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  • James Judge

Mental health and suicide prevention in the workplace (with Rachael McMahon and Connie Galati)



In this month's episode I'm thrilled to be talking (again) to Rachael McMahon, Director and Principal Psychologist with the Australian Public Service (APS) Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit and Connie Galati, a Senior Clinical Psychologist with that same unit.


They're both incredibly informed and passionate about building awareness and capability in mental health awareness and suicide prevention and what the unit has achieved since its foundation in mid 2021 is remarkable (with evaluations revealing over 90% of participants reporting a positive shift in their suicide prevention capability).


In this discussion we talk about societal attitudes to discussing mental health issues, the stigma that can sometimes be associated with disclosure and the negative impact this may have, or be perceived to have, on careers. Rachael makes the point that as our knowledge and understanding of mental health grows people are becoming more likely to disclose, to speak up and get help.


"I think young people entering our workforce has really impacted on this. A lot of them have grown up with a high level of mental health literacy and actually have pretty high expectations for the workplace in relation to how we provide support."

Her view is that we've actually made a lot of progress in this regard and points to some key initiatives to counteract stigma which have lived experience at their centre. Role modelling by leaders can play a crucial role in disclosure and demonstrating that you can have mental ill health, and still perform. It's really changing the culture of workplaces in the right direction.


Connie point out that there's a big focus now on capability uplift. Often people are unsure abut how to have the conversations around mental health and perhaps need a bit of a mental model or road map to do that. In addition, an understanding of who needs to undertake this capability uplift has developed and changed.


"... it's not just people in clinical or front line or manager roles but all of us in the workforce can more generally can benefit from learning skills to have these conversations."

We also explore how their unit came into being, started with an evidence informed, whole of service review - noting that the APS is one of Australia's biggest employers and does a range of diverse work across many fields, places and involving different occupations. This led to the development of a framework of six domains that provides an overarching architecture that agencies can draw on.


These domains represent the continuum of mental health, from wellness to illness, and three enabling domains specific to the APS context. The latter focus on leadership and governance, evaluation and continuous improvement, and the building of literacy and capability in staff - all critical in supporting successful change initiatives.


The unit also develops its own range of products and programs under these domains including practice guides that give enterprise level implementation advice on particular mental health and wellbeing topics (e.g. dealing with objectionable material, supporting staff post emotionally impactful events and how to implement workplace, peer support programs). Delivering capability uplift programs building on this has also become part of the unit's ongoing work.


We discuss the importance of corporate governance systems in embedding good approaches to mental health at work. Rachael point out that often, mental health capability is focussed at the individual level,


"...we see a really busy landscape of lots of training and lots of capability offerings but what we really need to emphasise and illuminate is the critical component of well written policy and procedures"

Some of this can be obvious, such as a written procedure for staff to follow on responding to someone after an incident but some is less obvious, like having a reasonable adjustment policy for people in the workplace that might need support when encountering mental health challenges.


That's not to say that building capability isn't important but in these situations, you don't want to just leave this to individuals and training courses. Corporate governance is an organisational enabler and one that can often be missed. It's here that organisations can be really creative in supporting people at work and lean into the complexities of these issues.


"...it's complex, and that's OK, with good governance we can lean into that. We know that people will become unwell in our work systems, whether that's because of work but more often because of stuff that's happening outside of work but the workplace is a really important place for people to access help".

Corporate governance may often be seen as the 'boring' part of mental health and suicide prevention, but it's vital and it also links to implementation approaches. That's were continuous improvement comes in.


Often we have advanced policy thinking but we lag when it comes to implementation. Corporate governance asks us to think about how we take the knowledge and insights that we have and turn it into action that drives behaviour change.


The conversation also covers,

  • some of the most common reservation encountered when people attempt to address or broach mental health issues at work,

  • dealing with anxiety in having conversations about mental health and demystifying mental health by creating a language that isn't a technical language of diagnosis,

  • moving away from the traditional suicide prevention focus (on what clinicians and health professionals can do) to a focus on early intervention based on inclusion and connection,

  • their development of an early intervention capability program built on skills and concepts drawing on inclusion and connection, trauma informed engagement, psychological first aid, self care and neuroscience, and

  • new initiatives they will be working on in 2023 in suicide prevention using human centred design to build peer support networks.


For those who want to take a deeper look into what the Unit is doing, I highly recommend checking out the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Unit's website which lays out the Capability Framework they have put together, discusses the Practice Guides that set out contemporary approaches to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff and has information relating to Compassionate Foundations, a bespoke approach to building suicide prevention capability.


I should point out that not all this information is immediately accessible to people outside the APS but the unit can be contacted via email at MHSP@apsc.gov.au


If you or someone you know needs help, Lifeline run a 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention service that can be reached on 13 11 14.


I hope you find the conversation informative.


Let me know of other topics you'd like me to explore?





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