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TELUS Health: The flow-on impact of the global pandemic, combined with rising interest rates and other economic pressures, has taken a toll on the mental, physical and financial health of Australians

These stressors, combined with legislation requiring employers to protect the psycho-social health of employees, make it more important than ever for companies to invest in the well-being of their staff.

New research by global workplace wellbeing leader TELUS Health shows the overall mental health score of working employees in Australia remains at COVID-19 pandemic levels – with some cohorts under significant pressure, including younger workers, women and parents. The number of people impacted by mental health issues and the severity of those issues has grown since 2019, with the latest Mental Health Index (MHI) report showing 38% of workers have a high mental health risk, and 37% have a moderate mental health risk.

Despite the rollout of vaccinations and the removal of restrictions, new stressors detrimentally impact people's well-being in an environment where people are less able to absorb them. Cost-of-living pressures have resulted in the Financial Wellbeing score for Australia being lower than in early 2021.

One group of particular concern is managers within organisations. TELUS Health APAC Managing Director and Senior Vice President Jamie MacLennan says the declining mental health of managers has been a "frog in a boiling pot of water" scenario, with pressures at home, the flow-on impact of COVID, and other issues facing their staff taking their toll.

Pre-COVID, managers' MHI scores were always higher than staff's. However, during COVID, this situation reversed and remains inverted.

"It reflects that, during COVID, managers were dealing with their own personal and family issues and then worrying about their staff, and the compounding effect of that has meant that several times that [score] has flipped."

"While in other countries that has changed post-COVID and managers' scores have improved, that is not the case in Australia. Pressure on managers over the past three years has been quite heavy — [including] working from home… then deciding how to bring [staff] back into the office," MacLennan says.

While many company boards and directors genuinely commit to incorporating wellbeing strategies, the front-line managers are left to implement them. "They're the ones at the coal face that have to deal with it, and they're often the least equipped to do so."

TELUS health research finds that for wellbeing programs to work, managers must be trained to understand and respond to staff's mental health and wellbeing challenges.

While managers are "not expected to be counsellors or psychologists", they need to know how to respond to employees experiencing mental health challenges and direct them to the right support.

TELUS health, for example, offers a dedicated manager hotline to help managers with any questions they might have about supporting staff's mental health and wellbeing. 

They complement this service with training programs for managers to enable them to operate effectively.

"One thing that the research clearly shows is that, in terms of mental health and wellbeing, we are still tracking at around the same levels as the early COVID years. The mental health risk carries on far longer than the physical health risk; people's brains have essentially been re-wired," MacLennan adds.

"Our research shows a clear link between financial well-being and mental health. There's also a strong link between physical health and mental health, and all these factors must be considered."

A "tick the box" approach can do more damage than good

New laws enacted in NSW requiring companies to protect their employees' mental and physical wellbeing have prompted a wave of new employee assistance plans (EAP) and wellbeing apps to enter the market. However, MacLennan warns that companies that subscribe to these Apps without doing their due diligence risk taking a "tick the box" approach to supporting their employees' wellbeing.

"Genuine mental health and wellbeing support is no longer a 'nice to have'. It's a commercial imperative for organisations, and they must treat it as such.

"Back before COVID, many organisations did have wellbeing as a 'tick the box' approach, where they thought, 'I'll throw in an EAP so if anyone ever asks, I've got that', but they didn't promote or support it in any way. They might also have offered other wellness perks. But it's not a true wellbeing strategy, and it doesn't work because it doesn't resonate with people," MacLennan says.

"An EAP is not a wellbeing strategy. It's an important component of mental health support for a wellbeing strategy, but it's not the whole thing."

TELUS Health APAC Managing Director and Senior Vice President Jamie MacLennan

MacLennan says a wellbeing strategy needs to be incorporated into an organisation's overall Business and People strategies, and have measurable goals and targets. TELUS Health, for example, provides a holistic approach to mental, physical and financial wellbeing that combines digital and in-person services, such as counselling, training, financial and legal assistance, and physical health checks.

"You have got to set metrics and track them to meaningfully assess it. Otherwise, it's nice to have, but what is the outcome?" he says. "One of the things we do… is we track the outcome of the work we do, and then correlate it against our Global research to advise and inform clients about what is happening and how they are performing."

Getting it right makes good business sense

MacLennan says that for companies like TELUS Health, measuring an organisation's data means that the return on investment (ROI) of a wellness strategy can be calculated.

"A properly executed health and wellness strategy is a commercial imperative and should be treated by management as such," MacLennan says.

Employees have come to expect a commitment to wellness, both physical and mental, from employers in an increasingly competitive market. TELUS Health research found that younger workers would trade a salary increase for "greater wellbeing support," MacLennan says.

"It's one of those virtuous circles whereby if you support people's wellbeing, they are going to feel much more engaged with the organisation, they [will be] much more inclined to stay with the company and they will also be a lot more productive as well," he says. "But if you get it wrong, the opposite is true. It can be a disaster for business and employees' sense of wellbeing."

Wellbeing at a glance

  • 38% of workers have a high mental health risk, 37% have a moderate mental health risk, and 26% have a low mental health risk.

  • Mental health remains at pandemic levels.

  • Managers' mental health and wellbeing rank lower than their staff.

  • Women, people with children and young employees have the lowest mental health scores.

  • Financial wellbeing has a significant impact on mental health, with 74% of employees unsure if they have sufficient savings for retirement.

  • Financial wellbeing has a significant impact on mental health, with 74% of employees unsure if they have sufficient savings for retirement.

TELUS Health is the global leader in workplace wellbeing programs and EAP programs. TELUS Health – which supports more than 67 million people across 15,000 companies globally, recently acquired leading employee assistance brands Benestar and LifeWorks, further solidifying its position as the leading EAP and corporate wellbeing provider in ANZ and the APAC Region.

By Jamie MacLennan


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