Why all CEOs must ensure their employees feel psychologically safe

Just over a year ago, on the way to an end of year celebratory drink, our team were caught up in the Flinders Street incident. My Co-CEO and two of my team were hospitalised with injuries, two were near misses and two (including myself), first respondents.

 

We were a team of nine, and seven of us were impacted. This crime turned our worlds upside down, and we have spent this last year focused on the physical and mental well-being of our team.

 

Natalie and I have had to work through our own trauma to keep the business on track, and whilst engaging with a range of support services (Victims of Crime and WorkCover just to name a few) I noticed something interesting: the system’s tendency to treat mental and physical health in the same way.

 

Broadly speaking, physical recovery tends to occur in a linear fashion: with the right treatment, most people tend to get better over time.

 

Mental health recovery, however, does not work that way, and is a highly individual and complex process that sees people get better, then regress, then get better again and so on.

 

According to the Department of Health, the process by which a person works towards mental health recovery is specific to the individual. And while in a way, the same can be said for a physical injury, on the whole we have a much better understanding of physical health recovery and the system has been set up accordingly.

 

The problem with this approach is that it relegates mental health to the “too hard” basket and with cases on the rise across the working world, this is a challenge that Australian organisations are struggling with.

 

While we were lucky to have special privileges considering our situation, I noticed that Workcover assumes people are fully recovered when they return to work. Psychological support services are typically cut off when they step back in the building and not easily reinstated if they struggle down the track.

 

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? To take away support just as someone is coming to terms with being back in an environment that could stimulate a relapse.

 

I have seen this happen first hand as our team has progressed through various stages of recovery post the incident. People may be fine for few weeks or months, but when a particularly stressful event happens in the city, for example, it can trigger a response and they often need support and intervention to stabilise during this period.

 

Another thing I noticed is the connection between mental health healing and performance. We noticed that the ups and downs of this healing life-cycle when supported fostered deep healing, which has built resilience and performance.

 

We also found that when people felt safe to speak about their needs, they would work with us to design their own support interventions (like working at home and seeing their support services at different times) and we saw their performance rocket.

 

So, off the back of Flinders Street and with the accepted connection between high-performance and anxiety in mind, we have invested in creating a psychologically safe culture that acknowledges this.

 

When I asked a team member who joined us recently post trauma how she felt about our culture, she explained that feels like she can do her best work because she can be herself: a high performer who suffers anxiety and needs support from time to time.

 

Having come from a toxic environment, she admitted it took her some time to trust us, but once she heard things such as, “oh, I’m off to see the psych now” said by some of our other employees without judgement, she could see it was genuine.

 

If the government and organisations want to see lasting cultures of well-being and performance, all support systems need to empower individuals and businesses to co-create a plan that will achieve the best outcomes.

 

What’s more, it’s important not to disregard the link between mental health, physical health, and the compounding effect of untreated mental health issues.

 

In 2016, a Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) report found that Australians with serious mental illnesses also experience higher rates of physical ill-health, and that the “the economic cost of premature death of people with mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychoses and severe anxiety and depression to be $15 billion annually.”

 

What’s more, and as highlighted by economist and former chair of the National Mental Health Commission Professor Allan Fels, mental ill-health results in a “substantial loss of productivity, and for Australian business this results in around 12 million days of reduced productivity a year.”

 

By working with our employees through a very difficult period, we have developed some knowledge and well-being strategies that have enabled us support post trauma, and, importantly, to create a safe environment that effectively nurtures high-performers.

 

As SANE Australia puts it, you can’t just “snap out of” mental illness. People with depression can’t just “cheer up”, and those suffering from anxiety can’t just “calm down”.

 

The only way forward is to deal with mental illness head on. Because while it may not be as clear cut as physical recovery, leaving it untreated and festering will inevitably result in loss of productivity — and the loss of great people.

 

Ainsley Johnstone | co-CEO

 

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