Public servants should take a wellbeing-led approach to COVID-19 recovery, leaders say

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday April 29, 2021

The average employed Australian did 6.13 hours of unpaid work each week in 2021, an increase from 4.62 hours in 2019. 
The average employed Australian did 6.13 hours of unpaid work each week in 2021. (Image: Adobe/Rido)

The Victorian Public Service should take a wellbeing-centred approach to the economic and social recovery from COVID-19, while also better supporting the wellbeing of its own workforce, according to public sector leaders.

Speaking at the IPAA Victoria Public Sector Summit on Wednesday, WorkSafe Victoria chief executive Colin Radford, Victorian Public Sector commissioner Adam Fennessy, and The Wellbeing Outfit founder Jono Nicholas discussed some of the wellbeing-related challenges and opportunities that have been highlighted by the pandemic.

Radford called out the media and the broader public’s poor treatment of public servants during COVID-19, which was part of a growing, and concerning, trend. While bureaucrats were working in overdrive to deliver services during the pandemic, they faced a “level of public scrutiny and commentary that was likewise, unprecedented”.

“I’m not for a second suggesting that public servants should not be accountable. In fact, quite the opposite. But that accountability does not extend to the sort of bullying, harassment and vilification that many of our people face every day, simply for doing their jobs,” Radford said.

“Every actor it seems is neatly confined to the role of hero or villain, and far too often, the villain in this narrative is a public servant, who is merely doing what is required of them in implementing or communicating the policy and decisions of the government of the day.”

But public sector leaders are not just accountable to the public, they are also legally responsible for providing their staff with a workplace that is free from physical and psychological harm, Radford said, noting that WorkSafe claims data has shown that mental injuries in the public sector are outstripping the private sector by almost three to one.

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

Based on its own data, the Victorian Public Sector Commission is currently working on ways to improve wellbeing within the organisation and across the state public service.

The VPSC’s most recent annual people matter survey was conducted in October, as Victoria was emerging from its second deep lockdown. The official results of the survey will be published in the coming weeks.

The survey was adapted to focus on wellbeing. Aside from the usual questions on demographics, employees were asked about work-related stress, emotional effects of work, psychological safety, engagement and satisfaction, the impact of COVID-19 on working arrangements, as well as the transition back to offices.

It also asked about a number of negative behaviours, including bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, violence, and aggression, with specific categories ranging from incivility and withholding essential information to intimidation and verbal abuse.

Fennessy noted that negative behaviours have been a consistent challenge in the Victorian government, and the survey has shown that COVID was no different. The data presents the opportunity for the VPS to design responses to tackle these issues.

“There’s some very confronting data in there, and it’s very important that we understand and absorb that data,” he said.

“To take that seriously, we need to know exactly what we’re working with, and then have things to do about that.

“Change only works when it’s embedded in the behaviours of teams and led from the top by leaders, as well as relentlessly measured, monitored and tracked.”

Surprisingly, the survey also revealed that reports of high or severe work-related stress were generally consistent with previous years. However, in the case of senior executives, for example, there was an increase in stress due to their role during the pandemic. That knowledge enabled the VPSC to target specific wellbeing support for senior executives, Fennessy said.

The VPSC has worked across Victorian government departments to publish a wellbeing toolkit for managers, which compliment’s WorkSafe’s WorkWell toolkit. Fennessy said anyone can access those resources, and has encouraged public sector organisations to lead by example when it comes to wellbeing.

READ MORE: How COVID-19 accelerated the Victorian Public Service’s flexible work journey

Leading by example

In the spirit of leading by example, Radford and Fennessy gave their tips on looking after their mental health while working from home.Radford noted that working from home takes away many of the physical cues that come with working from an office, such as commuting. Not having those breaks can prevent people from switching off, and often results in staff working overtime.

To “break the routine” and ensure that his brain switches off, Radford meditates and practices mindfulness at the start and end of each day. Meanwhile, Fennessy exercises and meditates at the start of the day, and has a cup of tea with a Turkish Delight chocolate bar to signify the end of the day. He also encourages staff to talk about the ways that they set boundaries during their work day.

Building on that, Nicholas highlighted the importance of fostering an ideal work culture, particularly during this era of increased remote work. One way that he promotes a culture of wellbeing is ensuring staff don’t receive emails outside of their work hours. For example, if Nicholas wants to send an email over the weekend, he will schedule it to arrive in staff inboxes on Monday morning.

“So if I want to send [an email] on a Saturday to get it off of my plate and off my cognitive load, that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to receive it on their cognitive load. So there are very very simple practices that individuals, teams and organisations can put into place to build up the right systems,” he said.

Nicholas said that to move forward following the pandemic, public sector leaders should build mental health or wellbeing plans for their organisation using the data from staff surveys. Then, they should map out what the ideal state of the organisation is, and what it looks like when it’s at its best. Finally, they should identify the interventions that can best contribute to achieving that ideal state, and compare it to the organisation’s current state.

He also recommended that leaders support their staff to develop practices that promote wellbeing, and that managers and leaders undergo training on psychological safety.

READ MORE: Victoria commits to establishing Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission

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