The Black Dog Institute's Helen Christensen and Macquarie's Sean West

As a board member of the Black Dog Institute and as a person who – like many of us – has seen people around him experience their own mental health struggles, Macquarie executive director Sean West has made a range of accommodations for staff during the pandemic.

Some are pragmatic, some are more personal. A lot of the changes, he says, were about learning on the go.

West spoke on a panel with director and chief scientist of the Black Dog Institute, Helen Christensen, at the Professional Planner Best Practice Forum Digital webinar earlier this week about how Macquarie was supporting its staff during the pandemic and what they’ve learnt along the way.

“One of the early lessons for us was to just take the pressure out of the situation, because it’s not normal,” West revealed. “It’s not normal, everyone working permanently from home with parenting and caring responsibilities.”

While acknowledging that everyone’s home situation was different, West said the leadership team made a conscious decision “to not expect everyone to be as effective as they might have been in a normal situation”.

The director said he also noticed early on that people were struggling to set boundaries between work and home.

“There was a propensity for people to work longer, which would often lead to greater fatigue or anxiety,” West said, adding that the responsibility fell to the leadership team to help create those boundaries.

Mandating goals and objectives for staff during the lockdown, however, has been a nuanced task, West explained.

“We thought we would ease off on KPIs and things like that but actually it was the opposite, people wanted to focus on goals and objectives,” he said. “It was a mindset thing.”

West said the team “simplified” the team’s objectives format by having only three goals, plus one “wellness objective”.

“Mine was to continue my work with Blackdog and Helen,” he said. “The second one was to keep my daily exercise going.”

‘The drinking’s a bit of a problem’

According to the Black Dog Institute’s Christenson, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people suffering from psychological distress during the pandemic – but that’s to be expected.

“Psychological distress is just a normal reaction to a stressor such as a pandemic or a bushfire or another event like that,” she explained, adding that we shouldn’t “make it pathological”.

“There’s a distinction to be made here between normal reaction, and what we might call mental disorder,” Christensen continued. “It’s pretty strong, the level of distress that’s experienced. But this is quite normal, we’re human beings and we react to stressful situations with stress.”

 

Around 50 per cent of the population is worried about their financial situation, the scientist explained, and another 50 per cent or so are drinking at hazardous levels.

“The drinking’s a bit of a problem,” she said, adding that 63 per cent of all drinking is now done at home, which is understandably higher than normal given the lockdown. “Nevertheless, it’s setting a pattern.”

Christensen added an alarming statistic related to employment figures and how this affects the populace.

“A one per cent increase in unemployment is associated with a 0.79 per cent increase in suicide risk,” she said. “Financial security is the key.”

Asking the right questions

West revealed that he devotes a significant amount of time each week to calling staff members and checking in on their well-being.

The calls are part of what West calls having “clarity of purpose”, and prioritising what he believes is important.

One of the things he’s learnt is that the type of questions you ask staff are critical, because the standard ‘How are you’ type of questions are usually just met with a “stoic” response.

“I’ve tended to play around with different questions as I’ve been doing this for a while now,” he said. “Even questions like ‘What are you missing right now?’ actually engender a whole different answer and you tend to uncover more things that might be going on for the person.”

Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning. Contact at [email protected]
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