For a few years now I’ve seen the emergence of corporate roles and associated job titles specifically for mental health, wellbeing and even purpose. This week on Instagram, “The Australian” newspaper posted “Australia Post has appointed a Mental Health Chief”, noting it will be the “first government business enterprise to have such a position”. Soon after I reposted that story on Insta, one of my colleagues messaged me to say that Westpac has had a Chief Mental Health Officer for years (David Burroughs). Commonwealth Bank also has a Chief Mental Health Officer (Laura Kirby). You can hear more about Laura Kirby’s role and what it encompasses on the Psych Health & Safety Podcast here.

You can also listen to Lucas Finch, Global Head of Wellbeing at Xero on the same podcast here.  In fact, Lucas was one of my students in the Coaching Masters at the University of Sydney and I’ve been so impressed by Lucas’ career progression. He was also Health & Wellbeing Specialist at Sydney Water prior to Xero. It’s so wonderful to see students securing dream roles such as these, where they’re able to put their learnings into practice and inspire other organisations to follow suit.

 icare have also recently appointed an Executive Advisor: Mental Health & Wellbeing (Samantha Liston), sending a strong message to businesses in NSW that psychological health and safety is just as important as physical health and safety in the workplace. In fact, in my search, I found the following: icare data for the five years from 2013 to 2017 shows that the average cost of psychological injury claims with weekly payments was twice as high as for physical injury claims with weekly payments — mainly because twice as much work time was lost for the psychological injury claims. And when it comes to more recent pandemic related data I found – of all COVID-19 related claims lodged with icare Workers Insurance, 30 per cent have been for psychological injury, indicating that the impact of the pandemic extends beyond the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.

Overall, in terms of the creation of a key mental health and/or wellbeing role, I do think it’s an important step forward in the prioritisation of mental health and wellbeing in workplaces. I also believe it’s an emerging role and may evolve over time. We can however learn a lot from those pioneering in these roles. I also think we can learn a lot from those that have gone before them. In fact, this title and job role has existed for over ten or more years now in many schools, and in particular, those that have embraced Positive Education.

The HOPE – not the DOPE!

When Geelong Grammar first brought Professor Martin Seligman and his team of learned colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania to Australia back in 2008/2009 they spent nine days working with all school staff teaching them the science of positive psychology. They also appointed a HOPE (Head of Positive Education), rather than a Director, which would have led to the position title being the DOPE! Justin Robinson held that position for ten years and did an amazing job not just at GGS but in taking Positive Education to the world. At the end of last year, Justin left GGS and my understanding is that the title of HOPE will depart also. There will however continue to be a strong focus on staff, student and whole school community mental health and wellbeing. In fact, in working with GGS last year and this year to help support the new “Learning Coach” role (teachers as coaches to support students’ academic performance and wellbeing), I’m aware that GGS’s intention is to completely embed mental health and wellbeing into the culture so its permeates every aspect of school life.  If that is the ultimate aim of most schools and organisations, then is a separate role still required? Who is responsible for school culture? And shouldn’t that role encompass mental health and wellbeing anyway?

Are we in the Neutral Zone?

Perhaps we don’t have all the answers yet? Perhaps we’re in a transition phase? Bridge’s transition model suggests when we’re “letting go” (of old ways of being), and before we move into “new beginnings”, there’s the “neutral zone”. As a coach, I often encourage people to sit in the neutral zone before rushing into a new beginning, despite the discomfort it usually brings. It’s about being strategic and looking at all possible pathways forward and then assessing each one against our values, strengths and fuzzy vision before deciding the best pathway to take.

My fuzzy vision is for a strategic approach to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and is aligned to Professor Anthony LaMontagne’s “integrated model of workplace mental health (LaMontagne et al, 2014). I also believe that this means reviewing who’s responsible for what in an organisation. I’m already hearing that “Health & Safety” Departments are becoming “Health, Safety & Wellbeing” Departments. Given there’s legal obligations on keeping people safe at work (physically and psychologically), does that mean that any mental health or wellbeing education/training costs should be allocated to the Safety budget, not the Learning and Development budget? These are just a few of my musings and I’d love to hear from you, my networks as to your thoughts on the best transition plan and perhaps the ideal scenario? I’m hoping to start a conversation here, to answer my own questions rather than provide the solution.

Mental Health & Wellbeing is Everybody’s Business

In schools, I often hear that “pastoral care” (a term historically used to support student welfare/wellbeing) is everybody’s business. Whilst there may be allocated roles and responsibilities, I believe, and in fact recommend, that everyone in a workplace needs to have a basic understanding of mental health (eg Mental Health First Aid) and be equipped with key psychological capabilities and wellbeing literacy (Promote Positivity/Promote Flourishing) along with preventing harm and mitigating risk as per the LaMontagne model. I also believe that leadership development and coaching needs to have mental health and wellbeing infused into it and coaches should be coaching for performance and wellbeing – not performance to the detriment of wellbeing!

Final thoughts?

As we can see, there’s lot of opportunities for organisations to rethink their approach to mental health. I have a few of my own ideas but as I said, I’d love to hear yours? I’d like to see mental health roles expanded to “Mental Health & Wellbeing” which encapsulates the full range of mental health in line with Professor Corey Keyes Mental Health Continuum Model (2002). Organisations need a mental health and wellbeing strategy that aligns to the overall organisational strategy. Every individual should be encouraged to set a “wellbeing goal” alongside their performance and development goals. Research tells us that the presence of wellbeing and the absence of mental illness impacts on how we show up at work eg languishing or flourishing – and there’s a connection to productivity and organisational effectiveness (Cameron et al, 2011). However organisations should not be pursuing a mental health and strategy solely because of the impact it can have on the bottom line. As a senior leader once told me, “It’s the right and noble thing to do”. Other leaders have responded “we have a duty of care” and others suggest “people talk” and when you’re suffering with mental health issues people observe how the leadership and organisation responds and this in turn affects both retention and attraction of talent.

I realise this is a hot topic right now and there’s so much I couldn’t cover in this blog but I do think while we’re in the neutral zone we need organisations to share their learnings and inspire each other to evolve, just as those pioneers in Positive Education have done before them and continue to do so.

Want to learn more about wellbeing science? Join me as I take our workplace wellbeing digital program LIVE this March.