Interview with David Burroughs from Westpac

Tim sat down with David Burroughs – Westpac Group’s Chief Mental Health Officer to discuss workplace mental health and well-being during COVID-19.

What strategy have you implemented at Westpac in regards to the mental health and wellbeing of its people? How has this changed through COVID?
I have a strong preference for evidence-informed practices and ensuring there is real rigour and validity in the way we approach mental health. Our approach at Westpac is driven by what we call a 5 in 5 strategy that aims to support the mental health needs of all staff, not just those whose mental health may be compromised. We view MH as a positive concept, consistent with both the WHO and National Communications Charter definitions, and understand that mental ill-health does not discriminate, nor does it preclude someone from flourishing and thriving.

We focus our efforts on prevention, early intervention and the management of mental-ill health and understanding the mental health benefits that good work entails. Our strategy is not campaign-based but anchored in the decades of research regarding the workplace factors that influence not just mental health outcomes, but also things like performance and engagement, and more broadly, people’s experience of work.

With COVID-19, various elements of our strategy, such as job design activities, have been elevated given our new ways of working. We have also been looking more closely at the psychological demands of work and support system efficacy in new ways of working and reinforcing our activities around self-care and supporting increased staff and customer vulnerability.

Our holistic MH strategy has given us a solid foundation to work from as we deal to the sustained disruption of COVID-19, and we are doing what we can to stay ahead of emerging issues and risks and to integrate the latest research into what we do. As an essential service, it is critical we get this right.

Whilst there is some way to go, as we begin to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis in Australia what learnings have you observed in your peers and colleagues in regards to their attitudes towards mental health?
We are certainly seeing elevated interest in mental health in general and loads of research highlighting the increased levels of vulnerability across society as we navigate the sustained disruption of COVID-19.

There appears to be an increased appreciation more broadly of the role work plays in supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing. Greater understanding of how important work is in terms of our social connectedness, our sense of purpose and meaning, our sense of identity, and ensuring we have the resources to provide for the necessities of life. Associated with this is the increased appreciation of how our roles were not specifically designed for our new ways of working, whether they are partially on-site or working from home, and this comes with a huge array of changes in terms of psychological job demands.

Consistent with the research of Professor Bastian, I am definitely seeing how, particularly when there is a common purpose in play, that facing in to shared hardship can also galvanise social cohesion in teams. A key learning that is also becoming more pronounced is the importance of things like empathy. Particularly given the vast array in personal/professional circumstances and experiences of COVID-19, and the appreciation that vulnerability is something that is common amongst all of us.

Across industries, what is the future of workplace mental health?
With COVID-19 bringing mental health further in to focus, I am hopeful this will also be the catalyst for change in the way we think about and address mental health in the workplace. We have known for some time that work is a determinant of mental health outcomes, and as we redesign the future of work, perhaps corporate Australia as a whole can elevate the notion of genuine prevention and early intervention, and move away from more reactive type approaches. We now have a unique opportunity to ensure people experience new ways of working that are actually ‘good’ for rather than detrimental to their mental health, and to navigate away from the low impact ‘tick a box’ type mental ill-health and awareness based approaches.

I am hopeful that there will be greater scrutiny and accountability in the workplace mental health domain, with a greater focus on genuine evidence-based practices. Looking forward, I think this will include a greater appreciation that workplace mental health is itself a specialist area, and organisations can’t simply shoehorn a celebrity speaker or community mental health based approach into a workplace and expect it to make a tangible difference. “Where is the evidence?” and “What is the impact?” will become much more common workplace mental health conversations, and there will be a significant focus on taking action rather than on simply raising awareness.

I look forward to seeing more great academic research being translated into real world solutions. The more informed workplaces become around things like psychosocial health and safety and job design, and increase their understanding of the influence of psychosocial climate, the more organisations can reap the benefits of a mentally healthy workplace.

I feel quite grateful to work for a company like Westpac where they already bring this type of thinking to life.

What would you suggest to employers looking to advance their approach to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, but are unsure where to start?
I would encourage anyone with a real interest in this space to try to immerse themselves in the relevant research. There is literally decades of great research around mental health, psychosocial risk management, and workplace culture that you can use to inform your thinking in this space.
With so much of the workplace mental health information being provider driven, it can be hard to differentiate between what is genuinely evidence-based and what is just popular or topical. Unless you have a solid grounding in the research and theoretical frameworks that underpin best practice, it is easy to be side-tracked by what are emotion-based, as opposed to evidence-based, approaches.

As a start locally, I would suggest that people follow Professor Angela Martin and get to know more around things like the integrated approach to mental health she codeveloped. Professor Sharon Parker and her work on Job Design, which is so important in our new ways of working, and Professor Maureen Dollard and her work on Psychosocial Safety Climate. I would also encourage people to explore the work of Professor Brock Bastian and his approach to workplace culture, psychological safety and how people respond to adverse life events, which certainly has some salience in our current COVID-19 environment.

If looking to overseas, I like the Canadian Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, they have loads of information on Psychological Health and Safety, and a lot of free training, tools and resources.

If employers are serious about advancing their organisation’s approach to workplace mental health and wellbeing, I think it’s worth asking a few important questions to ascertain where they are at.

  • Is your strategy focussed on the management of mental ill health or promotion of mental health?
  • Is your strategy focussed on the individual (e.g., building personal resilience) or on people’s experience of work and the influence of psychosocial climate?
  • Is your approach driven by participation in landmark days and/or promotion of EAP, or is it more integrated and systemic across primary, secondary and tertiary intervention areas?
  • How are you measuring impact, is it through ‘happy sheet’ course evaluation or changes in more defined psychosocial metrics?

Finally, what are your personal top tips for maintaining a positive mental health mindset at work?
There is often a lot of emphasis on staying positive and having a positive mindset, some of which can be well intended but at times misguided. I am not saying don’t be optimistic or hopeful, rather don’t try to avoid, ignore or discount the role of negative emotion. Negative emotional states are the most informative, they are often where we find the things that are most important and meaningful to us, and they alert us that something isn’t quite right.

If you find yourself, frustrated, fatigued, worried and stressed at work, don’t just tell yourself to be ‘more resilient’ or look to avoid things, instead, get more curious about what it is that might be contributing to this. Is it the various competing demands on your time, conflation of work and home factors, ways in which your job is designed australian online casinos that don’t work as well in our new ways of working, has incivility crept in to your team, or perhaps you are just feeling fatigued by not being able to take a proper break over the last few months?

It can be all too easy just to try to tolerate things that are becoming increasingly intolerable or to tell yourself to just be positive, but the biggest impact you can have is to understand the causal and contributory factors that might be impacting your mindset, and then to take action to address these. While your work outcomes and outputs are likely to be largely determined by your organisation and role, there will almost always be aspects of your experience of work that you can directly influence as well as places you can go for support.

I think it is important to remember that COVID-19 is a tricky time, the sustained disruption is taking its toll. We each only have a finite amount of physiological and psychological resources we can draw upon, so it is paramount that we do what we can to build and preserve these to get us through. Giving yourself and others permission to be fallible, prioritising self-care and early help seeking behaviour, self-compassion and compassion towards others are all critical to our sustainability right now.

Dave Burroughs is Westpac Group’s Chief Mental Health Officer and has been in the role for around 2 years. Dave has had a 20 year international career as a psychologist and strategist, specialising in workplace mental health, culture change and complex behaviour. With a background across clinical, organisational, medicolegal and military domains, outside of Westpac Dave is a specialist advisor to numerous Government, national and multinational organisations. Dave is recognised as an expert in psychosocial risk management and has been at the forefront of introducing integrated psychosocial and systems-based approaches to workplace mental health to Australia. Dave collaborates widely with leading national and international experts in psychological health and safety, behavioural ethics and wellbeing and has a passion for small business and men’s mental health.