HR professional Julie Dawson CPHR explains how she transformed her organisation’s approach to mental health.
How do you go from a passive, rarely used wellbeing program to a proactive mental health strategy? Julie Dawson, the people and culture officer at RSM Australia, a consulting company with 30 offices, pulled it off. And it began with a personal interest.
“I’ve always been passionate about mental health. Looking at the statistics, you see there’s been a huge increase in issues generally, and a high prevalence in professional services, including the accounting sector,” she says.
From her workplace in Perth, Dawson has turned this passion into local and national initiatives. She’s encouraged employees to speak up, launched awareness training for leaders and introduced numerous mental health first aid officers. That’s not bad after 20 months on the job – and five years into an HR career.
“It’s so important to open up dialogue – to make people feel comfortable about addressing mental health issues,” she says.
Wellness at work
Before joining RSM in 2017, Dawson was in the not-for-profit sector. She spent a year at Life Without Barriers, which provides services for foster care, mental health, disability and aged care. That was followed by a year at Good Samaritan Industries, a Uniting Church agency that improves employment opportunities for people with disabilities. At both, addressing mental health issues was par for the course.
However, RSM’s approach , called the Wellness@Work Program, was more focussed on offering things like gym membership.
“The Employment Assistance Program (EAP) usage was very low. There were no red flags that mental health was an issue, but the problem is that the research shows you won’t typically see red flags. Many employees are afraid of the stigma.”
Rather than waiting for warning signs, Dawson took matters into her own hands. Already enrolled in the AHRI Practising Certification Program (APC), she decided on a capstone project: RSM Perth – Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace.
“The biggest attraction to certification was the practical element,” says Dawson, who has a bachelor’s degree in HR management and industrial relations from Curtin University.
“While undergraduate study was more about textbooks and theory, certification involved more practical discussion with people at different levels from various industries. Through the assignments, I got to implement new policies and procedures entirely and I learned how to get proposals across the line.”
Office wide dialogue
One successful proposal was a mental health facilitation process with a focus on disclosure; telling employees “it’s okay to say you’re not okay”. A follow-up survey revealed that 100 per cent of participants found the experience highly valuable and wanted more.
“To ensure the dialogue spread across the office, we aligned the facilitation with mental health awareness training for leaders. It wasn’t long before I started to hear them quoting statistics in general conversation that I’d quoted to them when trying to get the initiative across the line. A few have become quite passionate about it and have been asking me, ‘What are we doing next? What are we doing next?’”
Nationally, Dawson has set up mental health first aid officers in every capital city office. These regular staff members have undertaken a mental health first aid course, which trains them to assist with a problem until it resolves or professional help arrives. They also provide a confidential point of contact.
Elizabeth Nunez FAHRI, director of people and culture at RSM, says: “As soon as we let people know about the officers, employees started ringing straight away. Sometimes people need a prompt to start a conversation. There’s more and more demand on the workforce because of the fast pace of change. I think people are struggling but don’t always admit it.”
Dawson’s project has not only brought much-needed relief to RSM Australia’s 1200 staff, it has also strengthened her relationship with her boss. “I manage a team of 17 people. They can’t all report to me,” says Nunez.
“I sponsored her certification capstone project, so we met every few weeks. The benefit for me was that I stayed connected. I otherwise might not have had opportunities to do that.”
Another two members of Nunez’s team are now enrolled in the APC program. One has embarked upon a structured, national approach to corporate social responsibility and the other is interested in improving the employee experience.
“Completing a project in an organisation where you work takes things to another level.
It gives employees a good foundation, a minimum standard of technical knowledge and the confidence to ask questions,” says Nunez.
“When new recruits come through with a growth mindset and they question things, they get me to think differently. Just because I’ve been in this profession for 20 years, that doesn’t make me an expert. I don’t want people in my team who are just going to repeat the same old processes. I want creative thought leaders, people who wonder, ‘Can this be done differently or better?’”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 edition of HRM magazine.