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The empathy revolution: New Zealand companies share what works at work

Mental health is one of the most important topics of conversation in business for 2019, but it can be hard to know what initiatives are actually effective in the workplace. Jennifer Young talks with three New Zealand companies, NZTA, Switched On Group and Spark, about wellbeing at work and how to take steps towards creating greater change and awareness.

As someone who works in workplace wellbeing, I’ve felt a sense of hope and concern about workplace mental health over the last few years.

I’ve felt hope that many more organisations are investing in workplace wellbeing initiatives like mindfulness or resilience training. My concern lay in an uneasy sense that we’d internalised that workplace cultures are okay, but it’s the employees that are the problem. Workplace wellbeing is not about giving a Fitbit to employees and teaching deep breathing exercises while increasing their workload. Employers have a social responsibility to not be harming the people who are working within their walls.

In New Zealand, our mental health and suicide statistics tell us we’re missing the mark of not lifting each other up. The 2018 Mental Health Inquiry suggested that in any year, one in five New Zealanders will have a mental illness. Twenty years ago, the rates were one in five people in their lifetime! The thing is: mental health is a universal human need that trumps industry and competition. He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people. As Charlotte Hoonhout, a GovTech graduate and programme advisor at NZTE shared at Festival for the Future 2019: “It’s okay if you fall apart. Tacos fall apart and we still love them.”

Mental illness causes more days of work lost and work impairment than many other chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis. The most recent Southern Cross Health Society and BusinessNZ Workplace Wellness Report estimated 7.4 million workdays were lost through absenteeism in 2018, up from 6.6 million in 2016. The direct costs of this absenteeism? They amounted to an estimated $1.79 billion across the country, compared to $1.51 billion in 2016. What many workplaces have learned is that you can have resources in place, but unless you have the right culture, people aren’t going to feel safe using them or approaching someone to ask for help.

Below, I share what other organisations and individuals are doing beyond ‘box checking’, fruit bowls and the occasional yoga class or resilience training. They demonstrate the noticeable empathy revolution that is moving beyond the ‘pull yourself up by the boot straps’ attitude.

The employee-led movement

Charlotte Hoonhout has spent the last eight months at NZTA as part of the GovTech graduate programme. Her lived experience of mental illness has provided a ripple effect of inspiration. She introduced tools that help her thrive that are being tested out across the wider organisation.

One of those is WatchTower. She describes it as: “The mind is like a house with lots of different hallways. When the mind shifts due to ongoing stress or depression, we normalise that space until it looks like all the regular hallways. When that happens, we stop being fully aware of the dangers like self-harm because you’ve been stuck in that space too long. WatchTower provides a framework that helps people be aware and affirm they have support to get out of these hallways.”

Charlotte Hoonhout.

WatchTower involves people creating a wellbeing canvas that opens dialogue personal wellbeing and acts as an action plan in the event of distress. This includes self-care practices and names and contact details for people they trust at different points of their wellbeing journey – from ‘I’m feeling a bit off balance’ to ‘I am not okay, please check in with me ASAP’.

Hoonhout also talked about how she felt influenced by colleagues’ workaholic habits. She gave an example of going for a celebratory drink with colleagues, then one colleague left to go back to work.

Hoonhout said, “By you going back to work, at 8:30pm, you are validating my [existing] overworking behaviour… You have a responsibility as a senior role model to look after your young people because they are at the start of their journey.” While this was confronting to her senior employer, Hoonhout said that it opened up the conversation about working habits.

Hoonhout says for many, ‘How are you?’ can be a terrifying question as people can’t figure out if it’s a social pleasantry or genuine. She asks instead, ‘How’s the jug?’ (you can insert any object here, such as a cup or bucket). She says using an inanimate object removes the person from themselves as many people don’t want to tell you that I’m not okay. You can describe the water level or stress as ‘It’s bubbling a little bit’ or say ‘I kicked the jug’ to tell a trusted person on your WatchTower that you’re sensing a panic attack coming on. This conversational tool aims to help articulate vulnerability until it can be normalised.

The executive-led movement

Chris Hughes.

Switched On Group chief executive Chris Hughes realised they needed to make some culture changes in the building industry when in 2017, many employees came to his team with challenges and they didn’t know how to start the conversation. Then, his brother and partner in the family construction business, Jonny Hughes, died by suspected suicide. He described his experience as ‘post-traumatic growth’ – choosing to go out and do something positive from experiencing the grief.

Switched On Group worked with the Mental Health Foundation in late 2018 on ways to open conversations about mental health within the traditionally male-dominated construction industry. A key challenge was changing mindsets. Like with the older health and safety mindset of ‘Don’t worry about the scaffold, get up there’, the mindset towards mental health was ‘now get on with things and get up’. He says his learning was that “It’s not a quick fix. The idea of putting people on a course and they’re sorted is flawed. Like business, you have to continuously improve so people are up to date.”

He noted there were challenges around managers and employees understanding what depression, anxiety and mental health meant. They found, like with other organisations, applying the Maori health model Te Whare Tapa Wha (four pillars of health) to be helpful. This is a holistic model to wellbeing that factors in the physical, family/social, spiritual and mental aspects, which resonated with many.

The company-wide led movement

Grant Pritchard, who helps lead Spark’s mental health community for staff, says the group is helping to shape the company into a better, more empathetic place to work – where people do not have to hide their challenges, stigma is reduced, and leaders care about how their employees are really doing.

In the company, 650 out of Spark’s 5000 employees are part of this community. From research, peer support is one of the strongest predictors of good psycho-social outcomes. Pritchard’s own mental health journey began when he worked closely with someone who was suffering, but he didn’t have the knowledge or skills to recognise that the person wasn’t doing okay and encourage them towards support.

 “A few years ago it was acceptable for workplaces to say ‘we have an anti-bullying policy and Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), so we’ve done enough’,” Pritchard says. “In reality, it left a risk factor around mental health and wellbeing as they were not talking about it.”

Grant Pritchard.

He’s seen a key shift over the last year or two of workplaces starting to prioritise the wellbeing of their people. It’s about minimising risk factors, maximising protective factors and moving beyond a tick box approach. Pritchard says the question for Spark expanded from ‘Are we compliant?’ to ‘Are we doing enough to help our people thrive?’ From there, the next question is: ‘What more can we do?’

Spark’s mental health events, resources and initiatives are all subject to a self-imposed ‘help, not harm’ test, and Spark acknowledges the significant resources and leadership that organisations like the Mental Health Foundation provide for workplaces. Spark’s mental health initiatives are focused on achieving identified priorities for mental health: smashing stigma and discrimination, raising awareness, better supporting their people and creating an open, supportive workplace culture. To help make it easier for staff to access and benefit from mental health resources, the team have tried breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. For example, Spark has created a cartoon strip (a like Dilbert comic) to help people learn practical mental health knowledge and coping strategies for topics like anxiety.

The team focuses on delivering incremental changes, resources and initiatives “rather than trying to boil the ocean or getting stuck in death by committee,” says Pritchard. At the heart of Spark’s mental health programme is an intention to normalise mental health conversations and reduce barriers to people asking for help early, rather than to wait for crisis point. This aligns with research showing the earlier someone gets help, the faster their recovery is.

Spark’s empathy revolution demonstrates the truth of a Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

What can these New Zealand companies’ mental health initiatives teach us?

  1. No one is too small to make a difference and it doesn’t matter what stage of life you’re in.
  2. Start and tailor your workplace mental health support to the make-up of your workforce.
  3. Link into local networks, e.g. other organisations who are further ahead on the wellbeing journey or who want to share resources (Spark is a great example here).
  4. Get a feel for what your people need by surveying and talking with them.
  5. Engage colleagues in the ‘doing’ aspect, such as setting up and running initiatives.

Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui. Be strong, be brave, be steadfast.

– Māori proverb.

Jennifer Young is the founder of Intentional Generations (previously ‘Jen Y Insights’). Jen is a lawyer-turned-mindfulness-educator, NeuroLeadership Institute trained coach, facilitator, accredited mental health first aider, youth leadership development advisor and writer. People work with her to make change and impact without burning out and elevate them to their definitions of deeply fulfilling and deeply impactful lives. Get in touch at www.jenyinsights.com.

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