Mental Health Australia CEO Leanne Beagley explains how public sector leaders can manage their mental health while supporting their team

By Shannon Jenkins

February 25, 2021

Leanne Beagley

Enabling team discussions about the impacts of stress and the challenges that employees face can normalise conversations about mental health and help staff feel supported, according to Mental Health Australia CEO Leanne Beagley.

Speaking at the latest Mandarin Talks event, Beagley, a former director of mental health at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, reflected on her own challenging experience of grieving while also being a leader.

She was the CEO of another organisation, and her husband of 35 years died after a short illness. Beagley chose to return to work because her job was familiar territory.

“I knew who I was when I was at work, I didn’t really know who I was as a new widow,” she said.

“Work became a really important place for me to keep going and get a sense of keeping going, rather than falling in a hole.”

Beagley found that her team members felt empowered by her capacity to acknowledge what she was going through.

“It made a difference that I had confided in them, and I had been vulnerable about my own processes. So, what I’d say to leaders is, this is not about having therapy with your staff. This is just about saying, ‘This is tough guys, I’m finding it tough, is anyone else finding it tough?’”

Being honest doesn’t make leaders vulnerable in their decision-making, she said, but it does create a sense of humanity, and sets a trust framework with staff that can “go a long way”.

Supporting each other while working from home

The pandemic saw many public servants, for the first time ever, working from home for extended periods of time. For this reason, combined with an increased demand for services, public servants have found the ability to “draw a line in the sand between what is work and what is home time” really challenging, Beagley said.

One way Beagley and her organisation have managed mental health while working from home has been ensuring that team members have regular conservations online, that aren’t necessarily work-related. They also alternate days for employees to catch up in the office.

“One of the things that we’ve really needed to do is elevate the conversations, not assume. So talk about, how is it working, how is it not, having some individual arrangements about when we are at the office and when we’re not. Identifying team-based activities and those kinds of things that you do when you stand in the kitchen and you get your cup of tea, and you have a chat, which you don’t have when you’re working from home,” she said.

“I actually think people ought to be working together on that balance and identifying what works for some people, and what works for other people, and how you do that together as a team.”

For leaders, it’s important to support staff while managing changes in the workplace by over-communicating and including employees. When leaders fail to communicate about the decisions and work that is occurring and how it fits within the values of their organisation, staff don’t feel engaged.

“And we know from workplace research in the past, that the more agency you have yourself in how your work is rolling out, and how you can impact on your organisation’s directions, the more positive you are about your work and about your own contribution to it,” Beagley said.

Signs to look out for

There are a number of signs that staff can look out for that may indicate their colleagues are suffering from stress or poor mental health and are in need of support. These colleagues could be:

  • Becoming less social and more withdrawn,
  • Making simple mistakes,
  • Missing from a situation when they’re expected to be there,
  • Hinting that they’re not doing well,
  • Having trouble switching off,
  • Experiencing disrupted sleep.

Where it appears that a colleague is suffering from more than just work-related stress or general stress — through behaviours such as feeling that the world is unsafe, reliving trauma, and being overly alert — then they may need to seek professional support, Beagley noted.

“The important piece is about how it affects their work on a day-to-day basis and what support can be provided in a workplace context, and when it might need to be followed up in a private context,” she said.

“I think when you’ve worked with someone for a while in a team you can tell when things have changed, and you can say to them, ‘Is everything alright? Is everything okay?’

“The stronger teams are the ones where they already have those conversations and that trust exists between workers and their managers and leaders around how they’re coping and how they’re feeling. For leaders, the challenge is about building that trust and ensuring that there is a safe confiding space to talk about those sorts of issues.”

However, Beagley noted that it’s important to not overstep the mark, and to remember that there is a social aspect to the working relationship. She suggested talking about these issues as a team so that individuals don’t feel like they’re being watched or scrutinised, and so that the challenges become shared problems rather than individual struggles.

“There are things you could just talk about together as a team … Things like the feeling of being disconnected, or exhausted from lack of sleep, or challenges concentrating, and so on,” she said.

“Talk together rather than saying, ‘I’ve noticed these things in you. Is there a problem?’ So, you know, I just encourage you to talk about it, normalise it, and talk about it as a team.”

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