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Shaping healthy minds for project success

Workplace mental health and safety to support healthy minds at work

There are significant psychosocial challenges facing our workforce across all major industries. Anxiety is a systemic issue, often arising from workplace distress and has both a domestic and workplace impact.

Our nation is tackling the most demanding project pipeline in history and our workforce is struggling. There is a tragic level of suicides, the construction industry has the highest per capita (53.3 out of 100,000 workers) and largest by sheer numbers with 1,324 suicides per annum.1  Around 25 % of all absenteeism is psychosomatic, only 13% of the workforce is fully engaged, our executives have increasingly high levels of stress. There is also a vast gap between the identified need for mental health and the support that is provided. The overall impact to the economy is upwards to over $11 billion per annum. This effects many hundreds of thousands of employees and equates to millions of hours of lost productivity each year.

Figure 1, Source: ABS/Beyond Blue

The good news is that we have increased awareness of the issue. The challenge is beyond just having a rapid response capability to mental health issues, but towards a broader, systemic change required to build an environment where all employees can fulfil their potential. This responsibility lies with the board and the senior executive leaders in organisations. Promoting and building healthy workplaces can result in a positive return on investment of 2.3. For every dollar spent on implementing a mentally healthy workplace, there is an average of $2.30 of benefits gained.2

Learning from success

Unfortunately, we are not yet providing the support in mental safety which is contributing to the significant performance gaps relative to physical safety. The transport and construction sectors have made great inroads in terms of physical safety over the last two decades, there is now a culture of safety with recognition by the leaders of the role in shaping this performance.  We can learn a great deal from the success of this process and make the same inroads into mental health.

Figure 2, Source: ABS-Beyond Blue

Lead from the top

The executive population, responsible for shaping such an initiative are often experiencing a significant level of stress themselves. In a recent study 37.9% of the executives that were tested were classified as having dysfunctional levels of distress, which is substantially higher than that observed in the general Australian population.3

Figure 3, Leading from the top

High levels of anxiety and depression were a result and contributed to workplace activities such as bullying and significant substance abuse. At the executive level, there is room to develop the capability to understand themselves and then shape their environment.

Leaders pathway

To promote change and build a mentally healthy workplace, there is a need to work simultaneously on the leaders, the system, as well as team and the Individuals. The pathway to this starts with the leaders. Unfortunately, leaders tend to be firefighters who work at a survival level. At the top end leaders operate as critical thinkers (level 3), innovators (level 4) and ultimately gamer changers (level 5) with the ability and capacity to transform organisations (See figure 4).

Figure 4, Levels of leadership

Roadmap to a mentally healthy workplace

To make inroads on mental health change needs to work simultaneously across leaders, the system and the individuals, through a 5-stage process:

  1. Building resilience
  2. Building the ability to reframe and learn poor practices
  3. Building awareness of organisational systemic effect
  4. Building capability to transform the system
  5. Support the struggling individuals and teams
Indviduals are slowly becoming more open when sharing their stresses and anxieties. Leaders need to support these individuals to promote a mentally healthy workplace. Organisations can help by putting in place initiatives to support these time-poor individuals and teams to boost well-being and productivity in the long-term.

1 Peiffer, E 2016. A hidden epidemic: Construction suicide data draws industry crisis into the spotlight. Construction Dive. Available:

2 PwC 2014. Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment analysis. PwC. Available:

3  Kemp, T., Green, S. 2010. Executive Coaching for the Normal “Non-Clinical” Population: Fact or Fiction? Fourth Australian Conference on Evidence-Based Coaching 2010. Available:

Malcolm Dunn is a Adjunct Professor and Director, Coaching, Mentoring and Project Services with the John Grill Centre. He has extensive leadership development experience through the design and delivery of executive leadership programs, managing teams of executive coaches and leading strategic execution planning and complex project management teams.

As both a business strategist and qualified psychotherapist, he has supported boards, senior executives and high potentials on their transformational journeys at both the personal and team level.