In the current turbulent landscape of employee mental health, it’s essential for employers to move beyond ticking boxes and focus on measures that address the real wellbeing needs of their workforce.
Research by global workplace wellbeing leader TELUS Health shows the overall mental health score of employees in Australia remains at COVID-19 pandemic levels. The number of people impacted by mental health issues, and the severity of those issues, has grown since 2019, with our latest Mental Health Index (MHI) report showing 38 per cent of workers have a high mental health risk, and 37 per cent have a moderate mental health risk.
One group of particular concern are managers. TELUS Health APAC Managing Director and Senior Vice President Jamie MacLennan says the declining mental health of managers has been a “frog in a boiling pot of water” scenario, with pressures at home, the flow-on impact of COVID-19 and other issues facing their staff slowly taking their toll.
While many company boards and directors genuinely commit to incorporating wellbeing strategies, it is the front-line managers who are left to roll them out. While managers are “not expected to be counsellors or psychologists”, they do need to know how to respond to employees experiencing mental health challenges and how to direct them to the right support.
TELUS, for example, offers a dedicated managers’ hotline to help them with any questions they might have about supporting the mental health and wellbeing of staff. They complement this service with training programs for managers, to enable them to operate effectively.
A ‘tick box’ approach can do more damage than good
In April 2023, Federal Legislation came into effect that regulates the management of psychosocial risks and hazards at work across Australia, prompting a wave of new employee assistance plans (EAP) and wellbeing apps to enter the market. However, companies that subscribe to these apps without doing their due diligence risk taking a tick box approach to supporting their employees’ wellbeing, MacLennan warns.
“Pre-COVID-19, many organisations did have wellbeing as a ‘tick box’ approach where they thought, ‘I’ll throw in an EAP so if anyone ever asks, I’ve got that covered, but they didn’t promote or support it in any way. But it’s not a true wellbeing strategy and it doesn’t work because it doesn’t resonate with people.”
MacLennan says a wellbeing strategy needs to be incorporated into an organisation’s overall business and people strategies, and have measurable goals and targets. TELUS, for example, provides a holistic approach to mental, physical and financial wellbeing that combines digital and in-person services, such as counselling, training, financial and legal assistance and physical health checks.
“You need to set metrics and track them to meaningfully assess it – otherwise, it’s nice to have, but what is the outcome?” he says. “We track the outcome of the work we do, and then correlate it against our global research to advise and inform clients about what is happening and how they are performing.”
Getting it right makes good business sense
MacLennan says for companies such as TELUS, measuring an organisation’s data means that the return on investment of a wellness strategy is something that can be calculated.
“A properly executed health and wellness strategy is absolutely a commercial imperative, and should be treated by management as such,” says MacLennan.
A commitment to wellness, both physical and mental, is something that employees have come to expect from employers in an increasingly competitive market. TELUS Health research found that younger workers would trade a salary increase for “greater wellbeing support”, says MacLennan.
“It’s one of those virtuous circles whereby if you support peoples’ wellbeing, they feel much more engaged with the organisation and inclined to stay with the company, and they will also be more productive,” he says.
“But, if you get it wrong, the opposite is true. It can be a disaster for business and employees’ sense of wellbeing.”