Leadership and Creating a Mentally Healthy Work Culture

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I see a world where one day we will have leaders who seek to create thriving tribes that focus equally on the well-being and performance of their group. Their goal will be that every employee will leave work as healthy as they arrive.

It is sobering to realize that depression and stress disorders currently account for 34% of lost productivity through absenteeism and presenteeism according to a Medibank study – and yet 86% of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than discuss their illness.

Whilst many leaders acknowledge that healthy employees are productive employees, many are sceptical that integrated well-being programs can produce a compelling return on investment.

A recent PWC report commissioned by BeyondBlue, estimated that for every $1.00 invested in mental health programs, $2.30 will be returned to the bottom line. In the mining industry, that return was estimated to be as high as $15.00 for every $1.00 spent.

So, how do we create a culture that produces mentally healthy and high performing tribes?

Link to Purpose and Values

McKinsey research, in the book Beyond Performance, shows that 70% of change efforts fail to reach all their objectives, because leadership fails to adequately plan for employee mental well-being.

Mental well-being initiatives must be linked to organisational purpose and values and not viewed as something “extra”. The strategy should be communicated concisely, and with several supporting stories and examples.

Leadership Ownership 

A recent Harvard global study of 19,000 employees showed that only 25% of employees believed that their leader lived a balanced and sustainable lifestyle. The one in four employees that believed this, were shown to be 52% more engaged, have 72% higher well-being, and had twice the trust in their leader. The best thing a leader can do to create a mental healthy work culture is to lead a healthy life themselves, because their actions speak louder than words.

Multiyear plan

Culture doesn’t change overnight, especially with the stigma associated with mental illness.  When you consider almost 9 out of 10 of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence than share their condition with work colleagues, a long term plan is essential. Organisations should be regularly assessing the impact of stress on employees and how willing they are to share that stress with their work colleagues. Some of Australia’s most successful organisations are including these questions in their annual engagement surveys.

Identify Champions

There should not only be mental health champions at the executive level, but throughout the organisation. A Wesley Mission survey showed that 85% of Australians know someone close to them with depression or a stress disorder, and these employees with firsthand experience should be asked to be involved. Soliciting their input for the design and communication of programs will be central to success.

Create a Variety of Programs and Resources

Leaders should know the early signs of distress, make help seeking easier, encourage mentally healthy work rituals and improve their coaching skills.

There should be programs and resources that help employees to stay mentally healthy and also to assist those that have slipped into distressed situations. Because of stigma of mental illness it is essential that programs can be accessed anonymously.

Target High Risk Employees

Many organisations have observed that mental stress and absenteeism is highest where engagement levels are lowest. Central to improving health outcomes is identifying the specific groups in which employees are disengaged, and customizing remedial plans accordingly.

An R U OK? Ethos

Tribes should engender a culture of self-compassion and compassion. Our first responsibility is to regularly ask ourselves “Am I OK?” and create daily rituals that strengthen us, and then to ask distressed colleagues “Are you OK?” and encourage help seeking.

Monitor Progress and Share Success Stories

What gets measured gets managed. Organisations should not only monitor absenteeism, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) usage and employee turnover, but also include formal and informal early warning systems to their employee dashboard to pre-empt problems. They should be very actively sharing the success stories that are producing better health and performance.

The recent cluster of FIFO worker suicides show that organisations can no longer wait for these problems to fix themselves.  Investing in aligned solutions must start now.

Graeme Cowan is one of Australia’s leading experts in building performance and wellness in the workplace. A director of R U OK?, Mr Cowan endured five years of depression that cost him his job as a joint managing director.

He presented at a seminar on creating a positive mental health culture in the workplace on October 13 at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, and was asked to write this article for the West Australian newspaper. The article appeared on page 14 on Thursday October 9 2014.

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