Maintaining the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees at the Department of Housing and Public Works

Early Intervention Centre, frontline support and resilience program, Housing and Public Works.

Lahnie Woodlock, Senior Advisor, Housing and Public Works

The Public Service Commission caught up with Lahnie Woodlock, Senior Advisor, Workplace Health and Safety, from Housing and Public Works (HPW) about their Early Intervention Centre (EIC) – a support program that is designed to maintain the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees, and build capability of managers and supervisors to be able to comfortably respond to difficult issues. The EIC is a combination of counselling, coaching, capability and resilience building – not just issue resolution. It is about getting conversations started early so that appropriate support can be offered, and situations don’t escalate.

Why did the Early Intervention Centre start?

The Early Intervention Centre has been an integral part of HPW’s approach to supporting employees for almost 15 years ago – issues such as workload and absenteeism, and a downturn in resilience when responding to ongoing organisational changes, changing government priorities and general life pressures was becoming increasingly apparent. As an employer, HPW wanted to offer more to assist employees in managing work life balance, provide as much support as reasonably practicable within the workplace, and provide an additional avenue for support where the Employee Assistance Program may not be the most appropriate support option.

So HPW asked – what can we do about it? The simple answer was a combination of building capability in the leadership space by enabling managers to have conversations with their teams; minimising the levels of stress and stigma associated with these difficult discussions; and providing a safe, confidential service for an employee looking for more specialised support. Lahnie says, ‘Essentially, HPW’s goal is to have our people come to work safe, be safe at work, and get back home safe. The EIC is a great facilitator for achieving all of these factors, and provides an additional opportunity for employees to take onboard some strategies and skills to help them outside of work as well.’

What happens at the EIC?

HPW engages Strive Occupational Rehab, an industry leader in workplace injury rehabilitation in Queensland, to provide support services to employees and managers on a range of presenting situations, from personal support to professional interventions.

Our Work, Health and Safety team work very closely with our Human Resource Business Partners on a range of areas such as return to work matters, rehabilitation (physical and psychological) and other complex matters. There is no real ‘blueprint’ for a range of situations that present through day to day, 'business as usual’ activities, and the majority of support offered through the EIC is based on issues being experienced on a personal level, rather than purely a professional matter.

Our Human Resource Business Partners are also involved in facilitating positive outcomes, especially with work-related issues that present and have layers of complexity. For example, it could be an absenteeism issue at face value, but the reasons behind that absenteeism could be far more complex. The EIC aims to assist employees work through those issues, to enable them to be as present and productive at work as possible. The aim is to get involved and assist before relationships and situations become unworkable and uncomfortable. We want people to come to work and feel like they are in a safe environment where they can talk about their concerns. Our HR Business Partners are a critical part of facilitating a positive outcome, and can provide an additional level of assistance in the situation as well.

For example, we have teams on the frontline who deal with some very challenging and confronting scenarios on a day to day basis – the EIC helps them unpack some of the things they see and hear while on the job, not necessarily to ‘normalise’ what they are seeing and hearing, but assuring them that their reactions to those situations are ‘normal’, within their own perspectives. It also provides an opportunity to introduce and maintain some strategies for employees that are tailored and suitable to their respective circumstances – over time, this can lead to building resilience and developing other positive coping mechanisms that they can take into and utilise in other areas of their lives.

How is the EIC different to the Employee Assistance Program?

The key point of difference between the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the EIC is that the workplace is part of the solution, and HPW is aware that support is being provided. It provides the managers with an option to give feedback to Strive, as well as receive information for consideration within the workplace to not only ensure our duty of care, but also to ensure that the best possible support is available to an employee who may be going through a tough time.

Employee involvement in the EIC is completely voluntary, and employees are made aware that high-level feedback relevant to the workplace is provided to HPW. Employee’s can, if they wish, opt out of receiving EIC support at any time. On occasions, employees don’t wish to engage, but we can also offer some coaching for managers through the EIC to assist them in navigating those same difficult situations in the workplace and providing support to employees – the flexibility and adaptability of the services EIC provides is indicative of the success of, and trust in, the program. Managers are just as important, if not the most important link in having the right tools and strategies to assist and support their teams. Sometimes, there is a necessity to have both an employee and their manager both receiving support to be able to effectively navigate a situation with difficult or uncomfortable conversations.

How can regional HPW staff access the service?

Lahnie commented, ‘During 2020, the reliance on being able to access support via means other than the usual face to face method has become even more important, so the challenge of being able to provide access to support during some pretty testing times has required quite the adaptation.’ All employees can access support via phone, or via video call or web-based meetings. For matters where onsite support is needed for response to a critical incident, a consultant can be engaged and deployed to the location on short notice.

What is your funding approach?

We operate the EIC from a centrally funded budget which our senior leadership team commit to every year.  This arrangement provides flexibility for the delivery of any specialised training programs, or responding to any emerging issues or trends across the department, and provides opportunities to work with our diverse work groups to tailor training options – what may work for our call centre operators, may not be suitable for our tradespersons. Identifying training objectives with our business areas is critical to addressing any emerging trends being experienced by our staff, from Sport and Recreation, to Housing and Homelessness Services, to our trades, through to our IT- and office-based employees. Part of the reason the EIC is so successful is because we can tailor and deliver content suited to the audience.

Where to from here?

The EIC will continue to respond and adapt as the HPW workforce profile changes and new risks present in an everchanging work environment. We work with Strive to regularly review our cases and determine the effectiveness of the services provided, including through sustainability reviews – our aim is to keep our people as productive and present at work, throughout life’s challenges, so that we can best deliver positive outcomes to some of Queensland’s most vulnerable people.

Lahnie says, ‘There is never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ solution - our frameworks are very high level, but it is about how these frameworks can work in their individual contexts, as well as being complimentary to the other frameworks in place. Health, safety and wellbeing at HPW is definitely an integrated approach that we take to enhance all three of those fundamentals to ensure that we are helping to create a physically and psychologically safe workplace.’

Every one of us has a role to play in enhancing employee wellbeing and the EIC will continue to build capability and ensure our employees feel safe at work, and the best they can be outside of work.

More information

You can find out more about the Early Intervention Centre program at HPW by email to: Lahnie.Woodlock@hpw.qld.gov.au