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 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.