Connection crucial in post-pandemic workplaces

Journalist and MC Alicia Loxley, Specialist Sport and Exercise Physician Dr Peter Larkins; AFL Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing Dr Kate Hall, and AIA Australia CEO Damien Mu

As more Victorians balance working at home with the office, wellness and the physical and mental health of employees has never been more important. 

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That’s the clear message of the experts who spoke at the Victorian Chamber’s Wellness in the Workplace breakfast at Crown. Over 250 guests enjoyed a thought-provoking discussion with the CEO and Managing Director of AIA Australia, Damien Mu; Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at the AFL, Dr Kate Hall, and Specialist Sport and Exercise Physician, media commentator and former athlete Dr Peter Larkins.

A clinical psychologist, Dr Hall has overseen mental health and wellbeing at one the most turbulent points in the AFL’s history, when COVID-19 lockdowns forced players to uproot their lives and exist in bubbles with reduced contact with their support networks: “Team sport relies on connection so players can front up and perform. We had to relearn the foundations of wellbeing,” she said

As the head of a leading life insurance provider, Mr Mu is acutely aware of the impacts of mental health on the general population and his own workplace. Mr Mu noted mental health insurance claims are growing 20 per cent year-on-year and are amongst the most common disability claims. Such data insights inform his approach to the “living experiment” of hybrid work and staff retention.

Dr Larkins is one of Australia’s most senior specialist sports physicians and co-founder of the Epworth Sports and Exercise Medicine Group. He said mental health is intimately linked to physical health. “Exercise is medicine,” he said. “Owning a dog can be the best form of exercise.”

Proactive conversation and action

Dr Larkins recently returned from an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) meeting in the United States, where the ongoing health impact of COVID-19 was still just as critical as mental wellbeing.

He said Australian governments spend around $170 billion a year on healthcare, which he referred to as “illness care”. Society should be moving towards the “prevention phase” instead.

Dr Larkins explains that while high-profile cases in the public and media have helped with “critical awareness”, a mental health stigma still exists.

When dealing with employees, he recommends asking a second layer of questions beyond “how are you?” to better assess their wellbeing. Questions such as “how are things at home?” can foster deeper social connectivity, of which Mr Larkins is a huge advocate, citing it is a major factor in populations that live the longest.

Prevention was a key pandemic learning for the AFL, according to Dr Hall. The league had to change from being “responsive to ill health” to better identify unique risks in its environment and driving wellbeing interventions. It adopted a holistic wellbeing approach that included the players’ extended networks and aligning mental fitness alongside physical performance.

One positive from the pandemic, according to Mr Mu, was that COVID kindness became celebrated: “Who thought that would be a competitive advantage?”

Mr Mu emphasises a holistic approach at AIA that encompasses the physical and mental.

Those who take 2,500 steps compared to those who take 7,500 steps are four times more likely to have mental health issues, as are those who drink more than four sugary drinks a day and get less than five hours’ sleep. He said 37 per cent of employees in Australia feel lonely in the workplace and encourages conversation but it “needs to be something people feel”.

For example, in the office staff can pick up a card with a question as a conversation starter, such as “who is your biggest influence?”, which encourages greater connectedness.

AIA also encourages breaks between meetings and no meetings on Fridays to encourage physical movement and a rest.

Purpose and self-compassion

Dr Larkins cites burnout as a consequence of the pandemic and working remotely: “People feel they’re never away from work, laptop or phone.”

He said we needed to talk about `work-life harmony’ rather than `work-life balance’: “two bad things can still balance themselves out”.

Mr Mu admits his company still grapples with staff retention as peoples’ life priorities change post-COVID. While absenteeism is easy to measure, “presenteeism”, where staff are present but not engaged or productive, is more difficult to quantify.

Mr Mu and Dr Hall agree that to feel fulfilled people need a sense of purpose. The latter defines purpose as not only through professional development but within family life and connections outside of work.

She prefers the phrase ‘self-compassion’ over self-care, because the latter has lost its “true purpose”, using her own example of rushing through half an hour of self-designated ‘self-care’ time to get on with other pressing concerns.

Dr Hall defined self-compassion is a person-centred focus that usually involves reconnecting to something deeply meaningful to people such as nature, family and pets. It’s something the AFL recognised and “organisationally had to set a culture”. Leaders had model behaviours such as switching off, taking mental wellbeing days and spending time away from work.

Dr Larkins says it’s important to be “selfish” in the right context. “Selfish can be a positive term when it comes to your greatest asset – your health”.

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