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Making mental health matter in the water sector

October is National Mental Health Month in Australia, and members of the water industry are playing their part in ensuring the people who work and operate in the sector are properly supported.

Tim D’Ath, for instance, joined Yarra Valley Water (YVW) a year ago as the utility’s Divisional Manager, Safe and Well. He says his focus has been on helping YVW become more comfortable exploring mental health and mental fitness.

“There was a real appetite from Yarra Valley to focus on psychological safety or psychosocial safety and mental health,” he said.

“They were very confident in their physical safety measures and the conversations they were having around physical safety, but that's casting quite a big shadow over psychological social or mental health.”

Taking these measures proved particularly important in the high-stress moments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think a lot of the things and stressors that people are feeling were there before COVID but they're more comfortable sharing now because COVID has forced us to become more comfortable talking about mental health,” D’Ath said.

The water industry is a particularly customer-oriented one, he observed, but that attention to the public can cause challenges for a utility’s staff.

“While we're putting the customer first, we're failing at times … to identify when we're at risk and failing to identify our self-care needs, we're not giving ourselves a break,” D’Ath said.

“I think that that compounds and builds and then later on, when it comes to COVID and isolation and support networks not being physically around you, that can present as something potentially out of character and that can just really manifest into something that we all need to be more acutely aware of, I think.

“So, we're really focusing on building interventions, we're educating our whole business on psychological stressors and what they are. We've been doing these deep dives with departments to understand what their psychological stressors are, what the triggers are, how to identify those triggers, how to intervene early, how to involve managers and the safety team and it really seems to be working which is great.”

Staying safe and well at work

Another innovation D’Ath has introduced to YVW is to create three Safe and Well committees within the utility that are chaired by executives and deputy executives.

“Those three committees meet every month and they pick up different disciplines, one is operation, one is capital works or projects and one is office safety,” he explained.

Each of these committees has mental health and wellbeing as a standard general item.

“Every month, participants of those committees will start with a wellbeing walk around, so we'll just have a half hour conversation about how we're feeling, what's a challenge for us, what our struggles are,” D’Ath said.

“And the psychosocial safety that's has been built within those three committees means that we can go really deep really quickly, and people are comfortable in making themselves vulnerable and physically emotional, and it just allows for that human connection that we're not physically getting but we're getting through these committees. They're really helping continue this conversation month by month through the business.”

This has helped to embed conversations about mental health throughout the workplace.

Another effort has involved a pilot program conducted in YVW’s retail services team.

“This program … involves about 30 or 40 staff participating in a daily assessment of their workload to identify what the ideal workload level is, where they are tracking day by day with their ideal workloads, what's leading to any shifts above or below that comfortable line,” D’Ath said.

“At the end of it I was looking at the results over a 30-day period and getting some feedback from participants on whether they think the pilot program has assisted them in getting better identification of risk factors and how it helped them, or whether they feel like they could put their hand up and ask for help.”

D’Ath said the pilot has been a success.

“We found it was hugely beneficial in not only understanding our staff, in not only understanding what the risk factors are, but also it's created a lot of momentum around psychological safety, so people are feeling more safe to speak up,” he said.

“We haven't even communicated the final report to the business yet, but we've had requests from three other large groups or business units within the organisation to do the same program with them.”

Championing a positive culture

Western Australian utility Water Corporation has also been focusing on boosting its mental health programs to support the organisation’s staff. This began in 2017 when it partnered with mental health provider Blooming Minds to conduct an audit of its systems and survey employees.

From this, Water Corporation developed a mental health plan that focused on four pillars: awareness and leadership, capability and support, systems and processes, and governance and reporting.

“Water Corporation promotes a positive workplace culture which includes minimising risks related to mental health and providing support for people with mental health conditions,” said Water Corporation Head of Safety and Wellbeing Tony Dennis.

“This aligns to our strategic intent of creating a ‘Safe for All’ work environment, and our vision and purpose of providing a supportive workplace.

In October 2020, the Water Corporation also introduced a Mental Health Champions program that provided online and video conference sessions to approximately 100 employees.

Dennis described the feedback to the program as “incredibly positive” and that Water Corporation will conduct a further intake for the program in 2022.

“The focus is not just on crisis support, but also wellbeing promotion and illness preventions, playing an active role in building a positive culture and human centred workplace to help our people thrive,” he said.

Dennis also highlighted the significant impact that workplace culture can have on employees’ wellbeing and effectiveness and the importance of creating a culture that embraces and encourages positive connections between employees and the broader organisation.

Creating conversations

For YVW's part, D’Ath pointed to the benefits of creating a safe environment within a workplace.

“I think good mental health in the water industry is about just having a conversation and continuing the conversation despite where you're sitting along the continuum,” D’Ath said.

“Because it can change — we can be languishing, we can be thriving, we can be struggling — and the next day it can change completely.”