Staff Wellness
Staff wellbeing and mental health are important board risk areas that requires planning, measurement and management under a specific strategy in the same way as other areas of the business, says Jono Nicholas, Managing Director of the Wellbeing Outfit consultancy who spoke at a recent AICD virtual event.

“Boards need to go beyond just receiving the culture survey and really look at this issue in terms of a human performance strategy, just as you would look at a strategy for supply chain management or asset management,” he said.

Boards need also to be very actively engaged in issues that align human wellbeing to performance, he added. “I think that's really the question for the board. Do they have the right advice given to them? Do they have advice on and expertise on human behaviour, just as they would have advice on legal matters and financial matters?”

These requirements are important so directors can properly align questions for their executives and support them under the right framework, he said. Boards need to hold the executive team accountable for the wellbeing of their people. Boards also need to treat wellbeing as a risk area and examine their strategy around human performance, to see how they measure performance in the business, and look at whether the business is seeing people who are under stress and anxiety, as measured by culture surveys.

In recent times, a number of boards have failed to recognise risks around human behaviour and have suffered consequences as a result, said Nicholas. “So I think as a board you have a deep responsibility here to look at it through your traditional lens of risk and strategy,” he said at the October event, titled ‘Is mental health and wellbeing your organisation's competitive advantage?

Board members need to get personal

This year many boards have taken a more personal hands-on and involved approach with staff and this may need to continue for some time, said Kate Carnell AO FAICD, Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, who also spoke at the event.

She sits on the board of Beyond Blue, the Melbourne-based mental health and wellbeing support organisation. “I think it's never been a more important time for actual leadership and that's from the board as well,” said Carnell.

Staff at Beyond Blue have been working from home since March, which has been very challenging. “We've heard lots of times that this suits some people, but there's a whole lot of people that it really doesn't suit at all.”

From a board perspective, the organisation has adopted an approach where board members are now dropping into team meetings to say hello and to talk about how much they appreciate what staff are doing. In October, the board also sent gift cards to all of their staff and the CEO to say: “Look, we know it's tough.”

This year’s challenges have been especially difficult for smaller businesses, which often have no HR resources or support, she adds.

“Leadership in these organisations is really pretty unsupported,” she said. Her message to small business owners is to look after their own mental health as a priority, as well as the mental health of staff members.

“You know, they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Regularly, the credit line for these businesses is secured against the family home, so if they lose their business, they may lose their home. Many businesses have been closed for a long period of time, certainly in Melbourne.”

Travel, hospitality and the arts are doing it particularly tough, with 80 per cent of businesses doing worse than last year. Half of those “are in a world of pain” Carnell said.

Kate Hillman, EY Oceania People Partner, People Advisory Services QLD, says the current crisis is largely an unknown quantity, which is why many organisations are finding it difficult to navigate.

“No-one knows what this looks like. No-one knows where we're going to be in 12 months’ time. It’s incredibly stressful for management, the CEO, and sometimes the CEOs are the owners as well.”

The board’s role is to act in a support capacity to help guide and ask questions that relate to issues such as the management of people returning to work in the office, says Hillman.

EY undertook a number of initiatives with a mental health focus as a result of the pandemic, she added. These included mapping the different phases of the pandemic, bringing in the right public health advice and starting the conversation about anxiety early with their people. A frequent and regular communication cascade from the outset also ensured all staff were kept well informed.

EY’s response included mapping the workforce as a community of individuals with differentiating work-from-home and personal circumstances rather than by job title, regular staff surveys and using the results to inform the wellness strategy, and the provision of PPE equipment, care packages and meal vouchers to the Melbourne team during lockdown.

After-school digital programs and dine-online dates where staff could eat together proved popular across all geographies.

“Those types of concerns and issues were really important to address if we wanted to continue to be productive as a workforce, because we're relying on people's cognitive capabilities,” says Hillman.

Staff respond better when they understand that shared sacrifice such as the reduction of hours and commensurate pay cuts which occurred at EY generate shared benefit for the whole organisation, she said. “Throughout the journey we’ve taken staff on, we've been lucky we've not had to have any corporate redundancies.”

Leaders are now more exposed

No matter what the size of the business, all leaders are very exposed at the moment, and are on display more due to weekly Zoom announcements and communications of different kinds, says Nicholas.

“We only have to look at the strain on our political leaders having to do daily stand-ups and have very high accountability, to know the strain that happens every day.”

There are certain protocols required of leaders now of which they need to be aware, he says.

“What your people want from you is authenticity … they want to feel as if you understand them, and that you are also honest and transparent with them about what's going on.”

Boundaries between personal and professional lives have shifted during the pandemic, he says. “I think they've definitely shifted in an incredibly positive way.” However some leaders had found this really challenging.

Leaders still have a role and that role has a mask, so leaders don't need to reveal every part of their personal lives. But they do need to be careful and considerate in their dealings with staff.

“What we've seen certainly and what I've been advising and helping a lot of leaders through is when you bring your authentic self to work, you expose yourself as vulnerable. Then what your people do is they see some of themselves in you.”

That also means being careful about what others are going through, however. It would not be appropriate, for example, to mention on a Zoom call that the internet connection is unstable at the leader’s second house, when some staff are still working off their kitchen tables.

“What it does mean is you need to treat every meeting with your staff, in a way that recognises that it is a performance that people are looking at and where they are examining your behaviour.”

Further reading

Why leaders must talk to staff on mental health

As insurance claims for work-related mental health conditions escalate, many important actions can be taken at the workplace level to promote better mental health, including training for business leaders in how to manage staff concerns.