“I am a passionate believer that ‘Together we do better’. It is why I have joined the Clarity Group, in an effort to leverage my decades of experience in suicide prevention, mental health promotion, and the prevention of mental illness” – Jane Burns, Strategic Advisor

Australia has always batted above its weight in digital innovation, and I believe we are poised to drive real change in Australia and globally. My professional experiences have shaped my life. From being a young, motivated female in academia pushing through glass ceilings and publishing 100+ journal articles that probably have never been read, to joining Professor Ian Hickie and the Honorable Jeff Kennet in the start-up of Beyond Blue. I have held executive and board positions with some of Australia’s best-know organisations and have led exceptional teams who have achieved incredible outcomes that can and do make a real difference in people’s lives. I have been privileged to work across a variety of organisations, large corporates, hospital and academic institutes, the NGO sector and continue to support a variety of start-ups.  Regardless of size, whether large or small, for profit of for purpose two reoccurring themes are true. The first is that the proverbial fish rots from the head, toxic culture is the responsibility of leaders and that creating a psychologically safe environment is paramount to generating trust. Why is Trust the most critical element to foster with your people?… it remains the cornerstone to building a thriving culture and it gives people the courage to make mistakes, be brave in their approach and achieve audacious goals.


Why now? 

Anyone who is connected to a school or university, whether as a student, teacher, researcher, support staff or simply a visitor, should rightfully expect that they are in a safe environment. Our educational institutions should foster meaningful relationships, create opportunities for communication and connection, and build creative and strong collaborations that allow diversity to flourish. This environment and culture is necessary to promote world-view thinking and solutions and tackling challenging and difficult problems (everything from world poverty, the climate crisis, and alternative fuels).

For young people, schools and universities lay a solid foundation for life, and then as young adults in transitioning to work, employment provides the fundamental cornerstone of a flourishing and what should be an enjoyable life.

And yet feeling psychologically safe at school, university or work is often difficult to achieve. Far too many in education settings and work environments are denied feeling safe, supported and included through the trauma of unacceptable behaviour such as bullying, harassment, aggression, intimidation, exclusion in decision making or discrimination and stigma.  Ignoring inappropriate behaviours is unacceptable in a highly functioning society.

What does the data say?

Psychological safety has been described by the author Timothy Clark “… as an environment where you feel included, that it is safe to learn and contribute and that you can challenge the status quo – all without any fear of being shamed, embarrassed or marginalised.”

The importance of connection, valued participation, and positive relationships is not new.  When the Beyond Blue Schools Research Initiative commenced in 2000 (yes 21 years ago!) it was built on cutting edge research which highlighted the importance of enhancing protective factors and reducing individual and environmental risk factors.

The research findings on systems level change were impressive, and yet, investment into the promotion of good mental health and the prevention of mental illness has never really gained the political ownership and traction necessary to turn that research into tangible and valuable outcomes.  The lack of commitment to prevention and the siloed approaches across education, health, justice and other systems is one of the reasons why we as a society are at breaking point in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of society. It is why the Productivity Commission Report, and the Victorian Royal Commission have described the mental health service system and the sector itself as “broken”, with major systems level reform required.

It does not have to be so in our schools and workplaces.

On average, people spend one third of their lifetime at work, with many people joining the workforce during the formative transition from adolescence to adulthood. One in four people experience a mental illness, and across their lifespan 50% of people will experience poor mental health. The social implications are sobering:

  • relationship breakdown
  • financial insecurity and stress
  • self-medication through alcohol and drugs
  • languishing rather than flourishing
  • a feeling of loss, isolation, and loneliness.

When overlayed with the challenges of toxic workplaces, the figures are catastrophic:

  • 15% of workers’ compensation claims relate to mental health injury
  • mental injury claims take twice as long to address and cost 8 times as much as physical injury claims (on average, the cost is $1.2 million per person)
  • mental injury claims are expected to rise to 30% of all claims by 2030.

This is a major risk and cost for government in their role as insurers and for all employers understanding their business growth – both in profit and public interest organisations. The cost on productivity, recruitment and retention and human capital cannot be overstated.

These reflections bring me to whistleblowing, ethical leadership, and the intersection between workplace wellbeing, exposure to risk within the workplace, and the impact that work environments have on the mental health of the workforce. Sounds complicated, and frankly it is – which is why we see confusion and inertia in leadership including corporate boards and CEO’s, unsure how to take tangible, effective and measurable action on OHS focused psychological safety in the workplace.  I’m always shocked, given the legal implications, how many of our corporate and government leaders lack a comprehensive understanding on how to action the WorkSafe policies and frameworks, including measuring workplace risk and putting in place Mental Health Action Plans.

Increases in OHS mental injury claims will financially devastate businesses, both large and small, and government and insurers will find themselves in a head-spin trying to meet the increasing costs associated with workplace trauma.

 

How can we make change?

I’m an expert in suicide prevention, mental health promotion, and the prevention of mental illness. This approach is known as the public health approach, a model popularised by the US Institute of Medicine, back in 1994, when it gathered 100+ experts in suicide prevention and published its seminal piece focusing on ‘preventive interventions for mental disorders,’ The premise is simple and focuses on the settings in which people spend their time, with a major focus on reducing risk and enhancing protective factors.

It’s not rocket science. It has been successfully deployed by VicHealth to reduce smoking, by the TAC to reduce motor vehicle accidents, and in health the approach has resulted in massive reductions in chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

I’m not an expert in corporate whistleblowing, and like many Australians my knowledge is limited to movies like Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts, or high profile political and corporate cases like the Watergate scandal and ‘Deep Throat’, the exposure of Enron by its senior female executives, and the infamous Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky White House affair.

Whistleblowing is not a new phenomenon, despite at times it feeling that way in Australia. Known as Lincoln’s Law, the False Claims Act was originally passed in the Civil War when defence contractors supplied the Union with faulty weapons and overpromised on their capacity to deliver supplies.

In the United States whistleblowers are considered invaluable – they have saved countless lives, protected the environment and national security, exposed corrupt companies in every sector of business, and ultimately saved governments and taxpayers billions of dollars. Unlike Australia, US Federal laws require the government to reward whistleblowers with up to 30% of the money it recovers as a result of their tip; a sure acknowledgement of the value and necessity of responsible whistleblowing.

Whilst the recent changes in the Corporations Act has significantly increased whistleblowing protections and the penalties for non-compliance, it would be fair to say that Australia has been less progressive in promoting the importance of whistleblowing at a practical level. Annabel Crabb’s recent podcast and ABC series, “Ms Represented,” provides an interesting narrative with interviews conducted with Australia’s female political leaders. In the absence of protection and support, there can be career limiting aspects of whistleblowing, along with the psychological trauma and major impact on a person’s mental health. Studies, from the late 80’s to the present day, suggests that ‘blowing the whistle’ can be stressful due to the potential for retaliation, job loss, financial and legal stress, relationship breakdown and severe mental health problems.  From 1 July 2019 the Corporations Act was expanded to provide greater protections for whistleblowers requiring large corporations, as defined in the Act and corporate trustees of APRA-regulated superannuation entities to have a Whistleblower Policy from 1 January 2020.

Overlay the Corporation Act with the 2018 Australian Work Health and Safety Act and the ISO 45003 Psychological Health and Safety at Work standards, it would be fair to say we have a defining moment in history.

Legislators have recently taken legislation as far they possibly can whilst endeavouring not to overburden or crush commerce and industry with over-prescriptive obligations; organisations have a critical part to play, inertia is no longer an option.

Workplaces, through their leaders have a clear legislative obligation not only to identify psychological risk and injury but also to manage and prevent it. It is simply not acceptable for workplaces to ‘break people.’

 

What next?

There is a strong impetus for change propelled, amongst other things, via strong new whistleblowing laws (read more about ASIC’s recent changes), but it will take much more from business leaders, in Board Roles, as CEO’s or as Senior Executive.

Leaders should not be moved to action to by the threat of hefty and costly penalties of the new laws; they should take action to do the right thing by their people, to establish and maintain a healthy and psychologically safe work community; this they should do without ignoring the former.

It’s time for our work community to recalibrate the three Ps. The process is complex and onerous but does not have to be messy and costly.

The three Ps require leadership to assume responsibility for and to do what it takes to affect a culture shift that views ethics as corporate might (rather than a weakness or blocker).

The science around active leadership is compelling, and to provide a few practical examples it includes:

  • Leading by example, practicing and to be seen as practicing sound behaviour – which also includes acknowledging and owing mistakes
  • Assuming accountability and being accountable, even when things go wrong
  • Holding others accountable (based on behaviour, not position or rank)
  • Continuing investment in and commitment to prevention
  • Getting to know the emotional and psychological health of your organisation and directly engaging in its development
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of your codes, policies and procedures (for example, reviewing the number and nature of grievances and complaints, whether handled effectively and timely, identifying shortcomings and making improvements)

As a leader, who is continuously learning, I am constantly benchmarking myself against these metrics – that’s what leadership is about.  Regardless of age, rank, experience or gender we should take a good hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, How do I stack up against these? How do others see me stack up against these? Human nature is just that, relationships are messy and we all make mistakes – it’s how we learn from those mistakes or those cringe worthy moments, when you are not living your best life – that ultimately creates the best leaders.

Corporate strength via ethical conduct paves the way for values such as respect and compassion, (‘doing the right thing’) to flourish in workspaces. Specifically, an ethical culture at work will promote an awareness of the humanness of the human capital we call “employees” and get rid of the all too common feeling of being under-valued cogs in wheels. Emotional intelligence and an ethic of care in the workplace ultimately makes for a healthy workplace.

The launch of Clarity Ethics in the context of a global approach to workplace wellbeing looks to resolve this problem and deliver services building corporate strength – I encourage you to visit our new podcast Ethical Antidotes to hear more from a brains trust of international experts, passionate about making a difference in people’s lives.

I’m excited to join Clarity Group (Clarity Ethics, Your Call, Clarity Workplace Solutions & Clarity Digital) and look forward to collaborating with the team to build better workplaces and give a voice to all.

 

AUTHOR

Jane Burns
Strategic Advisor Clarity Group