34% of ATO staff reported increased productivity following an innovative wellbeing program


The ATO won AHRI’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy Award for its ‘Thriving Minds’ program, a simple yet highly effective wellbeing strategy, which increased employees’ productivity and focus.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath transformed the modern workplace into a complex, hybrid environment. “Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, Incomprehensible (BANI)” is how renowned anthropologist Jamais Cascio describes it.

Consequently, burnout is a bigger risk than ever. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, published in October last year, found that 47 per cent of Australian employees experienced daily stress and only 23 per cent considered themselves as thriving. Very few industries or sectors are immune to this.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), with more than 20,000 employees, is one of the biggest federal government agencies. It is also one of the busiest.      

Work requirements mean employees need to be at the top of their game. They must be well-equipped to manage high workloads, undertake complex problem solving and meet competing deadlines.The ATO’s Mental Health Strategy team, in addition to recognising the challenges raised by the pandemic, also saw the opportunity to pilot optimal ways of working.                                                                                                                                             

“Our approach is recognising that investment in our people is central to our business,” says Alison Stott, Deputy Commissioner, ATO People.

“Our people have such an important role to undertake in the community that we want to support them to feel their best, so they can give their best to Australia.”

A powerful, five-pillared strategy

To do this, the Mental Health Strategy team started work on a new pilot program under its existing Mental Health ‘Thriving Minds’ strategy, which puts mental health at the front and centre of HR at the ATO. The Thriving Minds strategy is underpinned by five pillars:

  • Promoting mental health     
  • Strengthening capability     
  • Enhancing tools and technology     
  • Building supporting workspaces      
  • Supporting better work practices     

“Our approach is that mental health is everyone’s responsibility,” says Stott. “We wanted to equip our staff, managers, senior leaders and HR teams to have the confidence and capability to look after their own mental health and manage mental health in the workplace.”      

By 2021, two urgent, concrete and mental-health focused goals had become clear for the ATO. The first was supporting employees as they returned to the office following the pandemic. 

“The award also recognises all the staff, managers and leaders who really committed their time and effort during the pilots, and I was really proud that this was recognised beyond the ATO.”  – Alison Stott, Deputy Commissioner, ATO People.

The second was addressing the psychosocial risks that can contribute to burnout and fatigue, particularly job demands and having sufficient support in the workplace.      

“We wanted to make sure that our staff could create space in their day to perform at their best and deliver in their roles,” says Stott.

Six simple yet impactful initiatives 

To determine how to achieve these goals, the HR team dived into research on best-practice ways to combat psychosocial risks. 

The team prepared an approach drawing on the Job-Demand-Support model which shows that an employee’s level of psychosocial risk arises from the balance (or imbalance) between the demands of a role, and that employee’s protective resources. 

For example, demands might include leadership, volumes of work and leave. Protective resources might include leadership, hybrid work and flexibility. 

Drawing on the model, the team developed an innovative series of pilots named “Thrive@Work”. The aim was not merely to improve the workplace but to transform it, by enhancing employees’ engagement, productivity and wellbeing. 

The pilot programs were a success – and formed the basis of the ATO winning AHRI’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy Award 2023. 

The pilots delivered six simple yet highly effective initiatives. The first four, which addressed demands, were: 

– Facilitating more opportunities for deep work; 

– Making meetings more effective; 

– Improving email etiquette; and 

– Encouraging regular check-ins with managers about mental health.                                                                                     

“Deep work involves [the whole team] blocking out two hours of uninterrupted time to focus attention on completing complex tasks – as individuals or with other people,” says Stott. “There are no meetings, no phone calls, no chats.” 

 This is to help with deep thinking space focused on improved productivity and positive impact on mental health.                                                     

When it comes to meetings, the goal is to improve their utility.      

“We’ve all been to meetings that are unstructured, that go for a really long time, that have us wondering, ‘What are we here for?’” says Stott.

“We wanted to improve their effectiveness, so that we maintain focus by really putting some structure around them, and having agreed outcomes.” 

Read HRM’s article on Amazons silent meeting practice.

The third initiative, email etiquette, prioritises two areas: timing and audience.

“We wanted to reduce email traffic and noise, which is a distraction, and to address the impact of ‘always-on’ culture,” says Stott. 

An example could be teams agreeing when emails might be sent to limit constant distraction or avoid out-of-hours communication , to avoid copying people into messages who did not need to read them, and to consider other ways of connecting. 

“It’s really about thinking about how we engage with people – if you’re emailing back and forth, and trying to understand something, what might that do to someone’s focus, productivity or mental health? Could it be quicker just to ring and have a conversation?”

Regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and team members provided employees with opportunities to discuss their mental health, thereby helping to ensure that concerns were identified early.           

The other two initiatives provided employees with protective factors. 

The first was giving employees more control over flexibility, by encouraging them to use the options available to them relating to work hours, location and daily structure. 

The second was encouraging teams to build better relationships by connecting socially and taking a break from talking about work.   

Significant results – in just six weeks

The pilots saw 4000 employees from 12 areas of the business take part in at least one initiative, which ran for between six weeks and two months between 2022 and 2023.

Each was led by a local executive team and began with a skill-based webinar. In addition, managers received toolkits, access to drop-in sessions and ongoing “nudge” communications. 

Read HRM’s article on ‘nudge theory’.

Rather than dictating how managers should execute the initiatives, the HR team supported them to customise them to suit their teams’ needs.

“Because the work undertaken by the ATO varies across law, accounting, service delivery and many other areas, it was critical that our HR specialists partnered with business leaders to customise these initiatives were implemented across different operating environments. It’s about taking the principles and tailoring them to where you work,” she says.

To measure the pilots’ effectiveness, Stott and her team conducted before and after surveys.

In just six weeks, participants reported significant wellbeing and business-related improvements including:     

  • An average decrease in feelings of burn out of 15 per cent;
  • A 21 per cent reduction in work demands;
  • A 21 per cent reduction in mental load; and 
  • A 13 per cent reduction in fatigue. 

At the same time, 34 per cent of participants reported their productivity increased, and 45 per cent reported an increased ability to focus. 

Following these impressive results, the initiatives became a permanent service offer of the ATO’s wellbeing team. Over 70 per cent of participants reported that they wanted to continue engaging in the initiatives. 

Importantly, there was a long tail on the benefits of this program. In a follow-up survey conducted six months later, nine of the 12 business areas reported continued positive improvements.      

How can HR professionals improve workplace wellbeing? 

For HR professionals seeking to develop wellbeing-focused strategies, Stott has three pieces of advice. 

First, it’s vital to have senior management on board. 

“Having senior leaders’ buy-in… has the most impact for real change in an organisation,” she says. 

“Our executive and senior leaders endorsed and drove these initiatives, showcasing to their teams how they bring them into their daily work.”      

This included promoting the pilots in town halls, leadership forums and team meetings. Further, leaders incorporated the initiatives into their routines, such as scheduling ‘deep work’ sessions and openly communicating their status to their teams.

Second, a strategy should always be underpinned by hard data – every step of the way. 

“Make sure you’re using HR data and insights to inform opportunities and measure impact,” she says. This included things like the before and after survey, qualitative insights and other sentiment or trend HR metrics about the health of the workforce.

Third, seemingly small and affordable initiatives can make a big difference. 

“Look for opportunities to do small things that have a big impact,” says Stott. 

“The pilots we’ve discussed could be done by organisations of any size. They’re quite simple, but really make an impact in improving people’s mental health.”

On discovering the ATO had won the AHRI award, Stott was proud – and not only of her team.

“I was proud of the team and the work they do,” she says. “But it wasn’t just our HR staff, who are fabulous – true professionals and really experienced.  

“The award also recognises all the staff, managers and leaders who really committed their time and effort during the pilots, and I was really proud that this was recognised beyond the ATO.” 

Visit the AHRI website to discover which other organisations took home an AHRI award, as well as the individual award and scholarship winners.

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Deirdre Gruiters
Deirdre Gruiters
1 month ago

Found this to be an interesting and useful article. Thank you.

More on HRM

34% of ATO staff reported increased productivity following an innovative wellbeing program


The ATO won AHRI’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy Award for its ‘Thriving Minds’ program, a simple yet highly effective wellbeing strategy, which increased employees’ productivity and focus.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath transformed the modern workplace into a complex, hybrid environment. “Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, Incomprehensible (BANI)” is how renowned anthropologist Jamais Cascio describes it.

Consequently, burnout is a bigger risk than ever. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report, published in October last year, found that 47 per cent of Australian employees experienced daily stress and only 23 per cent considered themselves as thriving. Very few industries or sectors are immune to this.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), with more than 20,000 employees, is one of the biggest federal government agencies. It is also one of the busiest.      

Work requirements mean employees need to be at the top of their game. They must be well-equipped to manage high workloads, undertake complex problem solving and meet competing deadlines.The ATO’s Mental Health Strategy team, in addition to recognising the challenges raised by the pandemic, also saw the opportunity to pilot optimal ways of working.                                                                                                                                             

“Our approach is recognising that investment in our people is central to our business,” says Alison Stott, Deputy Commissioner, ATO People.

“Our people have such an important role to undertake in the community that we want to support them to feel their best, so they can give their best to Australia.”

A powerful, five-pillared strategy

To do this, the Mental Health Strategy team started work on a new pilot program under its existing Mental Health ‘Thriving Minds’ strategy, which puts mental health at the front and centre of HR at the ATO. The Thriving Minds strategy is underpinned by five pillars:

  • Promoting mental health     
  • Strengthening capability     
  • Enhancing tools and technology     
  • Building supporting workspaces      
  • Supporting better work practices     

“Our approach is that mental health is everyone’s responsibility,” says Stott. “We wanted to equip our staff, managers, senior leaders and HR teams to have the confidence and capability to look after their own mental health and manage mental health in the workplace.”      

By 2021, two urgent, concrete and mental-health focused goals had become clear for the ATO. The first was supporting employees as they returned to the office following the pandemic. 

“The award also recognises all the staff, managers and leaders who really committed their time and effort during the pilots, and I was really proud that this was recognised beyond the ATO.”  – Alison Stott, Deputy Commissioner, ATO People.

The second was addressing the psychosocial risks that can contribute to burnout and fatigue, particularly job demands and having sufficient support in the workplace.      

“We wanted to make sure that our staff could create space in their day to perform at their best and deliver in their roles,” says Stott.

Six simple yet impactful initiatives 

To determine how to achieve these goals, the HR team dived into research on best-practice ways to combat psychosocial risks. 

The team prepared an approach drawing on the Job-Demand-Support model which shows that an employee’s level of psychosocial risk arises from the balance (or imbalance) between the demands of a role, and that employee’s protective resources. 

For example, demands might include leadership, volumes of work and leave. Protective resources might include leadership, hybrid work and flexibility. 

Drawing on the model, the team developed an innovative series of pilots named “Thrive@Work”. The aim was not merely to improve the workplace but to transform it, by enhancing employees’ engagement, productivity and wellbeing. 

The pilot programs were a success – and formed the basis of the ATO winning AHRI’s Health and Wellbeing Strategy Award 2023. 

The pilots delivered six simple yet highly effective initiatives. The first four, which addressed demands, were: 

– Facilitating more opportunities for deep work; 

– Making meetings more effective; 

– Improving email etiquette; and 

– Encouraging regular check-ins with managers about mental health.                                                                                     

“Deep work involves [the whole team] blocking out two hours of uninterrupted time to focus attention on completing complex tasks – as individuals or with other people,” says Stott. “There are no meetings, no phone calls, no chats.” 

 This is to help with deep thinking space focused on improved productivity and positive impact on mental health.                                                     

When it comes to meetings, the goal is to improve their utility.      

“We’ve all been to meetings that are unstructured, that go for a really long time, that have us wondering, ‘What are we here for?’” says Stott.

“We wanted to improve their effectiveness, so that we maintain focus by really putting some structure around them, and having agreed outcomes.” 

Read HRM’s article on Amazons silent meeting practice.

The third initiative, email etiquette, prioritises two areas: timing and audience.

“We wanted to reduce email traffic and noise, which is a distraction, and to address the impact of ‘always-on’ culture,” says Stott. 

An example could be teams agreeing when emails might be sent to limit constant distraction or avoid out-of-hours communication , to avoid copying people into messages who did not need to read them, and to consider other ways of connecting. 

“It’s really about thinking about how we engage with people – if you’re emailing back and forth, and trying to understand something, what might that do to someone’s focus, productivity or mental health? Could it be quicker just to ring and have a conversation?”

Regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and team members provided employees with opportunities to discuss their mental health, thereby helping to ensure that concerns were identified early.           

The other two initiatives provided employees with protective factors. 

The first was giving employees more control over flexibility, by encouraging them to use the options available to them relating to work hours, location and daily structure. 

The second was encouraging teams to build better relationships by connecting socially and taking a break from talking about work.   

Significant results – in just six weeks

The pilots saw 4000 employees from 12 areas of the business take part in at least one initiative, which ran for between six weeks and two months between 2022 and 2023.

Each was led by a local executive team and began with a skill-based webinar. In addition, managers received toolkits, access to drop-in sessions and ongoing “nudge” communications. 

Read HRM’s article on ‘nudge theory’.

Rather than dictating how managers should execute the initiatives, the HR team supported them to customise them to suit their teams’ needs.

“Because the work undertaken by the ATO varies across law, accounting, service delivery and many other areas, it was critical that our HR specialists partnered with business leaders to customise these initiatives were implemented across different operating environments. It’s about taking the principles and tailoring them to where you work,” she says.

To measure the pilots’ effectiveness, Stott and her team conducted before and after surveys.

In just six weeks, participants reported significant wellbeing and business-related improvements including:     

  • An average decrease in feelings of burn out of 15 per cent;
  • A 21 per cent reduction in work demands;
  • A 21 per cent reduction in mental load; and 
  • A 13 per cent reduction in fatigue. 

At the same time, 34 per cent of participants reported their productivity increased, and 45 per cent reported an increased ability to focus. 

Following these impressive results, the initiatives became a permanent service offer of the ATO’s wellbeing team. Over 70 per cent of participants reported that they wanted to continue engaging in the initiatives. 

Importantly, there was a long tail on the benefits of this program. In a follow-up survey conducted six months later, nine of the 12 business areas reported continued positive improvements.      

How can HR professionals improve workplace wellbeing? 

For HR professionals seeking to develop wellbeing-focused strategies, Stott has three pieces of advice. 

First, it’s vital to have senior management on board. 

“Having senior leaders’ buy-in… has the most impact for real change in an organisation,” she says. 

“Our executive and senior leaders endorsed and drove these initiatives, showcasing to their teams how they bring them into their daily work.”      

This included promoting the pilots in town halls, leadership forums and team meetings. Further, leaders incorporated the initiatives into their routines, such as scheduling ‘deep work’ sessions and openly communicating their status to their teams.

Second, a strategy should always be underpinned by hard data – every step of the way. 

“Make sure you’re using HR data and insights to inform opportunities and measure impact,” she says. This included things like the before and after survey, qualitative insights and other sentiment or trend HR metrics about the health of the workforce.

Third, seemingly small and affordable initiatives can make a big difference. 

“Look for opportunities to do small things that have a big impact,” says Stott. 

“The pilots we’ve discussed could be done by organisations of any size. They’re quite simple, but really make an impact in improving people’s mental health.”

On discovering the ATO had won the AHRI award, Stott was proud – and not only of her team.

“I was proud of the team and the work they do,” she says. “But it wasn’t just our HR staff, who are fabulous – true professionals and really experienced.  

“The award also recognises all the staff, managers and leaders who really committed their time and effort during the pilots, and I was really proud that this was recognised beyond the ATO.” 

Visit the AHRI website to discover which other organisations took home an AHRI award, as well as the individual award and scholarship winners.

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1 Comment
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Deirdre Gruiters
Deirdre Gruiters
1 month ago

Found this to be an interesting and useful article. Thank you.

More on HRM