Psychological wellbeing in the workplace is now a safety issue and boards need to be across the potential hazards. A well-structured wellbeing audit can help, as can a suite of new tech tools, but it needs to be more than a tick-box exercise.

    For many employees, the shift to remote and hybrid work patterns has been welcomed due to the flexibility it affords, with employees better able to balance their commitments at work and at home. Recent research by Gartner found that if an organisation were to return to a fully onsite arrangement, it would risk losing up to 39 per cent of its workforce. However, not everyone is thriving in the new environment.

    “For some people, working remotely has led to isolation, anxiety, loneliness and a loss of team cohesion,” says Australian HR Institute CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett FAICD.

    As Gartner notes, hybrid work can be “a great opportunity or a great risk, particularly for diverse talent”. Oversight is important, but it can be challenging due to reduced visibility of team members. A well thought-out approach to wellbeing is critical to retaining talent and maintaining productivity — especially during record low levels of unemployment.

    Bigger investments in wellbeing

    Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, McCann-Bartlett has observed an increasing focus on wellbeing in the workplace, in part in response to the inherently challenging conditions of extended lockdowns and a global health crisis.

    According to Gartner, 70 per cent of organisations surveyed globally made extra investments in wellbeing during the past two years. There is a growing body of research to back the notion that doing so makes good business sense. “Research now tells us there’s a direct positive correlation between employee wellbeing and performance,” says McCann-Bartlett.

    Wellbeing Lab workplace research, in conjunction with the AHRI, found that workers who were consistently thriving and those who were living well despite struggles were statistically more likely to report higher levels of individual, team and organisational performance. Another study, by the University of California, found that participation in workplace wellness programs increased productivity to a level that was approximately equal to an additional productive work day per month for the average employee. Other benefits include lessening absenteeism and health insurance costs. An Australian study — Employment Hero Wellness at Work report — found that workers who felt productive were 18 per cent more likely to feel their employer cared about their wellness.

    The problem is that sometimes employees, particularly remote employees, may not know that the wellbeing benefits exist, according to Phil Hayes-St Clair, co-founder and CEO of Drop Bio Health. “Many organisations have well-documented wellness programs, but they live on intranet sites that few visit,” he says. “Quite often, team members don’t even know they exist. It’s equivalent to having private health insurance and not knowing or taking advantage of the benefits of your cover.”

    Part of the organisation

    In June, Australia Post became the first government business enterprise to appoint a chief mental health officer, Simon Brown-Greaves, a qualified psychologist. “We’re focused on educating and raising awareness of ways to recognise and minimise mental health issues with training for our people leaders and customer-facing teams to strengthen a culture of collegial care,” said AusPost executive general manager people and culture Susan Davies in a June statement.

    Westpac appointed its chief mental health officer in 2018, with a similar focus on prevention. Law firm Allens has a consultant psychologist to provide support to all employees, including partners.

    Other ways of boosting wellbeing can include shortening the traditional work week from five days to four without cutting salaries — a move that at least 20 organisations in Australia and New Zealand are preparing for as they get behind a growing trend. The four-day work week is also a way of creating a competitive EVP (employee value proposition) without increasing salaries. Some organisations are creating personalised EVPs based on what staff identify as most valuable to them, while others are focusing on particular themes, such as being a family-friendly workplace, notes McCann- Bartlett. “More and more employers understand that employee wellbeing is an employer issue and that there is a requirement to create psychologically safe workplaces,” she says.

    Choosing the right yardstick

    A wellbeing program that lacks any form of robust measurement will also prove ineffective. A wellbeing audit can take all manner of different forms — what is most important is that it is a data-backed framework that fits the specific organisation, says McCann-Bartlett. “Workplace wellbeing audits vary considerably, and there isn’t a one-size-fits- all. It could include internal polls, surveys or an organisational culture review. Some assessments are structured employee surveys grounded in a wellbeing model, while others are risk-based and might focus on issues that go to psychosocial hazards.”

    “Psychosocial” is an umbrella term that includes socially disruptive factors — such as harms caused by things like bullying, harassment, fatigue and the overloading of work.

    McCann Bartlett says that a workplace wellbeing audit assessment should not be an annual activity forgotten about until the following year. It may need to be followed up with a deeper dive. Results need to be acted on with specific interventions. For example, PwC research found most employees need wellbeing support in the evening, but most employee assistance programs only operate during traditional office hours. As flexible work becomes more common, wellness programs must adapt.

    Hayes-St Clair also notes that some pre-pandemic wellness programs may no longer be fit for purpose. For example, employees may have the option to work from home, but they haven’t been provided with the right technology or software to work safely and productively.

    “It’s all about going back to the first principles and asking, ‘How do we help people work effectively from home?’ — because being well equipped to work remotely is crucial to wellbeing,” he says.

    As McCann-Bartlett notes, parity in the provision of technology is important, as its absence can create the impression that some employees are not as valuable as others.

    Drop Bio Health provides virtual wellness events, with the opportunity to connect directly with curated specialists. The content is also available on demand for team members’ families and includes topics on women’s and men’s physical and mental health.

    Various models of assessing wellbeing exist, but one of the best known is the PERMA model, which represents the five core elements of happiness and wellbeing — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments. The model was developed by Dr Martin Seligman, who coined the term “positive psychology” to describe the shift in focus from mental illness and pathology to studying the good and positive aspects of life — what makes life worth living.

    “We’re now seeing more organisations using these tools and assessments — as well as a mix of different assessments — as opposed to just relying on one,” says McCann Bartlett. “They’re also starting to move towards assessments that have a wellbeing model behind them.”

    Technologies that assist workplace flexibility are also becoming more personalised. Workforce management solutions like Humanforce help frontline staff facilitate a flexible work environment by being able to swap shifts with their co-workers online, plus check rosters, holidays and timesheets.

    The power of listening

    While the tools for offering flexibility and measuring wellbeing are increasingly sophisticated and data-driven, the fundamental principles of two- way, empathetic communication should never be neglected, says Hayes-St Clair. “One aspect of wellness that is often overlooked is the extent to which leadership teams talk and listen to their people. When done well, these interactions can instil a level of calm and deepen a leader’s credibility. When times are more uncertain, the more face time leaders can invest with their teams, the better. And it’s important to note leaders don’t often have all the answers, it’s the showing up that counts.” Hayes-St Clair believes such occasions also serve as an opportunity to detect any nervousness or anxiety that may otherwise go unnoticed. And during times of additional stress caused by restructures and redundancies, the leadership team can play a role in mitigating what McCann-Bartlett refers to as “survivor syndrome”.

    “Executives and senior managers can help employees feel prepared and ensure they have formal support, such as employee assistance services and mental health resources,” she says. “Employees also need to be reminded regularly that the situation is temporary and support mechanisms are in place.”

    A new approach

    While the WHS legislation itself hasn’t changed, psychological injury caused by things like harassment, sexual harassment and bullying are now treated as work health and safety issues. They were previously viewed as employment or HR issues.

    Directors have personal liability as part of their due diligence obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. These obligations include a responsibility to reduce psychosocial hazards and to create psychologically safe workplaces.

    “It’s important directors don’t overstep their duties and they have regard for managerial prerogative, but they should be having quite robust discussions to satisfy themselves because there are personal penalties, and in some cases, jail time, if they don’t do it,” says Cilla Robinson, a partner at Clayton Utz.

    When she began her law career two decades ago, Robinson did not encounter workplace claims for anxiety or depression. The picture looks very different today, although some stigma remains despite the high prevalence of both. Almost 50 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, and three million adults have anxiety and/or depression in any given year, according to Beyond Blue.

    “Excluding high-risk safety environments like mining and transport, in my experience, poor mental health and psychosocial hazards are actually the most pressing WHS risks for organisations to manage,” says Robinson. The first case that demonstrated this change of approach was the 2010 Brodie

    Panlock case in Victoria, where cafe staff and its directors were prosecuted under the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004. Panlock, 19, had committed suicide in 2006 after enduring prolonged bullying by her workmates and the cafe manager. This included being spat on, having fish oil poured over her, and being told to take rat poison.

    “This case shifted the focus on psychological wellbeing in the workplace to being a safety issue,” says Samantha Betzien MAICD, a partner at Allens. “Overall, it is a very positive thing, because in my experience, the way in which we approach due diligence to safety issues is very thorough. It means it will get the attention that it should.”

    Individuals can lodge a complaint with the safety regulator in their state, which prompts the inspector to go out and investigate. There’s also an obligation on the employer to report notifiable WHS matters, which also involves psychological injury. While the costs of compensation claims can be heavy, failure to prevent psychosocial harms also has a wider corrosive impact on culture, says Robinson.

    “People are voting with their feet on these issues,” she adds. “Candidates these days are choosing a workplace that has protections to safeguard psychosocial wellbeing and is not just giving lip service to the issue.”

    While there is now an increasing focus on preventing mental health issues rather than playing catch-up after the event, it is unrealistic to expect no issues will pop up. This could lead to incidents going unreported or being swept under the carpet by management.

    “Sometimes these issues are going to arise, but it is important that the board can say, with hand on heart, that there are strategies and measures in place to address them,” says Betzien.

    Financial wellbeing tools for frontline staff

    Improving the employee experience of frontline workers is front of mind for Humanforce, which provides workforce management solutions to a group of workers it believes are underserved by technology. One of the platform's offerings includes the provision of early earned wage access to cover bills and expenses, as well as enabling workers to track their earnings in real time or check their financial fitness and participate in one-on- one live-chat financial coaching.

    “To attract top talent, businesses need to understand that while increasing pay is important, it is no longer the driving factor that drives people to join or stay at an organisation,” says Humanforce CEO Clayton Pyne. “Solutions that help workers flexibly manage their shifts are critical, as work often sits alongside important life and family commitments. Additionally, desk-less workers value clear communication, empathy for the challenges they face on the frontline and opportunities to develop and grow.”

    Tech ties performance to corporate objectives

    Human capital management software as a service (SaaS) has emerged as a way of making performance appraisals less subjective and better aligned with corporate objectives. The software can embed corporate objectives and then evaluate how an individual is faring in terms of achieving the group aspiration and individual KPIs. The data is viewed on a dashboard that accommodates remote work.

    “Companies that make their objectives very clear — both group and individual ones — have a better chance of being successful in the marketplace,” says Elmo Software CEO Danny Lessem. “Without a technology solution underpinning the performance process, there can be misalignment between different employees because the corporate objectives have not been clearly articulated. This is further complicated by the move to hybrid or remote-based working, which can bring a lack of visibility.”

    Some companies mentioned in this feature may have advertised in Company Director, but have had no involvement in determining editorial content.

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