A self-described “corporate refugee”, Mr Clapham spoke to AIST on the tipping point that triggered his mental health mission and turned his life around.

Mental health is the greatest healthcare risk facing Australians after cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to The Australian Burden of Disease Study.

Its effects are particularly pertinent in the workplace. A 2018 study by KPMG and Mental Health Australia found that mental illness directly costs Australian businesses $13 billion each year.

Between financial stressors, power dynamics, performance anxiety, burnout and external life factors, the pressure of the day-to-day can take a toll on employees, even in the most mental-health-literate of workplaces.

Joel Clapham, a self-described “corporate refugee” and founding committee member of AIST’s Young Super Network, knows this pressure well. Once appointed the youngest senior executive in the not-for-profit financial services industry, Mr Clapham says he “loved a lot of what I did, I had some amazing opportunities and met some fantastic people over my career in profit-to-member superannuation”.

But in 2016, a perfect storm of personal, professional and health crises brought him to a tipping point. So, after a decade in super, he set out on a personal mental health journey that rerouted his entire life and career path.

“I was evaluating what my future might look like professionally and also had some personal life changes and my own mental health was shot, so I kind of took a step back and started doing all of the work that I needed to do on myself,” he says.

The result, amongst other things, was a newfound passion for helping others overcome mental health challenges like what he had faced. Today, Mr Clapham is Founder and Executive Director of Hearten Up, a mental health first aid trainer for workplaces and community organisations, as well as doing postgraduate study to add clinical psychology to his repertoire.

Hearten Up, named to challenge the long-destructive mantra of telling people to ‘harden up’,  works with organisations to help them become more mental health literate, break down stigma and develop the skills and confidence needed to notice when their employees are struggling and how they can best support them.

When it comes to workplace mental health, change starts from the top

While the Covid-19 pandemic triggered the conversation around mental health in workplaces, many still have a long way to go. But Mr Clapham noted that a growing obligation for employers to manage psychosocial risks on behalf of employees will continue the narrative in a positive direction.

Hearten Up offers training at all levels of an organisation, but Mr Clapham says lasting change starts from the top and is ingrained in a business’s DNA.

“In a perfect world, all good change and progress is, if not ignited by leadership teams, certainly turbocharged by them,” he says.

“It’s not enough to just have an Employee Assistance Program and offer some yellow cupcakes once a year.
A leader has to walk the walk of being human and genuine, and not pay lip service to staff wellbeing.”

– Joel Clapham

Mr Clapham believes the first step is harnessing the courage to expose your humanity in the workplace. Corporate professionals – particularly in senior positions – tend to put on a facade when they enter the office, but maintaining vulnerability with staff is key to fostering a mentally healthy workplace culture.

Training is key to implementing a mentally healthy work culture

Mr Clapham also recommends that at least 25% of a workplace should be trained through an accredited Mental Health First Aid training program like the one Hearten Up offers.

“That’s well beyond regular first aid, for good reason. The average workplace meeting has four people in it, so at that ratio there will usually be someone who is capable and curious to notice when a colleague might perhaps be struggling,” says Mr Clapham. “Nearly half of us will experience mental illness at some stage in our lives, and work is where most of us spend most of our time. We need to be proactively equipped in that environment.”

Much like physical first aid training, mental health training breaks down the symptoms and signs of varying mental health crises – from depression and anxiety to aggression, substance abuse to suicidal ideation – and gives participants the resources they need to identify or address them.

Regardless of whether or not an incident is directly triggered by the work environment, the training has far-reaching benefits for organisations and their employees.

A TNS and Beyond Blue’s study State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia reported that one in five Australians had taken time off work within the 12 months prior because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy. It also found that staff are four times less likely to take time off work for mental health conditions if their workplace is felt to be mentally healthy.

What does a mentally healthy workplace culture look like?

While mentally unhealthy workplaces are easy to spot, the metrics of a mentally healthy workplace can be hard to quantify, reinforcing the need for a dynamic, long-term mental health plan as opposed to one-off, band-aid solutions.

Businesses in need of support can refer to the Australian Government’s practical guide for small business and sole traders, which says:

“A mentally healthy workplace recognises that protecting and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of workers is a core part of everyday operations. This goes beyond raising awareness and responding to people affected by mental ill-health, mental health conditions and suicide. It means creating an environment and culture that promotes wellbeing. It includes proactively reducing work-related sources of harm and identifying ways to promote the positive aspects of work.”

They identify the following as three foundational pillars of a mentally healthy workplace:

  • Protect: Identify and manage work-related risks to mental health.
  • Respond: Build capability to identify, respond to and support people experiencing mental ill-health or distress.
  • Promote: Recognise and enhance the positive aspects of work that contribute to good mental health.

Now more than ever, fostering a mentally healthy work culture is key to retaining staff, maintaining productivity and boosting employee morale. But beyond the bottom line, Mr Clapham hopes businesses’ scope to see staff with depth and compassion continues to drive his mission.

“I work to help people feel less alone and broken,” he says. “It’s important to remember that everyone has their own backstory and their own set of life circumstances that have shaped them. Acknowledging that and being open and supportive of other people is one of the kindest things we can do.”

Visit Hearten Up for more information about how you can implement mental health training within your organisation.

Originally published at SuperTalk