Thriving from the Start: Supporting mentally healthy workplaces for people early in their career

Published Thu, Dec 23, 2021

“The pressure we feel to appear stoic is immense. But hopefully, through my words today, I can show you that sharing something very deep is a sign of strength.”

The words of Xavier Eales, former school captain of Sydney’s St Ignatius’ College, ring true to this day. They came moments before he candidly described, in front of his peers at a school assembly in 2015, his struggles with depression. A video of his speech quickly went viral, with every share proving his disarmingly honest testimony had touched hearts around Australia.

Today, mental health in young people has never been in sharper focus. The pandemic has caused a surge in anxiety, isolation, uncertainty, financial hardship and other challenges, highlighting the need for open, honest conversations about these issues – especially in the workplace.

But as we push through this crisis, a unique opportunity is emerging. How can we move forward and create mentally healthy workplaces for young people? What can organisations do to foster a happier and healthier workforce?

Mental health and wellbeing is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s a need to have

Jerome Doraisamy

Unpacking the challenges and opportunities for young people and their employers

In December, we launched Thriving from the Start, an Early in Career (EIC) program, to understand the challenges and concerns of young people in the workplace and help organisations recognise their impact on employees’ mental health.

To kick off the program, EIC volunteers from Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia (CMHAA) member organisations came together in focus groups to share their insights and experiences with mental health in the workplace.

This research, published in our first report, highlights key themes across early perceptions of mental health at work, expectations of employers, availability of support and resources, leadership culture and willingness to speak out.

Thriving from the Start officially launched on 9 December with Ellen Derrick – CMHAA board member and Managing Partner of Consulting for Deloitte Australia – hosting a virtual event with a panel of mental health advocates. The panel, which included Xavier Eales, unpacked the report’s findings and discussed how organisations can help EIC employees thrive.

Not just the right thing to do: Why organisations must prioritise mental health

It’s easy to see the moral argument in favour of improving mental health in the workplace. But speaking at the virtual event, the panel quickly argued many organisations are ignoring the clear fiscal argument for improving work culture and uplifting employees.

“Mental health and wellbeing is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s a need to have,” said Jerome Doraisamy, journalist, author and former lawyer.

“You’re a person first and a professional second. The more input [organisations] can have in ensuring everyone is able to perform at their optimal level, the more everyone’s batteries are recharged, the better off your organisation is going to be.”

Xavier Eales shared this view, adding EIC employees have more bargaining power than they may realise. “Employees, especially young employees, have never been more mobile,” said Eales, now a founding principal at Barrenjoey Capital Partners.

“It is entirely in the employer’s interest, not only from an ethical standpoint but also from a commercial standpoint, that they treat their employees with a level of flexibility and respect that’s commensurate with good mental health. This generation talks – it’s a very free market for labour and you can lose your young engine room pretty quickly if you stuff it up on this front.”

Dr Melina Georgousakis, Franklin Women founder and Eureka Prize winner, believes it’s not just an opportunity for businesses to retain talent, but also to build a strong work culture for the future.

“By investing in creating mentally healthy, resilient and aware employees who are early in their careers, you’re really setting up your culture for your whole organisation into the future,” she said.

“That’s going to have a ripple effect, because in five to ten years they will be the middle managers.”

By investing in creating mentally healthy, resilient and aware employees who are early in their careers, you’re really setting up your culture for your whole organisation into the future

Dr Melina Georgousakis

Aware of mental health, but hesitant to speak out

It can be challenging to be open about mental health at work, particularly in organisations lacking an open and supportive culture. Many EIC employees have the tools and understanding to tackle mental health issues, but often keep it under wraps in the workplace.

“I think for a lot of young professionals coming through the ranks, they fear that they don’t have enough rungs on the board yet in order to have earned the right to speak out about certain ailments they may be suffering from,” Doraisamy said.

“It’s a really tricky dilemma to navigate if you’re a young person.” Jy Millis, senior associate at King & Wood Mallesons, echoed Doraisamy’s point while reflecting on his early career in the legal industry.

“Stepping into a top law firm and seeing all these impressive people […] it’s easy to feel at the beginning of your career that what you really need to do is fit,” Millis said. “It was really emotionally taxing dealing with that, let alone the pressures of the work itself. I wish I had understood early how important it is to be myself, to love my flaws and to own my quirks. I think when those settings are right for me, I can bring my whole self to work and therefore my best self.”

image for Xavier’s EIC toolkit: Three ways to manage mental health and

Xavier’s EIC toolkit: Three ways to manage mental health

Exercise is one. It helps you sleep better at night, it’s one of the few truly valid excuses to really take some time off work and invest in yourself that is pretty much universally accepted in any scenario. Everyone’s allowed to go to the gym or go for a run. Number two: always give yourself something to look forward to, whether it’s booking a weekend away in a few months, whether it’s a restaurant – it doesn’t even have to be something materialistic. Have something to count down to, that’s really important. Thirdly, having good mentors. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone older than you, although it often is. It can be a very close friend. But someone who you would honestly tell anything and be totally transparent with is incredibly important in my mind for maintaining your mental health.

The role of managers in creating a mentally healthy workplace

Senior leaders have an important role to play in shaping an organisation’s culture, but EICs may feel a gap between messages from the top and their day-to-day experience. This emphasised the need for team leaders and managers to help drive this cultural change – a concept Millis became familiar with through working with junior employees.

“I think it’s just managing with empathy, appreciating that people are doing the best with what they have and what they know, and being really conscious and actively walking the walk when it comes to living my values and being authentic,” Millis said. “It goes back to us as managers being authentic about our own experiences and having those conversations with our people.”

Dr Georgousakis stressed that what helps one employee may not work for another, and managers should take opportunities to be “nuanced” in their approach.

According to Eales, this could begin with something as simple as taking staff out for a meal. “The best questions are really bespoke to the person and make it evident that you’ve really listened to them in the past,” he said. “I think there’s no better way than taking someone out to dinner […] to gain their trust and find out how they’re really coping.”

For Doraisamy, this leadership is key to improving outcomes for EIC employees. “The more vulnerable team leaders can be with their staff, I think the better off those coming through the ranks are going to feel,” he said. “They’ll feel like they’re being trusted with that very sensitive, personal information. It really does help foster a sense of collegiality and community that otherwise wouldn’t exist.”

Doraisamy also argued that fostering professional development – even in areas outside an employee’s role – can prevent feelings of being “trapped” and empower them to feel more comfortable with their career prospects and have greater resilience in turbulent times.

The best questions are really bespoke to the person and make it evident that you’ve really listened to them in the past

Xavier Eales

Building strength through vulnerability

Despite the external barriers discouraging EIC employees from speaking out, the panel discussed the potential benefits of showing vulnerability early in one’s career.

“What I’ve been very fortunate to learn is that people invariably react well when you are authentic and open about what you’re going through,” Eales said.

Doraisamy agreed, suggesting it can show a sense of initiative and self-awareness to managers that may not otherwise shine through. “The more you can showcase that you do understand your capacities and limitations the more your managers will think that you’re able to better recognise what you can take on and what you can’t,” he said. “I think there’s a swathe of flow on professional benefits that can come from showing your own vulnerability on those fronts.”

I think it’s just managing with empathy, appreciating that people are doing the best with what they have and what they know, and being really conscious and actively walking the walk when it comes to living my values and being authentic

Jy Millis

Laying the foundations for good mental health

Dive into our research on mental health in the workplace by reading [Early in career: laying the foundations for good mental health](https://cmhaa.org.au/resources/early-in-career-laying-the-foundations-for-good-mental-health/). To register for our next event tailored to EIC individuals, join the Thriving from the Start Network by getting in touch at earlycareer@cmhaa.org.au.


Share article

You might be interested in