Comcare fast-tracks mental health rollout

By Chris Johnson

Thursday August 13, 2020


Up to 120,000 Commonwealth employees will have access to a new mental health support service and coaching program being fast-tracked due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Comcare has brought forward the rollout of its NewAccess workplaces program, citing a greater and more urgent need for the service as the government continues its response to the coronavirus.

The program has been developed by Beyond Blue, which adapted a successful initiative from the UK.

NewAccess is a non-clinician mental health coaching program using low-intensity cognitive behavioural therapy (LiCBT) – a form of guided self-help mental health service.

It is suitable for people dealing with low levels of depression and anxiety.

Initially due to be rolled out later this year, Comcare has fast-tracked it to support agencies with mental health staff challenges during the current pandemic.

A total of 15 APS departments and agencies of varying sizes are now participating for the next two years. That includes Comcare itself, which is not only leading the program but also taking part in it.

Natalie Bekis, general manager of Comcare’s Strategic Partnerships & Engagement Group said NewAccess was being rolled out into the public sector workplace at a critical time, especially with the number of essential workers increasing during the pandemic.

Natalie Bekis

“The program is participant-led,” she said. “We use marketing and collateral material that an organisation puts up in terms of intranet sites and the usual places to promote wellbeing services.

“The participant rings through to a number. At that number they speak to an assessor who assesses them and puts them through to the program or not. There are assessment criteria that comes with the NewAccess program.

“It is not intended for those who are critically unwell or mentally unwell to the level of suicidal. This is about an early intervention, low intensity service for those who are experiencing low to moderate anxiety or depression.”

There are clinical tools that measure such levels. It is an evidence-based program that can be accessed without a GP referral or a mental health treatment plan.

The service is delivered via phone and telehealth by a non-clinical LiCBT-qualified mental health workforce. An assigned licensed NewAccess coach works with an individual to identify key problems and goals to work on. The coach guides the individual to use self-help resources and supports them in their efforts to change. The structure of the service is aimed at achieving behavioural change and clinical recovery.

An important component of NewAccess is its stepped-care. This ensures that high-risk individuals are stepped-up to higher intensity services such general practice and emergency mental health services, and that individuals who attain recovery during the service are stepped-down to self-care.

“Comcare, being the national work health and safety compensation authority, is co-funding with agencies,” Ms Bekis said.

“Agencies who are participating are paying for service packages, which are around about $1000 per participant.

“There is no cost to the individual participants.

“The program is using actual service providers. There is a consent collection at the beginning of the process where the individual is giving consent. But no identified data is shared with any employer at any point. De-identified data in terms of utilisation numbers, clinical outcomes and recovery rates are shared, but no identified data is shared.

“Obviously, the individual providers themselves are bound by their own privacy and confidentiality rules as well… We know the importance of trust.”

Comcare undertook a six-month trial of the program in 2018-19 that involved 50 participants across two government agencies. The focus of the trial was on discovering if recovery rates in the public sector workplace were comparable with those in community settings where the program had been trialled through Australian Primary Health Networks.

The two participating APS agencies received aggregated and de-identified data to inform potential strategies to improve mental health and wellbeing in their workplaces.

With Beyond Blue, Comcare ran the pilot trial, during which participants received up to six mental health coaching sessions. The results were then independently evaluated by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who determined the trial to have been successful.

PwC found the recovery rate was 78 per cent, meaning 78 per cent of individuals who entered the program experienced significant recovery and exited the program below the threshold for a clinical diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression.

So successful was the recovery rate, it was higher than the 67.5 per cent seen in the Australian community setting. NewAccess was assessed to be an appropriate service for workplace settings. The assessment was that the program delivered high recovery rates, met the needs and expectations of employees, enhanced job satisfaction and productivity, and proved to be economically viable.

The economic viability is an important factor.

“We have invested in a two-year evaluation process, which will have interim evaluation results as well as a final report…” Ms Bekis said.

“We know that there is probably never going to be enough psychologists and psychiatrists to treat everybody who might be feeling a little distressed, particularly now during the pandemic.

“But we also know about health seeking and the stigma associated with mental health issues. So, this program is about addressing that stigma – because the person has control.”

And after the next two years?

“Very good question. I don’t know what happens after the two years,” Ms Bekis said.

“I think it depends on what the journey is over the next two years and what that looks like.

“Certainly, if we think that it’s something that is working, it may be something that other agencies and workplaces look to adopt more broadly…

“I guess what we know at the moment is the mental health landscape is changing and I don’t want to predict what might happen in two years, given the significant changes we have already seen just dealing with the last six months.”


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