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Occupational Health & Safety | Uncategorised

Understanding mental health in the workplace

11 Oct 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

After a lifetime in the aviation industry, Counsellor and Podcaster Chris Smith now dedicates his time to establishing leadership and mental health programs for major international airlines.

His work has seen him supporting manager-staff relations, employee engagement, and conflict resolution, in countries such as Singapore, Japan, PNG, and France.

Ahead of the Safety in Action Conference, hosted by Informa Connect, Chris shares some key learnings from his illustrious, two-decade career.

#1 – Mental distress is not discerning – and there IS demand for mental health programs

After working with people from entry to senior executive level, Chris understands that mental distress affects anybody and everybody in the workplace.

This especially sank in when an employee casually asked him, “Does the state of the world and all that’s going on ever make you feel hopeless?”

“This question stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “The person was otherwise buoyant and gave no other indication they were distressed. That is when I realised the extent to which people suffer in silence.”

Indeed, statistics show that 45 percent of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. A quarter of workers will take time off each year due to stress and around 6 million working days will be lost annually due to untreated depression. At 50 percent, stress is one of the leading causes of psychology injury claims.

Chris says these statistics should make employers sit up and pay attention.

“We don’t need any more proof of the magnitude of the mental health issue in workplaces. The demand for mental health programs is there. Build one and your employees will come,” he said.

#2 – Humility is the key ingredient for effective management

Chris believes overly prescriptive mental health policies should be avoided and instead advocates a bottom-up approach to tackling mental distress at work.

“It is a myth that organisational culture always starts at the top. It can start anywhere and, in fact, peer-led support programs are some of the most effective ways we can keep our employees safe from psychological harm. They are much more effective than EAPs,” he said.

Indeed, recent trials suggest that group peer support interventions are particularly effective for supporting personal recovery for people experiencing a diagnosed mental health condition, or psychiatric symptoms that reach a clinical threshold.

Alongside this bottom-up approach, managers should keep an “attitude of humility” and accept they don’t always have the answers, no matter how well-read they might be, Chris added.

“No, we don’t know what’s good for our staff. They do. Let’s not insult them,” he said.

“We have to keep an open mind and be willing to adapt our mental health policies as we go, always taking direction from the people who will benefit from them.”

#3 – Say, ‘tell me about you’

Mental health and suicide prevention initiatives like RUOK have become vastly popular since their inception, but Chris believes there may be a more effective approach.

“RUOK is great for bringing awareness to mental distress, but, being a closed-ended question, it is limited as a conversation starter.

“Conversations are so important for identifying and tackling mental distress in the workplace. As a counsellor, I recommend more open-ended questions, like ‘tell me about you’ as a means of getting people to open up.”

For this reason, Chris launched the ‘tell me about you campaign’ on 4BC radio station in Brisbane and continued it in his subsequent speaking engagements.

“The aim [of the campaign] is to scratch the surface just a little, but not so deep as to scare someone away. We’re taking our normal collegial and friendship conversations and talking just a little deeper.

“I arm people with a follow up statement, “..because I really want to know”, as it’s quite possible the person may be taken off guard [and we] want them to respond in a genuine manner.”

As part of the campaign, Chris also calls on employers to allocate ‘an hour for someone else’ to all staff, to promote these conversations.

“They may choose any other staff member, including the CEO. It may not take an hour. It might go for 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter. It may be the start of further conversations,” he said.

“Too often we hear that we need to talk (especially men) and that’s true, however men in particular look for a fix. Counsellors of course aren’t there to do that. They will commonly state though that ‘talk isn’t enough’. In fact too much frustrates them. It’s others who can help them with that.”

#4 – Get to know the mental health archetypes within your organisation

Chris paints a picture of ‘Oscar’, the unspoken man with a family at home.

“He is not tired of his life, but tired by it, and does not know what ‘free’ feels like,” he said.

Then, there is ‘Juliet’, the unheard woman, persistently frustrated because nobody is listening; ‘Michael’ the man who just wants to belong; and ‘Andrea’ the woman experiencing domestic violence at home.

He will give tips on identifying these archetypes – and on how to handle each one – at the Safety in Action conference.

Alongside these insights, Chris will share key data, theory, and advice on how to structure an ideal mental health program.

Joining Chris on the stage are senior representatives from SafeWork Australia, Diversity Council Australia, Goodstart Early Learning, and FWC Lawyers

This year’s conference will be held 26-27 October at the Rendezvous Hotel, Melbourne.

Learn more and register your place.

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