How this global company is setting up a domino effect of happiness

This article has been developed in collaboration with Heads Up, an initiative of beyondblue and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance.
Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images.

Workplace safety is a big issue for many companies. There are frequent briefings, lots of charts and drills, and copious safety gear. But until recently, the emphasis has mostly focused on physical health and well-being, rather than mental health — despite the fact one in five Australians will experience a mental health condition this year.

Sodexo, an organisation that provides on-site services such as facilities management and catering, is trying to change the conversation around mental health in the workplace. The company is proud of its safety record, having gone more than two years without a Lost Time Injury, and is now trying to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health by including it in the concept of health in the workplace.

“We’ve always looked at safety as physical, but about two years ago we started recognising that mental health and well-being was critically important as well,” says Nick O’Callaghan, Sodexo’s Australia country president.

“When we were exposed to beyondblue’s Heads Up initiative we started learning some of the statistics, which are nothing short of alarming. Being a good corporate citizen alone would make you act.”

The numbers are alarming on both a personal and business level. In any one year one million Australians will suffer from depression and two million will experience anxiety. Much of this is left untreated, and on top of health risks, will cost Australian businesses $10.9 billion in absenteeism, compensation and most of all reduced productivity.

To meet this challenge and foster a greater conversation around mental health in the workplace, Sodexo launched a campaign called I Hear You. The program included pledges from executives as well as ongoing information, training and support for identifying and dealing with mental health issues in the workplace and beyond.

“The goal of I Hear You is to remove that stigma that is often associated with mental health, with a fairly straightforward proposition – know you can be heard, believe you will be listened to,” O’Callaghan says.

“To enable our people to know the signs of mental health within their own networks — it’s not just about Sodexo employees, but also branching out to our clients, suppliers and partners.”

Normalising mental health conditions — removing the stigma and taboo of admitting something is wrong, is a major goal of the campaign. And the company has tackled the issue a number of different ways, constantly iterating their approach.

“With a topic like this communication is really critical in a dispersed, decentralised organisation such as ours,” says O’Callaghan.

“We wrote to all of our employees in the early stages, about what sort and help is available. And we communicate in so many different ways, from putting posters in the workplaces to providing wallet cards, writing personally to all of our clients. Holding talks on each of our sites.”

The conversation is ongoing and regular, and the company emphasises the message strategically throughout the year. Over the Christmas period — a time that can be tough for some – Sodexo held a session for its employees and gave them goodies that included a wallet card with tips on how to manage stress over the holidays.

“It’s small things but they are regular, continual reminders so that people are comfortable with the topic,” says O’Callaghan.

Sodexo has a rather unique position to push this message — as an on-site service provider, its employees are embedded in workplaces all around the country. From mining and drilling operations, to schools and retail locations. The reaction from Sodexo’s wider stakeholders is an indication for O’Callaghan on how successful their program has been.

“I’ve personally had many of our clients talk to me about the I Hear You program, and hoping to do something similar themselves,” O’Callaghan says.
“Just start that conversation, because that is a really powerful thing. You could say there is a stigma in certain areas of our society, but really it is everywhere and everyone just has a different role to play — whether it is a social environment or at work.

“Given our business focus and tagline is all about ‘Quality of Life’, Sodexo believes that thinking should apply across the board, including our employees’ physical as well as mental health.”

More information and resources on creating mentally healthy workplaces are available at Headsup.org.au

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