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6 key areas for workplaces to address mental health and wellbeing

Our Mental Health and Wellbeing Week summary of events


Research shows employers save more than $4 for every $1 they invest in evidence-based mental health interventions in the workplace, through increased productivity and reduced costs.(1)

Yet we heard this week there’s a crisis in mental health and wellbeing at work.

·       More than 68% of surveyed workers recently reporting “feeling a sense of burnout”

·       One in five workers are experiencing anxiety at any one time

Our Mental Health and Wellbeing Week of events saw more than 3,146 participants attend a series of workshops and masterclasses outlining up-to-date data and advice on this important topic.

Below, we outline some of the key points made by our expert speakers, including 6 key areas for workplaces to address mental health and wellbeing.

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Firstly, thank you to our speakers

Growth Faculty thanks our expert speakers who contributed their time: Lucinda Brogden AM, Dr Michelle McQuaid, Dr Paige Williams, Dr Connie Hadley, Dr Michelle Olaithe, Johannes Egberts, Chief Mental Health Officer at Commonwealth Bank Dr Laura Kirby, General Manager, Safety & Wellbeing at Bunnings Group Jackie Walsh and Chief Mental Health Officer at Westpac David Burroughs.

Growth Faculty members can see full recordings of each and every session. For details on becoming a member, click on the tile below.

Day One

Beyond yoga and fruit bowls: Lucinda Brogden, AM

Former National Mental Health Commission chair Lucinda Brogden AM is adamant that workplace mental health discussions need to move beyond ‘yoga and fruit bowls.’

She outlined the 6 key areas workplaces need to address:

1.     Smarter work design (Centre for Transformative Work Design)

2.     Promoting and facilitating early help seeking and early intervention

3.     Building a positive and safe work culture

4.     Enhancing personal and organisational resilience

5.     Supporting recovery

6.     Increasing the awareness of mental illness and reducing the stigma.

Lucinda’s tips:

·       Ask yourself: “Who in my team have disclosed to me issues they’re grappling with in life?” If you have a safe work culture people will feel safe to disclose to you. If no one is disclosing, your culture needs work.

·       Check in with yourself: “Is the work that I’m doing protecting, promoting, enhancing the wellbeing or people, or is it doing nothing or is it potentially doing harm?”

·       Notice. Inquire. Plan. It’s okay to ask if you’re worried about someone. Hold up a mirror to them. “I notice that you…..(aren’t engaging like you used to)” “Is there anything we can plan that might help?”

·       You go first. People emulate the behaviour of their leaders, so practice self-care and show how you lead a healthy lifestyle.

She made the point that while being employed can improve mental health, some workplaces may have negative impacts on health. Absenteeism (the inability to go to work) and presenteeism (the inability to fully function at work) is estimated to cost Australia $17 billion a year.

Day Two

Psychologically safe workplaces: Dr Michelle McQuaid

A recent Wellbeing Lab survey of more than 1000 employees has found 9.7 per cent were “really struggling” – a 40% increase on 2021’s survey. 

Dr Michelle McQuaid said employees were given the choices of ‘consistently thriving’, ‘living well, despite struggle’, ‘not feeling bad, just getting by’ or ‘really struggling.’


She said that it is possible to thrive even in the midst of struggle. But leaders should be aware that some employees will be working hard to say ‘I feel well’ when they feel sub-par.

This is especially true if employees don’t feel what they do at work has meaning.

Dr McQuaid says the PERMAH Wellbeing Factors data shows a dramatic drop in employees feeling a sense of meaning.

Dr McQuaid’s tips:

·       To avoid ‘quiet quitting’ (disengaging) or low retention rates, leaders should find ways to make work meaningful.

·       Enhance EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) with wellbeing artificial intelligence bots (i.e. Indie from Pioneera), apps, workshops and coaching sessions.

Resilience can lead to burnout: Dr Paige Williams

In her session, author of ‘Becoming Antifragile’, Dr Paige Williams warned that resilience was the most direct route to burnout.

She said bouncing back (like a tennis ball) after every setback was unsustainable, and employees should instead look to expand (like a hot air balloon) and become better by engaging with challenges and engaging with struggle. 

Dr Williams’s tips:

·       Make the most of opportunities. Channel your stress energy into making big things feel little.

·       Implement learning loops (trying something and reviewing the results) and develop a growth or learning mindset.

·       Ask the strategic question: ‘How can I be better coming out of this that I was coming in?’

Day Three

Loneliness at work: Dr Connie Hadley

We all need work friends; we are human, and we are social animals. Yet Institute for Life at Work’s Dr Connie Hadley says her co-authored research found 76% of us have difficulty making social connections at work.

Leaders should be aware that the composition, duration, and staffing of teams can trigger or exacerbate feelings of social disconnection in the workplace.

So, loneliness is a workplace problem, not a worker problem says Dr Hadley.

She says the impacts of loneliness at work include:

·       Health risks (it’s the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day)

·       Increased daily stress

·       Less productive

·       Lowered quality of output

·       Greater likelihood (almost double) of quitting

Lonely people at work will often “stop looking lonely” says Dr Hadley and will instead appear anti-social. So, loneliness at work not only carries a negative stigma, but it can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy as lonely people refuse to engage in social overtures.

Dr Hadley says loneliness can affect anybody, but most vulnerable are:

·       Remote workers

·       Newcomers

·       Underrepresented minorities

·       Lower-status roles (e.g. support staff)

·       Leaders

·       Anyone who’s experienced reduced relationship-building opportunities during this COVID-19 period.

Dr Hadley’s tips:

·       Gather targeted data. Make it qualitative and quantitative, be conscious of the stigma, and be ready to receive responses that may include other issues, including mental health issues.

·       Increase psychological safety and inclusion. Model behaviours such as vulnerability, listening, humility, and admitting to mistakes.

·       Refine team designs. Strong relationships with direct team members directly impact wellbeing, productivity, and retention. Ensure stable membership of a team, make time for deep collaboration, meet often, find ways to depend upon each other, and create robust roles.

·       Realign incentives. Encourage and reward social support.

·       Focus on shared experiences. Instead of relying on proximity or homophily (people like us) to bond with workmates, create shared experiences and increase small touchpoints.

Day Four

Breath work with Johannes Egberts, founder of Breathless

Sleep and mental health with Dr Michelle Olaithe

“We’re not going to work ourselves to death, we’re going to wake ourselves to death.” – Dr Michelle Olaithe

Sleep quality is strongly correlated with our mental health and wellbeing.

Researcher Dr Michelle Olaithe, there are 3 villains of sleep:

1.     Dirty bedtime habits. A clean bedtime routine is required to sleep well. Pairing bedtime with behaviours such as having a warm shower beforehand, creating a dark, quiet, and cool (19 degrees Celsius) environment, reading a book, and going to bed at the same time each night will prompt your body to release melatonin to feel sleepy.

2.     Overthinking/rumination. Brains go into a default self-reflection/reminiscing mode when at rest. By practicing self-care (such as through meditation and mindfulness) you can stay positive and get back to sleeping. Or note down your thoughts and get back to sleep. The rule is: ‘Put your thinking to bed when you go to bed.’

3.     Technology. Dr Olaithe says technology is too smart for our biology. The light from devices fools our body into thinking it’s daytime, and using devices leads to sleep procrastination. Set rules and limits, and don’t break them. Encourage your work colleague to join you in this.

Interrupting Mindlessness with Emily Johnson

Our brains love novelty. Novelty helps us to be present, to appreciate, to enjoy the moment. Interrupting your regular work schedule with novelty helps to keep you engaged and your mind agile.

Psychologist Emily Johnson suggests enabling memorable moments in the workplace by:

·       Seeking out novel experiences

·       Building in a bit of struggle to your day

·       Doing something that takes you out of your comfort zone

·       Creating an artifact to keep or give away

For greater impact in such moments, Dr Adam Fraser suggests in ‘The Third Place’ to create ‘mindful gaps’:

·       Reflect – Ask yourself ‘What went well?’ ‘What could I improve on?’

·       Rest – Take a minute or two to bring your focus and attention to the present moment.

·       Recalibrate – Think about how you need to show up for the next situation or interaction.

Day Five

Chief Mental Health officer, Commonwealth Bank, Dr Laura Kirby, and General Manager, Safety and Wellbeing, Jackie Walsh

More corporates are bringing mental health and wellbeing in-house. Laura and Jackie believe it is one of the silver linings of COVID-19 – the acceleration of programmes and management around mental health and wellbeing in organisations. Legislation is also moving fast on making sure workplaces are safe.

Both say their organisations are focused on care and prevention to ensure team members feel supported.

Laura says the greatest challenges for leaders includes:

·       Navigating the hybrid work environment and protecting their teams in this environment.

·       Self-care – re-establishing boundaries between work and life.

·       Being booked back-to-back in meetings.

Jackie says leaders

·       Are exhausted, and boundaries are blurred.

·       Are focused on the wellbeing of team members – which has been really hard on them.

·       Experience high rates of absenteeism.

They say that leadership development is key, targeted training sessions especially. Communication is a critical skill, and there is a need to ensure leaders are recalibrating expectations within teams.

Every team member and every leader has a different need, and personalising resources (e.g. self-serve access to information and one-on-one coaching) that can be rolled out in the moment is vital.

Both Laura and Jackie says flexibility and wellbeing are the top two expectations voiced by new hires. A focus on wellbeing creates a workplace where people feel supported and connected, says Jackie.

David Burroughs, Chief Mental Health Officer at Westpac and Ambassador Safe Work NSW

When jobs are designed well, it’s not just good for mental health, it’s good for physical health as well. So says David Burroughs, Chief Mental Health Officer at Westpac and global consultant on workplace mental health.

He recommends the S.M.A.R.T. job design model from the Centre for Transformative Work Design:

·       How Stimulating work is

·       Sense of Mastery

·       Sense of Agency

·       Relational space

·       Are the demands on us Tolerable

He says there are 4 pillars to workplace mental health and wellbeing:

1.     Prevent harm. Psychosocial (work-related) risk assessment, job design, supportive leadership behaviour, psychological safety, good recruitment. (“The legislative foundation of getting all this stuff right from a WHS perspective”).

2.     Early intervention and prevention. Not just from an individual perspective but when we have signs of distress workplace perspective.

3.     How we support those who are vulnerable. Depending on the framework you call this promote recovery or mitigate illness. How do we support those whose mental health and wellbeing may be compromised?This is often done very well, and the focus may be too much on this pillar.

4.     How we protect and promote the positive and protective aspects of work. Genuinely enhancing people’s experience of work so that it’s actually good for people’s wellbeing.

(adapted from Safe Work Australia, integrated framework of Professor Martin and Professor La Montaigne, and Qld Government framework for mental health)


Growth Faculty guest speakers at our Mental Health and Wellbeing Series of Events and…

1.     UTS & USyd 2017, Mentally healthy workplaces: a return-on-investment study

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