How to build mentally healthy workplaces: Anna Feringa

Our CEO Mark Henderson and Learning & Development Manager Kellie Dunn catch up with specialist workplace mental health expert Anna Feringa, ahead of her upcoming online workshop.

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Georgie Tomich
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Mark: You mention that it’s taken a pandemic to get mental health on the radar — what’s changed over your journey in mental health, particularly the way Australian companies are responding to mental health challenges?

Anna: Mental health is where (physical safety in the workplace) was 30 years ago, but with the speed over the past 18 months, it's probably where it was about 15 years ago. There hasn't been a lot of transparent supportive regulation, you've got a bunch of companies running around going, look, I've heard it's a problem but we've got worker’s comp and that seems to be being managed so we'll just crack on.

My whole 18 years (of experience) up until two years ago has been in the "convincing" trade. Here’s a small amount of evidence to show you what employers have invested in, and the benefits they've gotten out of it, but it’s been a real trade show, as opposed to a basic hazard mitigation, necessary, compliance-based need so it’s really interesting to see it morphing, particularly in the past two years.

Mark: Today we're going to be talking about some of the support mechanisms for employees and employers around managing mental health in the workplace — you mentioned worker’s compensation schemes. They're clearly under huge pressure right across the country.

Anna: Absolutely, and they're under huge pressure because employers, through no fault of their own, haven't really been taught or directed on how to identify and control and mitigate psychosocial risk in workplaces. So you've got a bunch of companies, a bunch of directors and a bunch of CEOs thinking that yeah, this place has got a pretty good culture, people are relatively safe, but it’s amazing the level of psychosocial risks that they don't recognise and don't understand that can validate a claim.

Mark: Can you explain some of the psychosocial risks — it really is a new challenge, isn’t it?

Anna: It’s a new challenge, that's right, because it's subjective — we can't necessarily see when someone is feeling a flat or withdrawn mood, unless they're having chronic and overt panic attacks. The way in which we elicit behaviour when we're struggling from a mental illness perspective is not clearly and collectively understood by people that are around us, so they can deploy their own opinions and that's what gives birth to the friend that is stigma and society's response to either engaging and supporting people that are unwell, or drawing a conclusion that they're not necessarily an active member in society; they're a lazy worker so we'll just work them under some performance management rather than taking the necessary steps to get in and ask: Is everything okay?

Kellie: In the social and affordable housing sector there are so many incredible professionals helping other people who are also experiencing mental health crisises. How do you care for a workplace that is caring for people?

Anna: It’s the age old question: Who cares for the carer? I see it a lot it in emergency services and frontline health, where you know, their job is to service and care for the community and therefore they're like a sponge — they take and take because it's the actual definition of their role, but what happens if I can't keep taking, I can't perform my role. These are two of the biggest sectors that are experiencing burnout and a high influx of mental injury claims because they've really got nowhere else to go. I can't admit that I can't do my job anymore, or at this point in time because I've taken my fill, and I'm not well anymore. It's really interesting to see bits and pieces where organisations need to bring education as a whole into the workplace, particularly around role clarity and boundaries where it stops being customer service, and starts being risk management.

Mark: Let’s discuss the Workplace Health and Safety Act and some of the codes that are coming in, that we really need our members and member organisations to be aware of. Could you step us through a bit of a timeline of what's happening in the background around mental health, and the Act?

Anna: (The current Act) basically just says that every provider needs to provide a safe, supportive and productive environment for all employees, including both physical and psychological safety — that's it. If people are smiling and turning up and turning up to work and leaving, then we're probably doing a pretty good job but what's happening while people are at work, or indeed outside of work and then coming to work with pre-existing conditions, brings this whole complex ballgame where employers are getting pinged for not providing a safe workplace and they didn't even know it. I feel sorry for a lot of employers because they thought they were doing the right thing, but we don't know if we don't know.

Anna Feringa is an award-winning International Speaker, Trainer and Workplace Mental Health Consultant. She is a leading expert in topics including Mental Health awareness, leadership and Mental Health, and best practice workplace Mental Health. As a respected member of the global Health & Safety community, Anna was recently recognised for her contributions in this space by HSE People.

To view the full Industry Connect interview visit our Youtube channel. To register for Anna’s upcoming online workshop A Manager's Guide: Mentally Healthy Workplaces on October 20.visit our Events page, or register here.

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