On Wednesday, 9 June IPAA Queensland was pleased to host a webinar in partnership with McKinsey & Company on the issue of workplace mental health. Mental health is a hot topic and for good reason – the impacts of mental ill-health are profound, affecting individuals, organisations, employers, and society.

The recent Inquiry into Mental Health conducted by the Productivity Commission (PC) identified five broad, mutually reinforcing areas for reform – prevention and early intervention, mental healthcare, services beyond the health system, mentally healthy workplaces, and reforms to the overarching system of architecture. The PC noted that psychological health and safety at work should be AS important as physical health and safety at work.

Mental health conditions are the leading cause of absence from the workplace in Australia. For the individuals affected, their performance and careers are likely to suffer significantly. According to the PC, workplaces in Australia lose $17 billion each year due to absenteeism and lost productivity from mental ill-health. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation and new challenges have emerged.

Our speakers included Alistair Carmichael and Fiona Lander from McKinsey, the Queensland Mental Health Commissioner Ivan Frkovic and Sam Popple from the Office of Industrial Relations Psychological Health Unit.

Moderated by McKinsey’s Kimberley Swords, speakers shared their experiences, insights and practical advice for creating mentally healthy workplaces.

Some excerpts from the discussion are provided below.

On your interest and passion in mental health?


I trained as a social worker … and worked really hard in the field of social work. But primarily the last 30 years I’ve spent in mental health … a lot of my focus has been about public mental health services, non-government services in responding to people at the more severe end of the spectrum when people are experiencing moderate to severe elements of mental illness.

 We can’t keep parking the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.

But throughout that 30-year journey, clearly there’s been a recognition and we’ve all recognized that around that, you know, we can’t keep parking the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. We won’t have enough ambulances to be able to do this unless we start to move a system around promoting wellness and prevention, but also intervening early, to move our focus upstream.

Trying to focus around supporting people in the places where they live, work and play, and I think the critical aspect there is around work. How do we ensure that work is an environment that both supports your mental health, but also protects you against some other sort of more psychological or mental health challenges?

I’m quite proud that we as a [Queensland Mental Health] Commission are supporting a range of these things happening in Queensland. Along with government agencies, the Public Service Commission and the Office of Industrial Relations in particular … I think in Queensland we are leading in many ways.

So that’s where I’m coming from, that’s my passion.


I’ve got lived experience with mental health challenges and I think that knowing what it is when it goes well and when it goes poorly, I think make can make a big difference in making it real. What gets me out of bed in the morning? What keeps me doing the role that I do? It’s about unlocking the hidden potential within people.

There is so much more that an organization or individuals can achieve than they often think possible and one of the biggest handbrakes that we see on it is [poor] mental health outcomes and poor work placement outcomes. I’ve seen that in places that I’ve worked … and so looking at McKinsey I’ve been leading us on the journey, driving our program across our 34,000 people, including our research and publishing.

And as individuals, we all have a role to play in creating a workplace system that is mentally healthy.  And there are so many things that we can each do.


I actually started out as a nurse and was working in intensive care for many years and we started looking at patient safety and it was only really as I was looking at how workplaces are constructed and how nurses and doctors and physios and everybody worked together … and how patient safety is entirely dependent on the people that are working together for the patients.

That got me thinking around the role of organisations and workplaces, how we can set them up for success and set them up in such a way and design them in such a way that you don’t just get those individual outcomes. That it’s not just good for the people that work in those areas, but it’s also good for business, for productivity, and you know from nursing, it’s good for patients.

That led me into my journey to retrain as a psychologist and as an organisational psychologist…. There is so much value in thinking about the role of people at work. We spend so much time at work, it’s integral to people’s identity and how people connect with others. The relationships and the quality of those relationships can make such a difference to people. And coming from a regulator aspect, it’s how do we set that up? How do we set that up where we can actually get social change and we can get good mental health and address psychosocial hazards at every level.


I’m an engagement manager at McKinsey and Company. I suppose my insights into mental health and workplace mental health came about through my many and varied careers to date. Working as a doctor, junior doctors are not particularly known for their wellbeing … so to some extent experiencing that firsthand, the ups and downs of that. I also worked as a commercial lawyer for a while and was really interested to see it from the other side and to see how often mental illness was involved in unfair dismissal and claims and how badly it was dealt with.

I spent a good deal of my time before McKinsey with the United Nations … in Australia, by contrast, we have all the resources at our disposal, we can tackle this if informed, and yet there’s this real inertia and stigma that gets in the way.

The evidence is all there … we know what the risk factors are, we know what many of the good interventions are and what they look like, so the real question becomes, what’s actually stopping us from getting on top of the problem and actually implementing these solutions?

I’ve been really lucky at McKinsey to be able to do a lot of work on improving workplace mental health, particularly the partnership we have with the Black Dog Institute on trying to understand the risks and factors for workplace mental ill-health and the interventions that you can deploy.

The thing that I found so encouraging is that the evidence is all there and you know, we know what the risk factors are. We know what many of the good interventions are and what they look like, and so the real question becomes, well, what’s actually stopping us from getting on top of the problem and actually implementing these solutions?

From my perspective a lot of it is fear and a lot of it is shame.

On actions to build stronger more mentally healthy workplaces

Starting a conversation


The starting point for me is coming with empathy and creating the space for when they’re ready … that they’re OK to have a conversation. So find the right space, share your observations, don’t fall into the trap of assumptions or labeling or judging.  Ask them what it is that they want or what they need, rather than thinking that you have the answers for them.


It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s not judgmental. It’s what do you need right now to bring your best self to work. And if someone is in a place where they want to talk about their experience in condition, then they can. Similarly, if they’re in a place where they don’t want to, it gives them a nice way through it to say “Look today’s not the day where I need to talk about this. Today I just need to put my head down and do my job.”


I think providing the environment where people feel comfortable that they can externalize some of these issues with someone at work, you know in the environment where they spend most of their time. It’s a really critical opportunity I think both for the individual but also for the work environment – creating those norms and culture within the organisation where people feel comfortable to be able to bring those things up.

I’ll go out on limb here and say all of us here today are on the spectrum of vulnerability, and particularly as a result of Covid. The Productivity Commission report has a beautiful graph which talks about before Covid there was about 15 million people who were well and psychologically strong but there was about 6 million who were vulnerable. … People can’t separate that vulnerability when they come to work, they’re still going to be vulnerable, so we need to deal with it.

I think we’ve got to get a level of confidence in our workforce that you don’t have to be a clinician to start the conversation  …. In actual fact, it’s about the relationship …  at the individual level, the team level, at the organizational level. These relationships are critical, so I think the message if we could get out to everybody is about supporting people and to understand that it’s OK to have the conversation, give them the confidence to be able to support that person … You don’t have to be a clinician to start the conversation.


I’ve been trained in mental health … but how do I actually have the conversation? What does that conversation look like? … What if someone says I’m not OK? How do you make sure you create the right conditions for that discussion?

Your task isn’t to problem solve for the individual …  Don’t dive in and say ‘OK, well, we’re going to organise every two weeks….’  Leave people to do that. Just sit with it right, which is very uncomfortable at first, but you do need to get used to that discomfort and then at the right time start to move towards how are we going to work together to do something to help you here …?


From a legislative perspective, organisations have a duty to make sure that they keep their staff, their employees healthy and safe, and that includes their psychological health as much as their physical health.

The stigma associated with mental ill-health


I think the most important thing in terms of creating the space where people who you know are on that spectrum of vulnerability at a given time is to make sure that it’s not all on the individual … the additional overlay of having to navigate who is going to be sympathetic and friendly and who’s not. If the first person you try isn’t the right person … it’s just hugely demoralizing….  We need to take the burden off the individual.


If there’s been one positive out of the pandemic, it’s been that we’ve seen a clear reduction in stigma. … We’ve seen that translating to help-seeking behavior, the demand for services which is causing us other problems for services and supports, not just clinical, is huge … demand has increased, so I think stigma around the high prevalence disorders, particularly around depression, anxiety, and that type is actually reducing.

And the case we make is that you can’t have economic recovery without human and social recovery. And a large proportion of that is mental health.

Tools, techniques and practical steps

Everywhere you look, there is some conversation around mental health, which is just a really exciting opportunity for us because I think you know it’s the cusp of social change. We’ve got people who have got this understanding and awareness. There has been a lot happening in the promotion piece, but it’s like – what do we do now?

To create mentally healthy workplaces, speakers discussed the importance of understanding an organisation’s risk factors for poor mental health outcomes. Organisations that really look for the root causes in amongst these risk factors and design interventions around them get much better outcomes.

Drawing from McKinsey’s recent paper, Out of the shadows: Sustainably improving workplace mental health paper Alistair spoke about each of the five steps:

  1. Understand your organization’s core risks – what are the risk factors?
  2. Be integrated and holistic in the actions you take (it’s not just “HR’s problem”, it takes a whole workplace)
  3. Use your workforce data to personalize interventions (employees are not “one size fits all”)
  4. Co-design interventions and solutions (unlock the wisdom of your people)
  5. With the blurring of work and home, bring the workplace’s community into your solutions.?

Sam spoke to some of the practical resources developed by OIR.

The People At Work tool is Australia’s first validated psychological risk assessment survey for businesses over 20 employees. The survey is a part of a five-step process that can be used to identify, assess and control risks to psychological health at work.

The Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit  provides practical tools and resources that employers, managers and leaders can use to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces.

I also want to go to the other side of the coin there they are the risks for for mental health but also keep in mind that work is also positive for your mental health. Works gives purpose, hope, meaning in life, social connections. It makes you feel good about yourself. It’s a reason why you get up in the morning…. Yes, there are risks … but we create work environments where people can thrive and where people can flourish. Ivan

Understanding what issues there may be at work at any particular time. You’re only ever going to find that out if you ask the workers, that’s your best intelligence. Then you know when you’re working out if role overload, for instance, is an issue for your workplace or group conflict is an issue, or whether it’s about bullying … That’s where the gold is really … how we can actually move this from a risk area to a flourishing area. There’s a continuum … it’s just moving from a legislative (regulatory) point of view where is that there is a duty for workplaces to focus on this to mentally healthy workplaces where people can thrive. Sam

Additional resources that may be of interest –

How to ask R U OK?

National Workplace Initiative – National Mental Health Commission In the 2019-20 Federal Budget the Government announced an investment of $11.5 million over four years for the National Workplace Initiative (NWI). The NWI provides a nationally consistent approach to workplace mental health.

Heads Up Heads Up is all about giving individuals and businesses the tools to create more mentally healthy workplaces. This website provides a wide range of resources, information and advice for individuals and organisations – all of which are designed to offer simple, practical and, importantly, achievable guidance.

A small business owner’s guide to creating a mental health and wellbeing plan | Queensland Mental Health Commission (qmhc.qld.gov.au) The information contained in the resources can help small business people develop a mental health plan. It includes advice to help owners and staff sustain their own mental health and wellbeing, and information on where to turn for additional support. It was developed in partnership between the Queensland Mental Health Commission, the Queensland Small Busines Commissioner, Department of Employment, Small Business and Training, and Beyond Blue. It is based on an adaptation of a resource developed by the Victorian Small Business Commission.

If you’re a Queensland public sector employee who would like some practical learning, consider participating in the Everyday conversations for healthy minds. This microlearning program supports leaders to develop the skills to create a mentally healthy work environment through their everyday interactions with colleagues. Check it out!