Chris Smed­ley: Find­ing health and well­be­ing in the work­place

As­sure Pro­grams was founded in Bris­bane in 1991, and is now one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing providers of Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­grams, Crit­i­cal In­ci­dent Sup­port and Or­gan­i­sa­tional De­vel­op­ment ser­vices, with a na­tional net­work of nearly 700 psy­chol­o­gists. Busin

Business First - - CONTENTS -

Busi­ness First spoke with CEO Chris Smed­ley about work­place psy­chol­ogy and the need for such an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Busi­ness First (BF): Chris, what is the pur­pose of As­sure Pro­grams? Chris Smed­ley

(CS): Our key fo­cus is on im­prov­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of or­gan­i­sa­tions and en­abling em­ploy­ees and work­places to thrive and ex­cel – to be the best they can be. There is a proven cor­re­la­tion be­tween these out­comes and clin­i­cal qual­ity, which is why As­sure Pro­grams is the only na­tional EAP provider that ex­clu­sively uses 5-years’ qual­i­fied psy­chol­o­gists.

BF: Why do busi­nesses now need to think about men­tal health and well­be­ing more broadly?

CS: Ac­cord­ing to in­de­pen­dent re­search, 20% of Aus­tralians will ex­pe­ri­ence a men­tal health con­di­tion in any given year, and these con­di­tions tend to af­fect peo­ple dur­ing their prime work­ing years. Con­trast this with the cur­rent util­i­sa­tion of tra­di­tional EAP ser­vices, which is typ­i­cally around 5% of em­ploy­ees per year across all in­dus­try sec­tors. This sug­gests that many peo­ple are ei­ther un­aware they or their col­leagues may have an is­sue, or are not ac­cess­ing their EAP ser­vices when they should.

Re­search also sug­gests that an em­ployee who is de­pressed or oth­er­wise im­pacted by a men­tal health con­di­tion or stress­ful sit­u­a­tion, costs their em­ployer on av­er­age $10,000 per an­num in re­duced pro­duc­tiv­ity or ab­sen­teeism, and that does not in­clude the costs of re­solv­ing em­ployee re­la­tions is­sues or re­plac­ing staff who leave. In­deed, for ev­ery $1 busi­nesses in­vest in ef­fec­tive men­tal health and well­be­ing pro­grams, they gen­er­ate an av­er­age re­turn of $2.30.

This un­der­use of tra­di­tional EAP and the fi­nan­cial costs to busi- nesses of un­re­solved is­sues are an alarm call to CEOs that they should be in­vest­ing in men­tal health and well­be­ing, and in par­tic­u­lar in proac­tive or­gan­i­sa­tional de­vel­op­ment strate­gies.

BF: How are work­place psy­chol­ogy ser­vices chang­ing in re­la­tion to well­be­ing chal­lenges?

CS: Firstly, EAP and OD (Em­ployee As­sis­tance Pro­grams and Or­gan­i­sa­tional De­vel­op­ment) ser­vices cover a broad spec­trum, and are no longer just about re­act­ing to sit­u­a­tions when they have hap­pened. There is a range of proac­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions busi­nesses can make to de­velop skills and pro­ce­dures so they can ei­ther pre­vent sit­u­a­tions from oc­cur­ring or mit­i­gate their im­pact. And be­yond this, pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy in­ter­ven­tions al­low busi­nesses and em­ploy­ees to build on their strengths so they can max­imise their well­be­ing and pro­duc­tiv­ity. We de­scribe this spec­trum as mov­ing from strug­gling to cop­ing and from cop­ing to flour­ish­ing.

Sec­ondly, ev­i­dence-based best prac­tice is that psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions de­liver bet­ter out­comes if they oc­cur at all lev­els of an or­gan­i­sa­tion in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tives, lead­ers, teams and in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees. This is re­ferred to as a sys­tems ap­proach, and each of these co­horts has an im­por­tant part to play in cre­at­ing a pro­duc­tive work­place.

BF: What trends is As­sure Pro­grams see­ing in its cus­tomers and across in­dus­try sec­tors?

CS: As­sure Pro­grams has about 300 cor­po­rate cus­tomers in­clud­ing many blue chips or­gan­i­sa­tions span­ning vir­tu­ally all in­dus­try sec- tors. To­gether they em­ploy nearly 300,000 peo­ple, and in most cases we also cover em­ploy­ees’ fam­i­lies which means we look af­ter the best part of a mil­lion Aus­tralians.

Many of our cus­tomers are tak­ing a more holis­tic view of health and well­be­ing in the work­place, with a sin­gle strat­egy span­ning the spec­trum of both men­tal and phys­i­cal well­be­ing. This is lead­ing them to form strate­gic part­ner­ships with com­pa­nies like As­sure Pro­grams, with long term ob­jec­tives, in­vest­ment and ex­pected re­turns be­ing driven from CEO and se­nior ex­ec­u­tive lev­els.

With a strong fo­cus on ROI, our cus­tomers are also be­com­ing more savvy about the clin­i­cal qual­ity of work­place psy­chol­ogy ser­vices. So whereas in the past some may have re­garded EAP as a tick-the-box ex­er­cise and sought out the cheap­est provider, many of them are now tak­ing a broader view of the long term value of us­ing ex­pe­ri­enced psy­chol­o­gists to de­liver clin­i­cal best prac­tice, and in­vest­ing at all lev­els of their or­gan­i­sa­tion from ex­ec­u­tives to lead­ers to teams to in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees.

Another trend that spans all in­dus­try sec­tors is a fo­cus on so­ci­etal is­sues af­fect­ing peo­ple’s per­sonal lives – two thirds of is­sues for which em­ploy­ees ac­cess EAP re­late to their per­sonal lives not their work­place, although such is­sues may still have sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on their pro­duc­tiv­ity at work. Such so­ci­etal trends in­clude do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and other re­la­tion­ship is­sues, diver­sity and in­clu­sion, self-harm, ad­dic­tion and fi­nan­cial stress.

In terms of spe­cific in­dus­tries, some of the trends we are see­ing in­clude:

- For the le­gal, fi­nance and other pro­fes­sional ser­vices sec­tor: In­creas­ing con­cerns with work­load and life bal­ance, and poor man­age­ment prac­tices such as bul­ly­ing.

- For the min­ing, re­sources and sup­port ser­vices sec­tor: FIFO work pat­terns lead­ing to re­la­tion­ship is­sues, un­healthy di­ets and life­styles, drug and al­co­hol abuse.

- For busi­nesses in­volv­ing faceto-face cus­tomer con­tact: Deal­ing with dif­fi­cult or ag­gres­sive cus­tomers such as drug ad­dicts or armed rob­bery.

BF: How is As­sure Pro­grams ad­dress­ing/ser­vic­ing this chang­ing need?

CS: We part­ner with or­gan­i­sa­tions to com­bine best prac­tice tra­di­tional psy­chol­ogy meth­ods with the emerg­ing ev­i­dence based sci­ence of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy to cre­ate a uniquely dif­fer­ent ser­vice.

To help our cor­po­rate cus­tomers as­sess their needs and tar­get their in­vest­ment ef­fec­tively across the broad spec­trum of men­tal health, As­sure Pro­grams have de­vel­oped a unique frame­work called “The Back­bone of Men­tal Health & Well­be­ing in the Work­place”.

Us­ing clin­i­cally proven best prac­tice, this frame­work maps out 8 psy­choso­cial risk fac­tors that are im­por­tant to any busi­ness and its em­ploy­ees. It then al­lows busi­ness lead­ers, with­out any psy­chol­ogy knowl­edge, to as­sess the health of their busi­ness against each of those 8 risk fac­tors us­ing symp­toms they can eas­ily ob­serve in their work­place. This health check will clearly high­light where they may want to fo­cus their ef­fort and in­vest­ment, ei­ther to ad­dress ar­eas of high risk or to en­hance and max­imise ar­eas of strength.

As­sure Pro­grams then of­fers a range of psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter- ven­tions that can help which­ever psy­choso­cial risk fac­tors have been high­lighted by the cus­tomer, tar­get­ing ev­ery level of the or­gan­i­sa­tion in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tive strat­egy, lead­er­ship ca­pa­bil­ity, team dy­nam­ics and in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees.

In terms of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy – mov­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als from cop­ing to flour­ish­ing – As­sure part­nered with Pro­fes­sor Martin Selig­man, the founder of pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy, over a num­ber of years to de­velop Aus­tralia’s best in class, ev­i­dence based pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy ser­vice.

BF: You were with Bupa for 12 years, what did your time at Bupa teach you about the in­dus­try?

CS: I worked on the design and de­liv­ery of cor­po­rate health and well­be­ing ser­vices, which taught me the im­por­tance of es­tab­lish­ing qual­ity re­la­tion­ships with both em­ploy­ers (who typ­i­cally make the pur­chase de­ci­sion) and em­ploy­ees (whose health and liveli­hoods we are sup­port­ing). It also taught me the im­pact that main­tain­ing a healthy, en­gaged work­force can have on an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s pro­duc­tiv­ity and fi­nan­cial per­for­mance.

BF: How can or­gan­i­sa­tions de­tect poor men­tal health within their work­force?

CS: There are a num­ber of warn­ing signs that an em­ployee may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing poor men­tal health. At an in­di­vid­ual level, these warn­ing signs in­clude changes in em­ploy­ees’ emo­tional re­sponses, er­ratic be­hav­iour, ob­ses­sion with spe­cific job du­ties, work­ing longer or fewer hours and with­drawn be­hav­iour. At a team level, warn­ing signs can in­clude in­creased un­planned ab­sences, in­creased use of neg­a­tive lan­guage, team con­flict and re­duced lev­els of per­for­mance.

BF: What strate­gies can or­gan­i­sa­tions put in place to deal with and treat em­ploy­ees with poor men­tal health?

CS: The most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber when de­sign­ing strate­gies is that ev­ery­one has a role to play, from ex­ec­u­tive lead­er­ship down to in­di­vid­ual em­ploy­ees. Men­tal health and well­be­ing strate­gies should ad­dress the fol­low­ing eight key psy­choso­cial risk ar­eas:

- Em­ployee life bal­ance and work­load man­age­ment

- Com­pe­tency and per­for­mance

- Psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port

- Or­gan­i­sa­tional cul­ture and team dy­nam­ics

- Recog­ni­tion, re­ward and growth

- Change fa­cil­i­ta­tion

- Em­ployee in­volve­ment and in­flu­ence

- Phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal safety

These eight fo­cus ar­eas are in­cor­po­rated in As­sure Pro­grams’ “Back­bone” frame­work, and a strat­egy that com­bines them will pro­vide or­gan­i­sa­tions with a well-rounded, holis­tic men­tal health and well­be­ing plan.

At a tac­ti­cal level, or­gan­i­sa­tions also need to put in place sys­tems to sup­port and equip lead­ers to ef­fec­tively recog­nise and re­spond to early warn­ing signs and to work with em­ploy­ees to put ad­e­quate sup­port plans in place.

BF: How does As­sure Pro­grams de­liver ef­fec­tive re­sults?

CS: We re­cently un­der­took a study with over 400 em­ploy­ees within our cus­tomer or­gan­i­sa­tions to eval­u­ate the ef­fec­tive­ness of EAP to re­solve symp­toms of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress. The study, con­ducted by a third party provider, as­sessed em­ploy­ees against the Kessler Psy­cho­log­i­cal Dis­tress Scale (K10) and ex­plored the im­pact of EAP coun­selling on work per­for­mance. It also eval­u­ated em­ployee work­place par­tic­i­pa­tion against the Global As­sess­ment of Func­tion­ing scale (GAF).

The re­sults of the study showed that, on av­er­age, em­ploy­ees who ac­cess the As­sure Pro­grams EAP ser­vice im­proved from a score of 25 (likely to have mod­er­ate symp­toms) to a score of 18 (likely to be well). This im­prove­ment sug­gests that em­ploy­ees who ac­cess EAP are likely to re­turn to func­tion­ing at the same level as the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, 84% of sur­vey par­tic­i­pants re­ported that EAP was the key con­trib­u­tor to re­solv­ing their is­sue.

So these two in­de­pen­dent mea­sures of change in em­ployee func- tion­ing show a trend of sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment for those who ac­cessed As­sure Pro­grams’ EAP ser­vice. Re­sults also show that those who ac­cess EAP in­crease their work at­ten­dance and pro­duc­tiv­ity, and im­prove the qual­ity of their work.

BF: What risks do em­ploy­ees with poor men­tal health present to man­agers?

CS: There is a range of work­place im­pacts as­so­ci­ated with poor men­tal health, in­clud­ing ab­sen­teeism or presenteeism, con­flict, re­sent­ment and frus­tra­tion with col­leagues. These im­pacts can pose real phys­i­cal as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal risks to man­agers, col­leagues and cus­tomers.

As­sure Pro­grams of­fers a range of lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment and sup­port ser­vices to equip man­agers to suc­cess­fully recog­nise, re­spond and sup­port em­ploy­ees show­ing signs of men­tal health con­di­tions. Our Man­ager Sup­port Pro­gram pro­vides lead­ers with tools to mit­i­gate these work­place risks.

Chris Smed­ley

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