The discussion about the future of workplaces continues to be one that rapidly shifts. From companies who are abolishing workplaces in favour of working from home, to studies that suggest 88% of people actually want some sort of office to return to, the decision is clearly not final.
I recently attended (virtually) the Workplace Wellness Festival to hear from leaders and experts across the industry on their views of the future of the workplace. Mental health is perhaps the most dominant theme of the festival, however if I had to sum up the vibe of the conference, it would be this:
“The workplace most definitely is not dead, though it will be different. What we’re seeing now is a demonstration that people can permanently work from home. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
The conference itself featured several conference tracks, covering topics from mental wellness, employee engagement, financial health, and designing workplaces of the future, as well as special presentations from keynote speakers.
I attended as many sessions as I can across a broad spectrum, and have captured findings, resources, and strategies below. I’ve structured this by sharing key insights and findings first, followed by actions, takeaways, and resources.
Keynote speakers: The view from the top
Dr Norman Swan, respected health journalist, ABC Television & Radio National
- Worth remembering: 9 months ago, only 1 or 2 people in the whole world had the virus
- One of the biggest problems in our environment is a sense of uncertainty, which hasn’t been helped by new outbreaks, even in New Zealand
Professor Patrick McGorry AO, world-renowned Mental Health researcher and former Australian of the Year
- One of the most comprehensive and longitudinal studies on mental health ever conducted - in which a group of people were monitored from their childhood all the way up to the mid-40s - suggest that 84% of people will pass through at least 1 period of significant mental health issues
- We don’t have the same expectation of mental health treatment as we do of physical health. It’s natural to visit GPs or specialists when we feel physically sick, but only 1 in 3 Australians who need specialist mental health care can access it. Imagine if we said this of breast cancer, or cardiac disease?
- Studies show that disasters often contribute to a 20% increase in mental health cases for those affected… but the pandemic affects allof us
- The Australian Government has actually done more than many other countries in focusing on mental health. They’ve boosted crises lines, put out encouraging messages, etc, however there is still a big gap that organisations and communities collectively need to fill
Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner at Resilience NSW and former chief of NSW Rural Fire Service
- It’s time shift our language from ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’. We all understand the importance of minimising the risk of transmission, but we don’t want to minimise the social connection of our lives
- To paraphrase Charles Darwin: “Survival of the species is not survival of the strongest or the most intelligent, but those best able to adapt to the changing environment.”
Gordon Cairns, Chairman, Origin Energy and Woolworths Group
- 90% of Australians think having a healthy workplace is important, but only 51% think their employers are actually developing systemic initiatives that support mental health’
Actions and takeaways
- Norman Swan: When working from home, there needs to be a sense of agency so people don’t feel cast adrift. They need to feel like they’re part of a team, to be able to make decisions and influence decisions without meeting face to face. Will not maintain wellness if we lose that agency
- Patrick McGorry: Hope is something that is in short supply, both in workplaces, communities, and more broadly in society. When dealing with a suicidal patient, the key thing is to make sure that they don’t lose hope. Collectively, we are obviously going to get through this, but we must continue to present messages of hope
- Shane Fitzsimmons: As leaders, we need to be authentic and not pretend that mental health issues aren’t affecting people in some way. We have to be genuine about creating an environment in which “It’s ok not to be ok”
- Gordon Cairns: Fundamentally, remember that our products are the same, our services are the same, but the big difference for any company is the staff. We really need to take care of our staff
On mental health
Jack Heath, CEO, Sane Australia
- Before COVID-19, we were already struggling with mental distress in the workplace. We spent so much time being busy and rushing around that we never had much time to reflect.
- The reality is that many people are uncomfortable dealing with drastic change. Now, COVID is forcing people to deal with mental health stress for the first time, in ways that also amplify pre-existing conditions
- A lot of this does relate to secure income, thus for people who are at fear of income loss, this is where they really struggle
Kate Connors, Director of Wellness, PWC
- PWC has a ‘Green Light to Talk’ program, in which staff are encouraged to talk about all forms of mental health issues. This is rolled out by advocates of the program recruited from the staff
- Staff were screened and trained however in order to choose the right advocates, given they are the face of the program
Paul Gretton-Watson, Director Research Innovation Marketing and Communications, Converge International
- There has been a drop in staff accessing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Many people are experiencing alexithymia, which is the inability to recognise or describe one’s own emotions. What contributes to this is an inexplicable awkwardness about something not feeling right, a lack of supplies, and a lack of consistent information
Carli Phillips, Employee Wellbeing Lead Australia & New Zealand, Johnson & Johnson
- Similar to PWC, Johnson & Johnson also encourage leadership from employees in terms of mental health, such as providing mental wellbeing webinars delivered by their own employees
Sally Phillips, General Manager Health Services, TAL
- Recognise that financial health, physical health, and mental health are intrinsically linked. The more stress on financial health, the more stress on physical, and the greater the impact to mental health
- Previously, where there were numerous little health and wellbeing programs, TAL have instead focused on 1 or 2 programs that look at health holistically, encapsulating all 3 components
- Make sure whatever efforts you go to for your customer, is also done for employees