Leadership Insights - Business Council of Australia: CEO Panel Discussion

Published Wed, Jun 22, 2022

What shuts down honest conversations, stops us from seeking mental health support and convinces employees that they can’t bring their true selves to work? The answer is stigma. A full 85% of Australians who live with mental illness worry that their friends, colleagues and peers will view them unfavourably because of their condition.

Shame and discrimination are powerful foes in the battle for better mental health, but they are not unbeatable. In fact, there are many strategies your organisation can implement to stem stigma at its source and create a safer working environment. The dangerous moments are when we take people for granted.

Australia’s experts weigh in on vulnerability, stigma and fostering psychological safety at work.

How do compensation claims for psychological injury diverge from those for physical injury? Why might businesses invest in health and safety measures that scientific experts say are useless? What are the unique challenges facing carers in our workforce? And most importantly, why did it take a global pandemic for us to start paying attention to mental health?

We found out the answers to these questions and many others in a panel discussion hosted late last year by Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia (CMHAA) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA). The panel members were:

• Dr Brian Marien, Co-Founder and Director of Positive Group • Penny Armytage AM, former Chair of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System • Brad Banducci, CEO and Managing Director of Woolworths Group • Berkeley Cox, former Chief Executive Partner at King & Wood Mallesons • Julie Mitchell, Chief General Manager, Personal Injury Division, Allianz Australia

Their fascinating discussion – facilitated by Jennifer Westacott AO, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, and hosted by our own Chair Steven Worrall – was filled with rich and hard-won insights into the pressing issue of mental health in the workplace. We are sharing the edited transcript here in the hope that the broader business community can learn from these expert minds.

Jennifer Westacott

Good evening and good morning if you’re in another part of the world. We’ve got a fantastic line-up of panellists, and I know their conversations will give us lots to think about. We all share a common purpose: to make sure our workplaces are doing everything possible to support positive mental health and wellbeing. As recently pointed out, our actions – as individuals and collectively as a nation – meant that last year, amazingly, fewer people died from suicide than during the year before.

Through greater community understanding of just how important mental health is, and with additional support, we saved 179 lives from suicide during the height of the pandemic.

This is not to diminish the unacceptable toll of more than 3,000 Australians a year dying by suicide. One life is too many.

It’s essential that we, in the business community, now invest in understanding which services and interventions can help people to realise their potential. Indeed, our actions can be lifesaving. So let me throw the first question to everyone. Why did it take a pandemic to focus our attention on the serious issue of mental health?

Penny Armytage
The time I spent chairing the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System was a fabulous opportunity, but it was incredibly confronting to see the shocking state of our mental health system, and how that system had been neglected for so long.

I remember a parent who had a son with leukaemia and a daughter with a mental illness. They told me that when their son was diagnosed with cancer, the family was immediately connected into an incredible amount of support and services, including outside the hospital. But their experience around their daughter’s mental health diagnosis was completely the opposite.

Experiences like these, which we repeatedly heard, come back to the issue of stigma. For me, that’s at the heart of why we’ve got a system that really didn’t respond to the increased demand associated with the pandemic.

But it’s encouraging that we’re now having the conversation. In Australia, having someone like the former Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, talking about his challenge – he and others like him have been really important in trying to address the stigma.

Jennifer Westacott
Julie, do you have any views about why it took a pandemic for us to realise just what a big problem this is in our society?

Julie Mitchell
If I went back to our 2020 research into mental health, we found that eight in 10 people felt more comfortable talking to their employer about having a physical illness that caused them to need time off work, than they did in letting the manager know they had a psychological condition. But if you fast-forward to this year, that number is now four in 10.

We have seen people talking more openly about their mental health, and we would put that down to the fact that people are bringing their whole selves to work.

You are really seeing, for those working at home, those conversations between colleagues have become richer, as we’ve had to work harder at things like social connections since we’ve been away from the office.

Brad Banducci
Speaking to Woolworths’ journey and my own learnings on this one, it seems that mental health was a big issue prior to the pandemic, but only where there was major self-harm at stake. We were all about trying to make sure that we prevented these terrible occurrences, where we had, and continue to have, approximately one member of our team taking their life every month. That was where we historically concentrated: trying to prevent these very profound and very tragic events.

What’s changed now is that it’s gone mainstream, with 20–30% of our team, at any point in time, having some form of mental health challenge. It really came home to me a couple of weeks ago, in one of these online leadership meetings. In this particular meeting, I said, ‘I don’t know why, but I’m actually kind of having one of those days. I don’t know if I’m actually managing this as well as I need to.’ It just came out, and I thought it was quite interesting.

Jennifer Westacott
Julie, what are you seeing in terms of insurance claims?

Julie Mitchell
We’ve been seeing an ongoing trend in the rise of active claims for primary psychological injury, and perhaps more concerningly, in claims from people with physical injuries then having a psychological overlay.

What we’re seeing among people who do lodge a psychological claim is that the return-to-work efforts, the access to the right treatment and getting the correct diagnoses, are incredibly costly.

The costs associated with psychological claims far outweigh the cost of physical injuries claims – they are about 3.5 times higher, in fact.

The return-to-work rate is also much lower for people with psychological injuries, and we’re seeing that the average time these claimants take off work is rising quite significantly. That’s often to do with COVID-19 challenges such as access to treatment becoming more difficult, and business shutdowns that prevent people from coming back to work performing suitable duties.

Then there are the costs associated with presenteeism or absenteeism in the workplace. The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre recently quantified the mental health costs associated with lockdowns in Victoria and New South Wales alone as contributing a billion dollars in lost productivity, and highlighted that those in the 15–25 age bracket are most affected.
That – combined with the impact of workers’ compensation claims, and for large corporate employers, the actual cost of claim having some bearing on the ultimate premium paid – means there are some definite cost drivers there.

The positive news is that there are a lot of steps that can be taken to drive change, and I think leadership is crucial here. At Allianz, we’ve invested in Mental Health First Aid Training and the return on investment is expected to be strong. The evidence suggests for every dollar that’s spent on training leaders about mental health, there is a $10 return on investment in terms of productivity.

The other point I want to make is about workplace harassment being the second primary cause of psychological injury, and the importance of having policies that set clear thresholds and make it very clear what consequences exist for incidents relating to bullying or any other type of harassment. It’s a really quick, easy step for organisations to think about.

Jennifer Westacott
Brad, your teams have become the new heroes. Whoever thought that the people putting toilet paper into our bathrooms would be those putting themselves at risk every day? What have you done to support them?

Brad Banducci
I should say that toilet paper is so 2020. We’ve actually had a surge in cleaning products in Sydney with everyone trying to get their home ready for the opening. To answer your question though, I think one of the more interesting things has been around psychological safety.

Take something like putting glass screens checkout areas. The health authorities would advise that you don’t need them. But in those early days, our team felt they needed them, and there’s been a really interesting conversation about how you take what are true, clear, science-based physical factors, but also address the psychological factors.

It’s been incredibly important for us to take heed of what our teams think will keep them psychologically safe.

It’s been inspiring to see our customers treating essential workers with the respect and recognition they deserve. At the same time, we’ve had 14,000 people isolate just in the last 14 weeks, but because our customers can’t see it, they don’t get the same recognition.

Which is why lately we’ve had more fatigue in our business now than we did through any other dramatic moment because those earlier moments were quite obvious and therefore everyone showed their support. Funnily enough, the dangerous moments are when we take people for granted. And that’s sort of a little bit where we are now.

Jennifer Westacott
Berkeley, the ministers responsible for workplace health and safety met earlier this year to change the regulations on psychological injury. Can you tell us about that?

Berkeley Cox
In May this year, the majority of the ministers agreed to amend the workplace health and safety regulations to deal with psychological injury. The main point is that this will be law in much clearer terms than it is now. It will happen. But rather than seeing it as a regulatory burden, I think it’s a huge opportunity for business, given the clear link between wellbeing and performance. If employees are fully engaged and appropriately supported, then they’ll thrive. But I should also say that I’m here today as an employer, not an employment lawyer, and we’ve actually had our own wake-up call in this domain.

In August 2018, we received a notice from WorkSafe Victoria in connection with work we were doing for a client around the Royal Commission in the financial services sector. The demands on us at that time were extreme, and they affected our ability to create a safe work environment for our people.

That was a wake-up call for us. And dare I say - it was a blessing in disguise in that it forced us to confront the issue of psychological safety in the workplace.

We were determined to unpack it at a deeper level. We reviewed not only our systems and processes, particularly on extremely high-demand matters, but analysed our culture at a deeper level. This work set us up well for COVID-19 lockdowns, in that our leaders were more deliberate and intentional about creating supportive teams.

Jennifer Westacott
Penny, the mental health system is often seen as something in hospitals or clinics, but how can businesses play their part?

Penny Armytage
My first thought is the important role business leaders can play in encouraging governments to invest in adequate downstream and upstream responses to mental health. Beyond your own organisation, can you make this a part of your corporate social responsibility agenda?

That investment will bring economic returns through improved workforce participation and increased productivity, as well as a reduction in the burden of disease on our community, improved life expectancy and better outcomes in all measures of quality of life.

You all lead sectors that have enormous capacity to do that analysis, and opportunities to present that analysis both to your communities and to government. Then, think about creative ways you can partner, whether that’s with government, with experts or with others within your industry to build an evidence base about what works. We haven’t got the years of expertise here that we’ve accumulated in responding to other issues. We’re still in relative infancy when it comes to understanding what gives you the best results for your investment. So, it pays to collaborate and benefit from others’ insights.

Jennifer Westacott
What can organisations in Australia learn from the UK about emerging from lockdowns in a way that protects and promotes mental health in a business world living with COVID?

Dr Brian Marien I heard someone say several months ago that we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. Some of us are in super yachts. Some of us are in little boats and some of us don’t actually have a boat at all.

At the same time, we’re all going to fall in the water at some point – very few of us are not going to have periods of distress and suffering. But when we do fall in the water, our footwear can turn into lead boots, dragging us down.

I think what we need to do is something that’s actually already happening with a lot of our clients in the UK. We’re starting to move upstream, so that it’s not just about falling in the water. It’s about teaching people to swim to the bank. But if they do fall, which a lot of us will, it’s looking at how you can get out of the water a bit quicker. A big part of COVID distress came from our poor tolerance of uncertainty.

We need to educate people to be tolerant of uncertainty, tolerant of ambiguity, because we’re going to see exponential change over the next few decades.

Jennifer Westacott
How important is organisational design? What’s the role of research and data here?

Dr Brian Marien
You do need data to tap into what’s going on in your organisation, and that issue around values is really key. I think of the educational thinker Peter Drucker’s comment, that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ But a lot of leaders are often unaware of how important culture and values are.
The sociologist Nicholas Christakis’s work on social networks shows how culture cascades through groups. If you look at the meta-analysis on leaders who have high tolerance of uncertainty, they actually run more successful organisations. The reason is that they actually say, ‘okay, this has happened, we accept that. Now, how are we going to get out of it, and move into a solution-focused process?’

Whereas leaders who have low tolerance for uncertainty often generate spooky stories that cascade through the group so that everyone becomes more anxious. I think leadership has an amazing capacity to reduce stress in the people they’re managing.

I’m not saying it’s perfect; it isn’t a panacea. But it can be incredibly powerful.

Jennifer Westacott
Brad, in your organisation you’ve got a very data-savvy approach. How are you using that combination of values and data to support people in the workplace?

Brad Banducci
Well, I’d say that we’re very purpose-driven, and the bedrock of our purpose is the individual values that hold it up. We do a monthly voice of the customer, voice of the supplier, voice of the team. We look at those results and then we take direct action on them. We used to do them every six months, then we moved to quarterly. But just given the stresses in the system right now, you need to be much more responsive. So, that helps us see the stress level in a particular store and enables us to acknowledge it.

Jennifer Westacott
There are many people whose children and teenagers have suffered badly in the past couple of years. What’s the best way for employers to support parents and carers who are dealing with issues in their home?

Penny Armytage
I think we have underestimated the impact of this time on carers in all manner of ways. Again, it’s about having these conversations. If we start to acknowledge that young people in particular have had a very tough time through this COVID-19 environment, we start to give permission to have that conversation.

It then comes down to how flexible you are. How do you extend your employee assistance program or other programs to be not only about someone’s functioning in their own workplace but also the demands on them?

In the past, I think we focused our efforts on how people were doing their work, and how we could assist with that. Now we need a much broader look, where we accept that your wellbeing is influenced by your social context, so looking at what employers can do to support that broader context is incredibly important.

Jennifer Westacott
My last question is about stigma. What should the business community be doing to tackle it and open the door for people to talk more openly?

Julie Mitchell
I think it’s sharing our own stories. We’ve all been connected, personally or professionally, with people who have mental health conditions. We can share those stories, and we can also share what we have done to thrive through COVID.

Penny Armytage In addition, I think sometimes we can challenge the perspectives of our co-workers. There’s a lot of data out there that says a lot of people don’t want the person they are working alongside or reporting to, to be someone with mental illness. So we need to really make sure we look at the attitudes of our co-workers because those sorts of ideas can be very harmful to team cohesion.

Dr Brian Marien As the other speakers have said, it’s about normalising. When it comes to psychological problems, we often think we’re the only ones. But normalisation is exculpating. It takes the blame away from you, and you realise, ‘it’s not just me.’

Steven Worrall
We know that someone’s workplace is a fundamentally important contributor to their state of mind. We’re not part of the mental health system, but there’s no doubt we have such an important role to play in so many ways.

Our workforce is changing rapidly, and the impact of this pandemic is being felt disproportionately in certain cohorts, most notably the younger cohort coming through. That’s the cohort that’s increasingly going to populate our workforces. So, there’s a massive requirement for all of us to think deeply about how we are adjusting to the new reality and preparing our workplaces to make them the best they can be.

As Brad said, there is a talent war going on, and these are the sorts of issues that many candidates will consider when choosing an employer.

In closing, a massive thank you to everyone. Thank you to Jennifer and the Business Council of Australia, to the speakers and everyone else for joining.

We have seen people talking more openly about their mental health, and we would put that down to the fact that people are bringing their whole selves to work.

Julie Mitchell


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