, you would want to care about creating a culture, where there’s attention and recognition of the importance of mental health and well-being. There is this recognition that work design is a very important factor and how jobs are designed in influencing mental health.
A second important aspect is monitoring and measuring and assessing where you are as a company in overall mental health. And often, these are surveys. It can be a poll survey. It’s just trying to find out, are there problems? Where would those problems be? How is our overall mental health fluctuating over time if there’s a crisis or not? But not only poll surveys, because there’s only so much that you can learn from a survey, right? It also means going out there, talking to individuals and listening, and really listening, because there’s a lot of companies that say that they’re listening, but then do not act on it. And so, genuine, authentic listening means that you come without any sort of preconceived conception about what the problem would be, but that you really listen, how are our people doing, and what do they see as risk factors or what are they struggling with?
And then probably, I think the third important aspect is remediation. What will you do if there are really mental health problems? And one aspect is, of course, that, you will want to provide all sorts of resources. And that can be, these days, that’s a lot about telehealth, right? We will set up apps. We will have trainings available. We will have coaches, mentors, or even therapists that are available to help people deal with it if there are problems. But remediation also means changing the jobs themselves, the structure, the culture, how we lead. And so, it is being willing as an organisation to question yourself and the way you are dealing with these issues and being willing to change your approach. And so those three aspects would all be fundamental to a mentally healthy workplace.
Narration: Thank you for joining us for The Business of Mental Health.
To find out more about the AGSM Business of Leadership podcast series, search for AGSM’s the-business-of-podcast online. Please share, rate and review and subscribe to AGSM’s business podcast on your favourite podcast platform and look out for future episodes.
In the meantime, you can follow AGSM at UNSW Business School on LinkedIn and Facebook for more industry insights for an accelerating world or find us at agsm.edu.au. Until next time, thank you for listening.
Download the full podcast or read BusinessThink's Lifeline CEO on how tech can help support employee mental health for more information.