Mental health at work needs to be much more than a box-ticking exercise. Here’s how one pharmaceutical company got its people on board.
Sometimes organisations, without meaning to, can take a tokenistic approach to mental health. They’ll host a morning tea around R U Okay? Day or run a one-off mindfulness class as a way to remedy rising stress levels. Everyone feels good (for a moment) and those tasked with overseeing employee wellbeing can put a tick against that particular issue for the quarter.
One-off events can be a good complement to a broader approach. But, with the World Health Organisation declaring workplace burnout to be an “occupational phenomenon” earlier this year, it’s no longer tenable for organisations to have single events constitute the totality of their efforts. They need to make mental wellness part of their DNA.
International biopharmaceutical company AbbVie has done just that. After it conducted extensive research of external resources and its own staff, it realised a comprehensive mental health framework was needed.
“We had policies, which were great, and we could exercise them in an ad hoc way, but we didn’t have a governance framework in place,” says Marlene Tanner CPHR, AbbVie’s head of development, and co-lead for the mental health initiative.
In an internal staff meeting, employees were asked to raise their hand if they, or someone they knew, experienced a mental health issue.
“Around one in four people put their hand up,” says Tanner. “The key issue we found from utilising data from Deloitte was that only 37 per cent of staff were comfortable talking about mental health with their colleagues.”
Tanner says it became the company’s key objective to destigmatise and normalise mental health in its workplace. And it was a task she felt was fitting to take on for the final unit of the AHRI Practising Certification Program (APC).
“I found so much value in the fact that I was able to blend the theory side with the practical side. A workplace project like this brings everything to light,” she says.
Creating the framework
With a strong desire to go from “good to great”, the team did comprehensive research before formulating the framework. This included holding internal focus groups representing a cross-section of the organisation to gather data.
They also set up a mental health reference group, which consisted of the general manager, HR director, the project leads and five other employees from different parts of the business. Ensuring diversity of thought was vital.
“The reference group was key. We didn’t move forward without their input and buy-in,” says Tanner.
With the information they gathered, Tanner and the team were able to identify five key goals:
- Build and maintain a workplace culture that supports mental health, and prevents discrimination.
- Increase employees’ knowledge and awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues and behaviours.
- Enable employee participation through facilitating involvement in a range of mental health initiatives.
- Protect the mental health of staff by addressing workplace risk and putting preventative measures in place to reduce stress levels.
- Monitoring the impact of the programs.
This framework was used as the basis for the various training programs that, in partnership with the Black Dog Institute and Optum (AbbVie’s EAP provider) were rolled out in phase one of the program.
Crucial to this phase was educating executives on the business imperatives of a mentally healthy workplace. Other staff were taught about the signs and symptoms to look out for, and how to talk about mental health at work.
Prior to the adoption of the new approach, only 25 per cent of managers were comfortable talking about mental health at work and just 24 per cent felt they knew how to support a distressed colleague. At the completion of phase one of the program, a new survey found those numbers had jumped to 100 per cent.
That wasn’t the end of the great results. Eighty per cent of employees felt they now understood the signs and symptoms of mental illness at work (prior to implementation this was 69 per cent) and 70 per cent felt confident they knew how to help a colleague who was distressed, versus 57 per cent previously.
Tanner shares an example of these changes in action. One employee addressed staff at a company-wide meeting and said the ability to speak candidly about mental health at AbbVie was an important factor between her staying or leaving. In a previous organisation this employee said that employers hadn’t been so supportive of her anxiety.
Eighty per cent of employees felt they now understood the signs and symptoms of mental illness at work.
So how can you get your organisation to this place? Tanner says getting executive buy-in from the get go was paramount.
“We’re in HR, we’re not holding the purse strings. You need to align everything with business drivers. If you can demonstrate that what you’re doing is good for business, you’ll be able to get the funding and support that you need. And we were able to do that by linking wellness to productivity, engagement and the retention of staff.”
There are no shortcuts in a project like this, Tanner says. You need to get all your ducks in a row and ensure project management structures, the change management program and executive sponsorship are all in place before diving in.
“Without those things, you’re not going to move forward or bring about the changes that you seek.”
AbbVie is now in phase two of the program, which will roll out over the next 12-24 months. In this stage the company will zero in on certain pain points, such as staff’s lack of quality sleep, and implement specific programs to come up with organisation-wide solutions.
This article was originally published in the October 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
The APC programs helped Marlene to make a difference with her coworkers. Make a difference with yours. Find out more about the program.