Project Description

Psychological Dimensions of Returning Employees to Work after a Crisis with Dr Melanie Irons

Traditionally, the ability to work from home as been viewed as something of a luxury, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, reports are emerging of high levels of psychological distress among employees working from home.

Today our host James Judge is joined  by Dr Melanie Irons, Senior Consultant at Steople (formerly known as Peoplescape), who explains some of the psychological dimensions at play, bringing her knowledge of crisis communication to the situation in which we now – as a global community – find ourselves.

Dr Irons explains that rapid change and ambiguity are characteristic of emergency situations.  But how can employers provide certainty, flexibility and transparency within the wash of constant flux?

Topics we covered

  • How workloads and work-life boundaries have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • What are the psycho-social hazards of working at home, and how can managers help employees cope with them?
  • How the online work environment differs and how the human person is affected
  • Government, private sector and emergency services agencies are responding differently to the crisis
  • Creating a workplace culture where addressing mental wellbeing is acceptable and even a norm.

Resources we mentioned

Mental Health Resources we mentioned

Genevieve Jacobs:

I’m Genevieve Jacobs, and this is the HR Breakfast Club podcast, where we look at the world of work with an HR twist. And today practical, straightforward, real ideas about how to maintain mental health and wellbeing in your workplace. On the series, we work our way through a variety of HR issues you might be dealing with in the workplace, and we give you some important information about how to manage them and perhaps some new perspectives on where to go from here. Our website is hrbreakfastclub.com.au. And if you’d like to make contact with some questions, we can respond to those too.

Today, our focus turns to a growing challenge for HR managers and workplaces; how to maintain mental health and wellbeing, in these tough times. My guests are Aaron and Khayt Williams of Mindstar. Together, they have a wealth of clinical and practical experience in building mentally healthy, positive corporate cultures. Hello to you both. Welcome.

Aaron Williams:

Good day Genevieve. How are you going?

Genevieve Jacobs:

Very well. Great to have you both here. Mindstar has got some serious runs on the board, working on wellbeing with everyone from Woolies to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. But tell me what the founding idea is here. What’s Mindstar designed to address?

Aaron Williams:

It’s pretty simple. Mindstar is about workplace wellbeing. What it’s about is making it super, super easy for people to be able to connect with the very best information education around wellbeing, your mental health. Everything from online programs. We have a team of Mindstar wellbeing coaches across the country, mental health professionals and doing it all in a really simple, positive way.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Khayt, how much is mental health and wellbeing among employees growing as a concern for HR managers? What changes are you seeing there?

Khayt Williams:

Yeah, look, I think over the last six months, we’ve seen a huge increase in the concern of wellbeing and mental health issues amongst employers and obviously HR managers for their employees. The key issue, I think, is understanding what to do with people who are presenting with issues in the workplace. What we’re seeing is, we need to up skill our managers and up skill our HR practitioners with additional skills in this area, definitely.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Aaron, in the past, this wasn’t necessarily seen as a concern for the workplace. It was more something that people managed privately. And I guess the role of HR managers was often more around workplace conflicts or issues that came up in the everyday practice of work, but what’s changed?

Aaron Williams:

I think what hasn’t changed, this is the question. I think back to when we first started doing this, and Mindstar was launched back in 2014, I was going in and talking to CEOs or HR managers about workplace wellbeing. And they’d say, “Get out of my office. What are you talking about?”. But now it’s actually it’s… But now we’re getting phone calls from organisations saying, “We need workplace wellbeing.”. And I said, “What do you need?”. “We don’t know but we need it.”, so I think it’s this understanding now that employees are your greatest asset, that there’s a huge increase in the prevalence of workplace wellbeing needs and mental illness, and I think it’s the stigma has reduced. All of a sudden it’s much more normalized and part of our everyday language.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Khayt, I guess in terms of being an HR manager, there’s the realization that this goes straight to productivity, to wellbeing. That these are things which will affect the performance of the company as well. If people are unhappy, struggling, and really troubled, they’re not going to be high performing employees.

Khayt Williams:

No, that’s right. Look, and I think that for HR practitioners, there’s also that, they’re used to dealing with problems, but dealing with people and problems. I think that’s a whole different kettle of fish, but certainly around looking at anxiety and the uncertainty of what’s happening at the moment, HR practitioners really need to make sure that their self care is very, very high and that they’re looking after themselves at the moment.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Aaron, COVID is turning into more and more of a marathon. I think we thought this would all be over in just a few months, and of course it’s been a long range process. What’s the role of leadership in the workplace, with regard to mental health? What responsibility does management need to take for ensuring that mental health and wellbeing is actually a priority?

Aaron Williams:

I think the work that I do with organisations, it’s helping leaders realize that it’s not just a responsibility, it’s an opportunity. It’s giving those leaders the capability and working with leaders to give them the confidence and the understanding of what needs to happen, especially during COVID. I think a lot of leaders are saying, “Yeah, this is outside my training. This is outside my own capability.”, so it’s really working with leaders first, because they’re the ones who set the culture and a culture of psychological safety for the whole organisation. And it’s never been more important now than giving leaders the training to do that, I think.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Look, just before we move on from that idea of this being a leadership responsibility, I guess there’s often been a sense in the past that people want to foster competitiveness and higher achievement. But we’re seeing more and more that the mental health and wellbeing questions actually go to the productivity of the workplace, don’t they?

Aaron Williams:

Directly related. It’s not just mental illness, if you like, it’s actually things like bringing joy back into the workplace. Which sounds kind of fluffy, but without joy, you don’t have the innovation. You don’t have the creativity. You don’t have the engagement, so if we can actually set a culture where people love coming to work and they feel like there’s psychological safety, they can talk, they are safe to say I made a mistake. Once we create this culture of wellbeing, then everything flourishes.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Khayt, I just wanted to touch on something you mentioned a moment ago, that there are some risks for HR personnel themselves. This is a world where there’s so much anxiety and uncertainty. You said, a moment ago, that HR managers need to look after themselves and do some self care. Why? And how can they do that?

Khayt Williams:

I think there’s a few things. I certainly think it’s about being intentional about what you actually consume. If you’re looking at your social media, as an HR manager, you really need to be intentional about what’s coming into your feeds and that’s very practical and it’s quite a day to day practice. Swap news for nature. Go and do things that are going to actually benefit you as a human. I think that’s really important.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Yeah, because I guess as the HR manager, at a time like this, you could have a lot of people who are pretty worried and pretty tense landing in front of you and your office on a pretty regular basis. That’s hard to manage.

Khayt Williams:

Yeah. I think there’s something else around compassion fatigue as well. That’s really important, so just being really aware of how it is impacting you and noticing that.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Aaron you’ve talked about qualities like authenticity, vulnerability, empathy, compassion. Why are they valuable to bring into the workplace around mental health and wellbeing issues?

Aaron Williams:

I’ve been banging on about these things for a couple of years now, and because of the key traits of leadership. Number one, in my opinion, it’s what we’ve lost in some ways from corporate leadership in Australia. And it’s some of the soft skills and it’s giving people permission. You mentioned it before, seemed to be this hard as nails, competitive environment, but in a lot of the leadership, the contemporary leadership, research comes from places like the US Marines, where they’re finding that it’s not just the hard arses who get all the results. It’s actually the leaders who were seen to have those traits.

Aaron Williams:

I talk about compassion, because I think many of us possibly are good at compassion. Where we feel for someone else, and we actually try and do something to help someone else. But what we lack, these days, is self-compassion, where we allow ourselves to realize that we sometimes just need to go softer on ourselves, rather than harder than ourselves. Because what I’m seeing at the moment is a lot of people, a lot of senior people, a lot of leaders, falling over as they’ve tried to sprint into COVID, and then all of a sudden gone, “Hang on. This is a marathon.”.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Yeah. It’s a hard going thing, and it will be with us for a while and we’ll need to calculate the kinds of issues that arise because of that. Let’s talk about some practical strategies then. Aaron talk to me about breathing and buckets and positive thinking.

Aaron Williams:

It sounds like a T-shirt; breathing, buckets and… But what we know, and we’re seeing such an increased amount of stress and anxiety for good reason. We’re living through an abnormal situation, so breathing; the most simple hand on heart breathing exercise, which is mindful breathing, that I’ve come across in the last decade of my career, is a little thing called the three two five. It’s a very simple exercise of basically breathing for three, you hold for two and you breathe out for five and it’s amazing. It was designed for elite athletes and you can do it for stress. You can do it if you’re going to go to conflict. If you get that email from your boss and you start to get the butterflies Or even to help you sleep. You can do one, three two five or you can do 10, but it’s something that we teach. I had someone, at one of the major banks, stand up and on stage and go, “It’s changed my life, because my husband and I couldn’t sleep and we haven’t slept for years, and this little tool changed our life overnight.”.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Do you know, I have used that with my kids for years. We call it yoga breathing in our house, and I even do it with my mother who’s 89. It’s just that very slow, very gentle oxygenates the body, calm and center. It is miraculous. What about the buckets? Tell me about the buckets.

Aaron Williams:

Look, the buckets, it’s basically the domains of wellbeing. We all have six buckets in our life. We’ve got work, physical health, psychological health, emotional health, spiritual and relationships. The idea is that those six buckets, they’re never going to be full. That’s not realistic, especially in 2020. They’re not going to be full, but the important part is that none of those buckets get low or actually get empty, because if any of those buckets get empty, it drags everything else down. You may have all… You might love your job, you’re a greek adonis, you go to the gym 15 times a week, you’re psychologically, emotionally balanced, you meditate a rock every morning for an hour, but you work too hard and you feel like you’re not seeing your partner and your kids. That will drag everything else down, no matter how well you’re doing in the rest of your life.

Genevieve Jacobs:

I guess we’ve heard a lot about positive thinking over the years. What’s your take on positive thinking? Not Pollyanna thinking, but positive thinking.

Aaron Williams:

No, I’m a huge fan. I think sometimes people warp the positive psychology. The reality is that life is a roller coaster, so you’ve got your ups and your downs. Really what we need to do is have that positive thinking and that positive mindset, I’d probably call it, and the tools, so when you do take those dips on the roller coaster, you don’t spiral down. You keep on sailing through and that’s resilience. Resilience is not about being bulletproof or superman. It’s about how you bounce back from adversity. That’s really what I’d say, positive thinking and positive mindset can be hugely beneficial and gratitude. That’s very simple things that we can learn and train ourselves to do every single morning.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Khayt, do you find resistance in some workplaces though. Can it be a bit of a challenge to overcome those old fashioned workplace culture ideas about problems being best left at home?

Khayt Williams:

Yeah. And look, I think, certainly in more male dominated industries. However, that is changing for the positive. The construction industry, for example, they have a fantastic group called Mates in Construction, who look after wellbeing and mental health, so it’s definitely changing. I think with the onset of COVID, et cetera, we will see more and more workplaces and cultures actually embracing wellbeing, which is just such great news for everybody.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Aaron, as we were saying earlier, Mindstar has worked in lots of organisations, big and small, all around the country. What do you see in workplaces where this focus on mental health and wellbeing has been well managed? What changes in those companies and organisations?

Aaron Williams:

To give you an example, we work in some male dominated industries, as Khayt was saying, and come across a bit of a fear that if we open this up, we’re going to have this flood. If we talk about it, it’s going to happen, but it’s happening anyway. We noticed that’s a one in four, to one in three in financial services, for example. It’s not about talking about it. What talking about it does is actually help people get the action or support they need very early in the process rather than waiting until the wheels come off. I think what we’re seeing and just what Khayt said, there’s this initial fear, “Ah, what’s going to happen?”. There maybe, all of a sudden, they’ve got a bit more of an awareness, then they feel so empowered and it’s so engaging especially between the leaders and employees. And we’re seeing amazing leaders now stand up in front of their whole employee group, and talk authentically and vulnerably about how they’re feeling and what they’ve been through. It absolutely changes the whole culture of the organisation.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Just harking back to that thought about productivity, is there a measurable impact on productivity alongside just the simple responsibility for looking after people properly? Do businesses do well as a result of making those changes?

Aaron Williams:

Most definitely. I think these steps, to me, look up to $15 ROI. Every dollar, spent in certain organisations depending on their size, absolutely see that. All the factors that sometimes are hard to measure, but it’s absenteeism, it’s presenteeism when people are at work, but their minds are at home. That affects productivity and that’s not work based stuff. Maybe it’s stuff like being a parent, having aging parents, the cost of living. This financial stress and distress around COVID. There’s a whole range of things that if we give people the tools and the support to be able to deal with that early, then there’s huge productivity gains.

Genevieve Jacobs:

And Khayt, I guess there will be people listening to this who will think, “Well, that’s all very well, but I don’t even know where to start.”. Perhaps it’s a small company, a small organisation. The HR person already has lots and lots of things to manage. Where do you find the best resources? How do you get cracking with this?

Khayt Williams:

Yeah, it’s a good question, and with so much out there, I think it’s really around going to the places you already know. R U OK? has amazing resources. I’m sure many of your listeners know Brené Brown, who I would highly recommend and look podcasts are just an absolute, incredible place to find fantastic information around mentally healthy workplaces.

Aaron Williams:

We have a wellbeing hub, that we provide for a whole range of organisations and governments. There’s a lot of noise around this space, and I think that’s sometimes part of the challenge, is that where do you start? What we try and do is curate that information, so people… We just bring the good stuff together, from all over the place and just give it to them in a really bite sized way for people to consume.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Look, it’s been terrific to have this conversation with you both about the growing awareness of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, but also the very positive results that attending to that thoughtfully and thoroughly can bring for employers as well as employees. My guests today have been Aaron Williams and Khayt Williams from Mindstar. As we’ve discussed resilience, wellbeing, and productivity in the workplace. Thank you both very much.

Aaron Williams:

Thank you. It’s been fantastic. Thank you for having us.

Genevieve Jacobs:

It’s been a great pleasure. And thanks for your time too. I’m Genevieve Jacobs. We’ve been discussing resilience, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. You can find the rest of the HR Breakfast Club podcast on our website, hrbreakfastclub.com.au. Look for us online in a series of conversations with HR people and lawyers about the current issues in the field. If you’d like to ask some questions, suggest an idea, or perhaps even offer yourself up as talent for the series. We’d love to hear from you.

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