David Brewster, Coles Group

Published Mon, Sep 14, 2020

I care deeply about mental health in the workplace, but I didn’t always appreciate how important it is. Something happened years ago that changed my outlook.

I was working as a partner in a big city law firm. One day, one of my direct reports took their own life.

I was totally blindsided. I had no idea they were struggling so hard. I was grief-stricken and guilty; guilty that as an employer, I hadn’t seen this coming. My team were profoundly affected too.

The experience made me realise how deeply people can bury mental health. Ironically, that included me. I could never let my clients see how much I was struggling after my colleague’s death.

It took several years before I could stand back and process what I’d gone through. I left private law and pursued a new career path. I still look back and think if only I’d had the right conversation, I might have been able to change the outcome. This feeling has made me determined to find better ways to deal with mental health issues in the workplace.

Talking openly

At Coles, we’ve learned that setting the tone from the top makes a big difference. Recently, I stood on stage with our executive team in front of three and a half thousand store managers from around the country and we talked about mental health.

The feedback afterwards was overwhelming. Managers who had worked for the company for 30 or 40 years couldn’t believe that the issue was getting the attention it deserved.

One manager emailed me the next day and revealed she had been struggling with mental health issues most of her life. She said she was almost in tears at the conference because the leaders were openly talking about something that she had been hiding for years. She felt enormously validated and supported.

And so did I. Standing on stage that day was the best experience of my whole corporate career.

Pull together

Coles joined Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia to be part of the conversation about mental health as a large employer. We employ over 120,000 team members and have the opportunity to make a lot of people’s lives better.

We want to help reduce the stigma that comes with talking about it in the workplace. People should be able to go to work and feel safe and comfortable to be their authentic selves, including being able to open up about their mental health.

We also like that the Alliance promotes medically supported, evidence-based approaches. It’s not just a bunch of corporates trying to muddle their way through what is a highly complex issue.

There is also a great sense of shared purpose among the Alliance members. We can share insights and resources; we can learn from each other.

We’ll need all that because there are challenging times ahead. Given the ongoing mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate Australia is going to have to pull together in a way it never has before.

David Brewster, Chief Legal & Safety Officer, Coles

Board Member, Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia

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