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The right questions, the right conversations and listening to lived experience: a conversation with Tom Oxley on the defining requirements to good workplace mental health.

Tom Oxley Interview


As Lead Consultant & Relationship Director at Bamboo Mental Health, Tom’s approach includes reviewing companies to understand how they support the mental health of their staff and delivering mental health training for leadership and staff. He also utilises knowledge and insights from interviews with over 400 people - learning about their lived experiences of mental health at work and recording data from 20,000 survey responses. 

Before we further explored Tom Oxley’s work, he shares how he was introduced to workplace mental health through his own experiences with stress, depression, and anxiety 15 years ago. “I had three months out of work, with nobody really knowing what to do with me, or what to say, and I really didn’t know either”. It was at this point that, with support from his managing director, Tom sought therapeutic support, which grew into an interest in workplace mental health. “From there I worked for a government funded charity project that was reviewing workplaces of all shapes and sizes. I participated in about 6 or 7 workplace reviews, created my own methodology and once the project closed, I continued on”. 

And what’s driving the conversation today? “There are”, Tom notes, “strategic drivers like recruitment and retention, wider cultural factors – diversity, inclusion and belonging, that are driving this conversation. Plus younger workers are expecting this conversation at work, because they have been having it at school”. And early release data from the Diversity Council of Australia’s Inclusion@Work Index supports Tom’s observations, with workers in inclusive teams six times more likely to report work had a positive impact on their mental health (57% in inclusive teams compared to 9% in non-inclusive teams). Tom has however, observed that although younger workers have this expectation, in fact “up to half of young people will hide their mental health at work, because they don’t feel psychologically safe enough to speak up”. 

Tom’s lived experienced and his time spent interviewing individuals and working with organisations to create meaningful, effective workplace mental health strategies has guided him towards producing evidence-based strategies. “I listen to people, am guided by data, listen to what the organisation needs and find ways to bring these two things together”. Tom says, emphatically, “I don’t have all the answers for organisations, I just have really good questions. That’s where we start”. 

“I like to really get under the skin of what it’s like to work somewhere and be experiencing poor mental health. It’s how I build up a picture of an organisation”. Tom explains that he uses these observations to create a ‘mental health picture of a workplace’, which is then fed back to stakeholders. “Then we collaborate on a strategic plan to improve workplace mental health, that includes training, observation and leadership work”. 

We ask Tom, why he thinks this is happening? “One of the reasons is that you’ve got a younger workforce coming through, ready to have the conversation. However, management, generally speaking, is a couple of generations older and haven’t been exposed to these conversations”. The solution is, as far as Tom is concerned, two-fold. “Managers need training, and somebody at the leadership level to give permission for the organisation to have these conversations”. He explains that when this permission is given, everyone in the business feels the shift, which begins to bring people together in an appropriate and well-informed way. 

“Leaders also need to understand that psychological safety includes accountability and performance, as well as supporting people. They also need to understand lived experience”. And it’s these conversations that can be challenging for managers and staff. Tom explains. “It’s a new conversation for many, one that encompasses many topics – gender identity, sexual identity, health identities, race, culture and broader factors like climate change, politics and conflict. So you can see how it can be a conversation that people can be wary of”.  

One of Tom’s methods for approaching this conversation is to create spaces where it’s safe to talk, with facilitated conversations and everyone learning from each other. “That’s humans working at their best. And the worst is when we shut down the conversation or shut out people’s ideas and opinions”. 

“The feeling of belonging, inclusion and collaboration is very powerful”, Tom describes, “and there’s no doubt that there’s a link between that kind of positive worker experience and the general performance of a company”. He points to recent research from University of Oxford that shows a causal link between employee happiness and market valuation and stock market performance. “It’s really there in the numbers”. 

Tom has completed “somewhere between 400 and 450 interviews” with people on their lived experiences with mental health. He says emphatically “almost no-one has ever said – I want a complex strategy to support my mental health”. 

So, what support do people want? “They want their manager to have their back. Which means organisations need to support managers to be flexible, have working knowledge of available resources, and be trained in having meaningful conversations”.  

Another valuable observation from Tom is about the role of leaders in the mental health conversation. “Leaders need to go first in the mental health conversation, to show that the organisation is ok with this issue. And managers need to know how to have a compassionate and safe conversation, without trying to fix or solve everything – knowing what resources are available is key”. 

Knowing that Tom has worked with many different types of business, the conversation turns to the successful implementation of workplace mental health program. He describes his observations at a production centre. “The factory implemented a wellbeing hub in the canteen, but through consultation and observation, we discovered it wasn’t what workers wanted”. He explains that “the staff were working a ten-hour day, with a 40-minute break, workers didn’t want to spend time on an iPad looking up wellbeing support”.  

After working with staff and leadership, the business changed their approach. “The business stopped work during shifts, including the production line, and everyone has a cup of coffee or tea, with one rule – no work chat. So, people began talking about families, debt, finance, life, their children, they started getting to know each other”. It’s in this space, Tom says, “that they found community, which is really important for when the difficult things happen in life. It sounds counter-intuitive or counter-productive when the world is spinning around you to stop, but the advice is to do just this”.  

“In doing so” Tom says, “you take your brain out of its stress response mode into a much calmer, kinder place. Then we can draw on it’s power to solve problems, to collaborate, and do those lovely things that humans do when we’ve got a little bit of a pause”. 

The other advantage that comes from making this time to connect is that you’re creating knowledge of situations and people. “Hearing something from another perspective, that you might not have heard before, can be useful. You’ve now got another example of something in your head to use, another point of reference, another solution to put forward. No-one has to have all of the answers to everything all of the time”. 

Currently in the UK, more than half of lost time is due to poor mental health. “Look at this way”, states Tom. “If you have a machine that was responsible for more than half of your businesses lost time, you will stop the machine, and run a root cause analysis. Executives would get involved to understand why, there would be a system change. But, with mental health, that isn’t happening, so we need to do this in a curious way”. 

The conversation shifts to examples of great psychological risk leadership. “I think there are leaders who are worried about being vulnerable in this space. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean sharing all your medical details, but I have seen leaders talk openly and calmly about their lived experience - modelling self-care and curiosity to the rest of the organisation”. 

Commitment and curiosity from leadership is key to successful programs as far as Tom is concerned. “I’ve worked with three organisations that have won awards for their mental health work. The common denominator? They have all got leaders who are deeply interested in mental health, there’s no special ribbon on a particular day, no newspaper articles, just curious and engaged leaders. Everybody in these organisations know that talking about mental health is ok, and it spread throughout the organisations”. 

Tom has witnessed, through his work, the good and bad realities of workplace mental health. He explains, “I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t any bullying, toxicity, overload, or lack of resources in organisations, because there is. That’s why being prepared to hear the negative feedback, and the ‘bad’ answers is so valuable”. And developing strategies with businesses that include making time and space for people, is crucial. “People need to be able to say, ‘I’m not great, and I need to know that sharing this with you is going to be used constructively, kindly and safely, that my career won’t be limited, and I won’t be victimised”. 

It's clear, as the conversation draws to a close that workplace mental health is Tom’s passion and that his approach is rooted in the lived experiences of workers. He finishes the conversation with these ideas. “Leaders need to be ambassadors for mental health and do it authentically. Managers need to be trained in having these conversations and how to provide support and interventions, and staff can be involved in networks and groups that offer peer support. Find ways to get out onto the factory floor, or into the office kitchen and listen, the solutions are in the experiences and conversations”. 

You can watch From Stigma to Strategy: Tom Oxley on Transforming Workplace Mental Health on the Congress platform now. And if you don’t have access yet, you can get your On-Demand Pass now for only $400AUD! 

#Safety2023 #OSH #Future 

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