CommBank’s chief mental health officer on taking a ‘systems-based approach’ to preventing burnout

She warns employees may become stuck in an endless cycle without a top-down strategy

CommBank’s chief mental health officer on taking a ‘systems-based approach’ to preventing burnout

October marks Mental Health Month and after enduring in-and-out lockdowns for the last 18 months, it’s more important than ever.

The term ‘psychological safety’ is becoming more prevalent in the context of workplaces and as we look ahead, it’s clear that employee mental health and wellbeing will remain at the top of the priority list. Some business leaders have long understood the importance of protecting employee mental health while for others, the pandemic has kickstarted the conversation.

The Kaleidoscope Connect event, held earlier this month by workplace mental health tool Unmind, delved deeper into those conversations, sharing insight from experts and how senior HR leaders are embedding safe practices into their organisations.

Speaking at a fireside chat on driving cultural change, attended by HRD, the audience heard from Dr Laura Kirby, chief mental health officer at Commonwealth Bank. She said there has been significant change around mental health in the workplace over the last 12-18 months, compared to the 15 years prior.

“While my role is fairly new, in that there are not many organisations to my knowledge that are employing dedicated roles in this space, I certainly think it's a trend we're going to see continue into the future,” she said. “I think the focus for workplaces on mental health will continue to increase particularly as we see the long-term effects of COVID on mental health.”

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One of the biggest shifts during Covid has centred on taking a preventative, rather than reactive, approach to mental health. We know employees working from home tend to put in more hours thanks to the blurring of work and home boundaries and difficulty switching off. As a result, burnout has become a big cause of concern for employers.

Kirby said what many organisations are not quite matured in yet is taking a “systems-based approach” to reducing the risk of burnout.

“We're actually doing a very good job I think of promoting wellbeing, but it's still very much on an individual level, so giving all employees access to resources and information about how to look after themselves and how to maintain good wellbeing,” she said.

“But at the same time, if the environment in which we're placing people in is incredibly demanding and devalued, people have trouble with priorities and work overload, then we end up in what I call a tertiary cycle.

“We're constantly managing illness, as opposed to getting on the front foot and preventing harm. So for me, taking a systems level approach is recognising the way in which we can better design, structure, manage and organise our workplaces to ensure that we allow people the opportunity to stay in the well space as much as possible and mitigate or prevent people moving further down the bottom of that mental health continuum.”

Talking about practical strategies, Kirby said it will vary in complexity depending on the size and structure of the organisation. But simple things include scheduling time in between meetings to give employees a break before their next meeting or task. Can meetings be reduced from 30 minutes to 25, or an hour to 50 minutes? That small chunk of time is enough for employees to step away from the screen, refresh their minds, and prepare for their next interaction.

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Another initiative that’s becoming increasingly popular is a ‘meeting-free’ day once a week, allowing employees to structure their day in their own way and get things done without the interruption of meetings. Managers could also encourage walking meetings to break up a busy day and help employees take time outside.

For larger structural change, Kirby said HR leaders should start by consulting with their people. Use feedback tools to identify the pain points or factors that are preventing employees from working in the best way. Identifying those psychological risks is the only way for organisations to move towards prevention.

“It’s asking people what are some of the things that are draining your energy as opposed to supporting your energy?” Kirby said. “The consultation piece is key because it helps us form a picture of prioritisation. What is the low hanging fruit that we can do really quickly and implement for a quick win and where are the bigger issues that are going to require more time and effort and engagements to see it happen. Unless we’re informed, it's really hard to know where to start.”

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