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A three-tier approach to mental health

Events of our recent collective memory have entailed a barrage of stressors. From floods to fires and, of course, a global pandemic and its resulting pressures, these events have been felt by everyone to varying degrees – and most significantly, have underscored just how important attention to mental health and wellbeing truly is.

Presenting at Ozwater’21, Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) Manager Performance Improvement Peter Gee discussed the creation of a mental health framework that is exemplary not just in the water industry, but more generally as well.

“As far as we know, no other industry has been able to put together an agreed industry-wide strategy on mental health,” he said.

The water industry has always been focused on health and safety, but recent events “have just demonstrated why we need to focus on the wellbeing and mental health of our people.”

The industry’s aim is to create and provide a strategic approach that offers guidance.

“Essentially, the water industry mental health framework is a pipeline of actions through which an organisation can navigate to develop a strategy and process to really promote and instill changes in their organisation around mental health,” explains Gee.

The pipeline, which consists of a series of actions that can be implemented, was developed in line with Safe Work Australia’s guidance material on workplace mental health and safety.

“The framework is based on a model developed by Safe Work Australia, which is around prevention, support and intervention – so, kind of a three-tiered approach to mental health,” he adds.

Organised around these three key pillars, the actions (focused on eight key areas) lay out how organisations can create and foster workplaces conducive to positive mental health.

“It goes through an end-to-end process,” explained Gee. “At the start it talks about developing the strategy, such as governance and leadership; then it talks about action [such as leveraging digital technology and so forth].”

Collaboration built in

It’s an approach that doesn’t simply conclude with the creation of a formal framework or practical steps to implement.

“There’s been a recognition that there’s so much work to do,” says Gee. “What we have uncovered though, is a strategic approach to addressing it – and a greater need for collaboration not just within our own sector but with our partners like Beyond Blue and Mates in Construction and also with other industries.”

External collaborators Beyond Blue have given WSAA’s framework their endorsement, and it’s a seal of approval that Gee sees as having benefit for other industries too.

“All organisations are facing the same pressures. We’re operating under very similar environments, but the silver lining of all this has really been shining a light on the importance of mental health.”

And the increased attention to mental health has already seen a high level of internal adoption of the framework among WSAA members – and will be measured going forward.

“What we’re doing across the industry over the next six months is actually then benchmarking where the industry is at across the pipeline,” explains Gee.

People focused

While there are many parameters through which mental health’s importance can be looked at, its impact on the people in the water industry is key.

“People are our most important asset in our industry,” says Gee. “We have a duty of care and we need to really promote their working life and also make sure that we focus on our community and our own employees.

“This has been a collaborative effort to raise the profile of mental health in the industry and share what we can, and really to signal to our staff to say, ‘we care about you, we’re going to invest in you and we’re going to do everything that we can to promote your mental health at work and to improve it’.”

But perhaps most importantly, the uptake of the framework has been spearheaded by water industry leaders.

“Engagement of our leaders was part of the process. It had to be leaders getting up and talking about what’s important to them, otherwise it’s just lip service.”

Ultimately, the mental health framework is a proactive initiative to lead the culture of the water industry into a new era where safety naturally includes mental wellbeing, and its continued adoption and measurement will benefit both the industry and those working in it.