Insights from the National HR Summit: part 2

Chief mental health officer at CommBank: 'There are elements of stress that really help us perform'

Insights from the National HR Summit: part 2

When Dr Laura Kirby, Chief Mental Health Officer at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, addressed attendees at HRD’s National HR Summit, she spoke of developing a holistic approach to workplace wellbeing strategies.

In doing so, she explained that organisations could better meet the needs of employees and business by considering well-being as a human capital strategy.

“The way we need to orient within our well-being strategies is to meet people where they’re at on the mental health continuum,” she said. 

In her presentation, Kirby explored the concept of burnout within the workplace, examining a well-established model of the relationship between burnout and different stress levels. 

She noted that for an employee to reach burnout, they must have “experienced prolonged exposure to high levels of sustained high stress”, resulting in deteriorating performance. Kirby also remarked that high levels of stress could build cumulatively over time. 

Further — and perhaps counter-intuitively — staff perform optimally under healthy, moderate-stress conditions, she said. So, it’s a matter of the business and employees finding a balance by identifying and reducing the work-related pain points.

“There are elements of stress that really help us perform. We want people to be operating in that green, optimal zone,” said Kirby. 

Burnout among employees has reached an all-time high, according to a global survey.

The importance of breaks and leaders

Kirby encouraged attendees to look at the problem from a human capital strategy perspective to provide practical solutions. As an element of that strategy, she suggested that the whole organisation designs work to incorporate regular breaks

“We want people to be spending small, regular pockets of time in low stress,” she said.

Breaks are fundamental to build into the working day, said Kirby at the National HR Summit, and should get inbuilt into a business’s meeting schedule. For example, 30-minute meetings only run for 25 minutes — allowing for a regular five-minute break. 

Kirby also discussed employees being given single, high-priority tasks to create high performance. In doing so, organisations could prevent employees with high expectations from inefficiently multi/switch-tasking and wasting time on “busy work.”

She also emphasised the importance of “creating that focused attention and being really clear on people’s priorities” so that excessive demands and expectations didn’t result in employee burnout. 

Finally, Kirby examined company leadership's crucial role in developing and integrating a holistic approach to workplace well-being. She remarked that those team members have an essential task in role-modelling and supporting healthy workplace practices to implement such a strategy successfully.

“The longer periods of psychological detachment are really important, but they have to be enabled and supported by the leaders, teams, and workplace cultures that sit around this well-being strategy,” she said. 

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