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Safeguard Magazine

Comment—Framework required

FELICITY CAIRD suggests a New Zealand framework for workplace mental health could assist directors to address the issue.

It’s now more than two years since the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 came into force. We’ve seen board directors recognise their explicit responsibilities under the Act to proactively manage workplace health and safety.

Directors have to ensure the workplaces for the 2.63 million workers in this country are, so far as is reasonably practicable, healthy and safe.

It’s not just the spectre of personal liability for a breach of duty that has made health and safety leadership a top priority but a recognition that all workers should go home from work safely, and that driving cultural change is the key to safer workplaces.

Through our annual Director Sentiment Survey we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of boards that consider they have the capability to comply with obligations under the Act, from 51% in 2014 to 76% in 2017.

This is a welcome trend but new challenges will continue to emerge and we need to stay vigilant. The key is leadership and ensuring a safety culture way of thinking. Health and safety isn’t something we can tick off – it takes ongoing focus and a culture of continuous improvement.

The Institute of Directors is among a number of agencies collaborating to raise awareness about health and safety. We work closely with the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, WorkSafe NZ and other government agencies.

To help directors lead on health and safety, the IoD has partnered with them each year to run roadshows and workshops around the country on health and safety governance. Three years on we are still seeing strong interest and engagement, with roadshows this year fully subscribed.

ATTENTION SHIFTING

We are now seeing attention shifting from hazards and risks to also focus on the mental health and wellbeing of workers. This is a challenging area for our country. We have shocking suicide statistics, which have continued to increase in recent years – 606 New Zealanders took their lives in 2016/17. That number is shocking, but it’s just one indicator of a mammoth and prevalent issue which we must address as a country, including in the workplace.

Just recently Vince Arbuckle, deputy chief executive Government Health and Safety Lead, helped launch a guide on mental health for New Zealand leaders, and one on maintaining health and wellbeing.

The Canadian example is encouraging, where a voluntary standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace has been adopted. Mary Deacon from Bell, Canada’s largest telecommunications company, visited Wellington recently to talk about Bell’s experience leading change. In 2015 Bell committed $100 million to support new mental health research, workplace best practices, anti-stigma programmes, and improved care and access.

In Canada those leading companies, industries and institutions that committed to the standard found productivity improvements. Their financial performance, risk management, retention and recruitment also improved.

FRAMEWORK IDEA

Maybe we need such a standard or framework in New Zealand. As a start it could:

  • • 
    raise awareness and understanding of mental health in the workplace;
  • • 
    help identify and address the psychological and social risks that contribute to mental ill-health and wellbeing;
  • • 
    develop skills among managers to deal with mental health issues in the workplace;
  • • 
    help support employers to develop more resilient workplaces where mental health and wellbeing is a priority.

The Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction was established this year to identify unmet needs and develop recommendations for a better mental health and addiction system for Aotearoa New Zealand. It received over 5500 submissions and is due to report soon. Perhaps it will provide the opportunity to make a step change.

Felicity Caird is manager of the Governance Leadership Centre with the Institute of Directors in Wellington.

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