How was the need identified?
Following several suicides in the organisation over a short period of time, with significant emotional and psychological impacts on the business, EQ reviewed how it was providing support to employees to manage their mental health and wellbeing, to see what more could be done. A small working group was formed comprising union representatives, senior leaders and representatives, and was tasked with developing a strategy and action plan for the organisation.
What actions have been taken to develop the program?
James says, ‘just as you would if you had a problem with a vehicle, you’d contact the fleet department or if you had a problem with your pay, you’d contact the payroll department – it made sense to have designated roles in EQ where employees with mental health issues could contact someone directly for support and assistance.’ An initial step for EQ was the establishment of two dedicated mental health advocate roles.
Following this step, a plan was developed looking at the most pressing need of suicide prevention. EQ looked to the existing program of MATES in Construction, a national program that has been in place for 10 years and in conjunction with them EQ developed Australia’s first Mates in Energy program (the program). It was agreed that the program would be piloted in EQ and adapted more broadly to the energy industry. EQ identified there were many similarities in the construction and energy sectors including the employee profiles.
With suicide prevention a major component of the plan, the program was also expanded to include the management of other mental health issues in the workplace, plus maintaining and enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of employees who are well.
What does the program consist of?
EQ through Mates in Energy provides a one-hour general mental health awareness session for all employees (7500 statewide), covering the research and information around suicide, suicide prevention and other mental health issues in Australia. James says, ‘when we developed the plan we wanted to keep it simple and straight forward. It’s important we increase the awareness for our employees, what to do for people who are struggling and what to put in place to support employees. Over the past two and a half years suicide prevention has been a core theme and focus and we’ve reached about 80% of the EQ workforce through the mental health awareness sessions. We’ll continue to offer these as one avenue to inform and educate our employees.’
One of the opportunities for EQ has been what to do to keep the conversations going with employees and how to make sure the training is relevant. EQ has engaged with Roses in the Ocean – Life in mind Australia a lived experience organisation around suicide prevention. EQ identified a number of employees, who would be willing to participate as part of a lived experience group who have been impacted personally by the suicide of a family member, friend or work colleague.
Participants attend a five-day series of training sessions to learn how to tell their story safely and feel ok. It’s a way to enhance the story telling and EQ is able to add these lived experiences as another avenue of advocacy and support through the program. With approval from the participants, EQ has included some lived experience stories on their Intranet and is part of the evidence base and resources available. It is another way to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues and helping to inform employees.
From the outset, there has been strong support for the program from the executive leadership team, including the executive general manager. Monthly face-to-face meetings are maintained between the mental health advocates and the executive general manager and quarterly with the chief executive officer to review and discuss the progress of the program ensuring the executive leadership team and more broadly the EQ board are kept informed. James commented, ‘there has been buy-in right throughout the agency with employees, supervisors, managers and executives willing to support initiatives and participate in the program.’
What have been the lessons learned and where to from here?
While the program is relatively new, research into the effectiveness of the program has been undertaken, including mental health and wellbeing employee surveys using benchmarked data (Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, World Health Organisation Wellbeing Index, perceptions of bullying in the workplace).
James says, ‘in some areas we’re doing well and other areas we can improve. Results continue to pave the way for the program blueprint and inform how we can do better. One thing is clear and that is success for EQ has been the opportunity for employees to be able to have the conversations openly in the workplace, acknowledge that people do struggle and to be linked up with support.’
The program has benefits not only in the workplace, but also has positive impacts that many more people have access to information, greater insights and awareness of mental health issues they can take home to their family, friends, sporting and community settings.
One future focus is on increasing the awareness and development of EQ leaders. A goal will be to provide tools and resources and build greater skills for managers and supervisors to support and assist employees who have mental health issues. Strengthening the support network for employees will help to duplicate several of the functions and services currently undertaken by the mental health advocates across EQ’s state-wide footprint.
As well as supporting employees with mental health issues, more broadly, EQ is looking to maintain the level of health and wellbeing for all EQ employees.
James says, ‘we need to invest in the health and wellbeing of all employees, working through supervisors and managers to keep people well. It’s another avenue of support through the program and we would expect this to have a positive impact. We need to be able to respond to the needs of employees, including prevention of mental health issues. We’re not at the ‘gold standard’ yet and there’s more work to do to at EQ to continue to improve the health and wellbeing of employees.’
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about the Mates in Energy program at Energy Queensland.