Board member of CMHAA, Mel Upton

Published July 13, 2022

CMHAA Independent Board Member, Melinda Upton, says wellbeing and performance are linked and leaders can ‘step up’ and make the difference.

A key to combatting burnout and mental collapse, especially during a crisis, is courageous leadership and the vulnerability to confess you don’t have all the answers, all the time.

When I catch up with Mel Upton at 9am, she is recovering after a virtual boxing session and has already taken her dog for an early walk on an unseasonably wet morning.  She is no slouch.  Until recently, Mel was a Partner and International Head of the Intellectual Property and Technology Group for one of the world’s largest law firms, where she oversaw 500 lawyers in 25 countries.

In February this year, Mel left the law and commenced as CEO, Asia Pacific, for the newly established Australian branch of The Positive Group, which works with organisations around the world to optimise performance and wellbeing.

Amongst a string of achievements in a 25-year legal career, Mel claims one of her proudest moments was helping a staff member manage his mental health challenge. Whilst the lawyer was usually a perfectionist, Mel detected worrying cracks in his veneer and realised it was time to intervene. ‘It was one of the toughest conversations I’ve ever had,’ she said. With backing from the firm’s international senior leadership, she engaged a psychologist, gave the staff member time off to recover and put together a return-to-work plan. ‘I still reflect on whether things would have been different if he was able to speak up earlier, or I, or others around me were more comfortable to approach the conversations sooner.’

The experience galvanised Mel’s mission to normalise the discussion around mental health, which is why she jumped at the opportunity to join CMHAA, the Minds Count Foundation and more recently, The Positive Group.

‘An illness is an illness, and there should be no distinction whether it affects your heart, arm or brain.’

According to Mel, high performers in all fields, but especially professional services, are particularly affected by the stigma surrounding mental health. ‘We sell our intellectual capital and fear if our brains aren’t functioning well, it’s a sign of weakness.’

In her experience, the keys to combatting burnout and mental collapse, especially during a crisis, is courageous leadership and the vulnerability to confess you don’t have all the answers, all the time. ‘How leaders respond to a crisis says a lot about them.  Leaders who act according to ethical and values-based principles create shared purpose, empathy and confidence, which sets the stage for business recovery.

The latest research has also identified ‘protective factors’ when it comes to wellbeing, and at an organisational level, these are clearly correlated with performance. The best leaders actively build these elements into their teams before a crisis hits.’

However, Mel has noticed that unfortunately, the pandemic has sent some Australian business leaders retreating to conservative models of leadership. ‘We often revert to type in a crisis, when we really need to be more ambitious,’ Mel claims.

That hasn’t been the case in all countries, though. Whilst overseeing global law firm practices across the world, Mel observed leaders who were more comfortable with diverse thinking and listened openly to other’s opinions, including those of different ethnic backgrounds, career stages and age groups. These leaders see mental health as something of strategic value for the business – not just an add-on.

What does give Mel hope is the next generation of leaders. She sees new recruits actively choosing to work for companies with progressive ethics and values regarding environmental and social issues. She’s part of a drive to encourage more thought leadership amongst young people in organisations.

As technology revolutionises all industries, we need diversity of thought to create the types of organisations young people want to work for, and one day, lead.