2020 was hard. So how can we make 2021 feel easier for ourselves, our families and the teams we work with? Amid a lot of talk about a mental health crisis, clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire is giving a Zoom talk on Wednesday 3 March to talk about strategies to help people and businesses thrive. Here, she talks to Melinda Williams about her work and the mental health challenges we're facing. 

Melinda Williams: You’re presenting a talk about improving mental health at Britomart soon – what will you be covering?

Jacqui Maguire: There are a lot of terms in this space – mental health, mental wellbeing, mental illness – but what do they all mean, and what’s important? Clarifying those terms and the interaction between them is really important for people to understand, both at an individual and a team or organisational level. We will look somewhat at what the impact of rapid change, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity has been for New Zealanders – of course, that’s different for everyone but there are some patterns that we’ve seen and data that’s beginning to emerge, both from Otago University and globally. And then the gold in this session is what do we do? How do we optimise our mental health, both personally and professionally? Because that’s where we see benefit for ourselves and our organisations.

You’re a clinical psychologist – what does that involve day-to-day and week-to-week?

A regular psychologist is normally found working in one-to-one sessions with clients or in small groups, like family groups. Clinical psychologists are trained to formulate. So our skill set is to meet an individual or a system – a group – and ask, ‘What’s going on now, why has this happened, what’s maintaining it and what’s the evidence base to how we support this person or system to improve?’ That evidence base is really critical to our training. It’s not just psychobabble or good thoughts, it’s backed up by hard evidence. I have specialised in organisational wellbeing and spend my time science-communicating. I like to take all that theory and all that background and translate that for the everyday New Zealander, to optimise wellbeing and work relationships.

Why does that area interest you?

I think we’ve got a fundamental gap in our system in New Zealand. If you are extremely unwell and high risk, you’re likely to access mental health services on a temporary basis, generally through a crisis avenue. If you are experiencing quite high levels of poverty, you might get funding for help through the PHO (Primary Health Organisation) system. But if you are kind of in the middle – you’re struggling but not severely struggling, you’ve got an average income so you don’t qualify for hardship funding, where do you go? You can go to a private practitioner, but they are overwhelmed and overloaded. So that’s really my mission, to get this good information out in an easy-to-access way.

How do you come to work with your workplace clients? Do they typically approach you?

Nowadays, yes. People either know me from my work or through the media world. I provide that short, keynote insight part of the work. But I’m very much a believer that if you want to see long-term behavioural change, you need to be doing small but often. I don’t do one-hit-wonder workshops where you bring all your staff in for one day training and that’s it. I think it’s about organisations taking on skills consistently and role-modelling that over time. So I could be seen as the ignition in helping them to action wellbeing long-term.

It strikes me that the organisations that are proactive enough to approach you for this kind of thing may well be the organisations that are least in need of your help.

It’s both. You have proactive organisations who genuinely care about the mental wellbeing of their staff and want to front-foot it, and you also get organisations that come to you after a crisis and they don’t have a choice about it. It would be great if we could target everyone along that spectrum. I think the more we’ve moved to legislating mental health, the more aware organisations are. Covid has also shone a spotlight on it. The volume of work that came through in 2020 was huge for everyone in the sector, as wellbeing became a clear priority for everyone. What we don’t want is for wellbeing just to be a traffic light system where you only work on it when it’s hard. To optimise your people at work, they need to be well consistently, which means you need good habits all year round.

A crisis gives a lot of clarity, doesn’t it, because it’s easy to see, like a broken arm, whereas an accumulation of small deficiencies over time, like RSI, is hard to spot while it’s happening.

Absolutely. We have extremely high rates of burnout in New Zealand. It’s actually been named by the World Health Organisation as a global pandemic. It’s important to understand that burnout relates only to work. You can’t get burned out just from family or life – you can be under stress, but that term burnout relates specifically to work. If you look up burnout, it’s emotional exhaustion and lack of efficacy from your work. It’s absolutely not a one-time-event that causes that. It’s an accumulation of small things, lack of support and heightened pressure over time.

So how do we start to recognise the warning signs in individuals and workplaces?

That’s what I’ll be talking about in my talk! First though, I think we need an acknowledgement from every single New Zealander that mental health is something we need to work at over time. It’s not automatic, you’re not born flourishing, and it is just like our physical health. If we can understand that it’s important and we need to plan for it like we plan our exercise, diet etc, that’s an important starting place.

It’s also about organisations – individuals, teams, leadership, boards – understanding that positive mental health has a significant positive impact at work. As an individual it’s about knowing your own signs that you’re slipping and not doing so well, and we all have a responsibility to know that. And as a leader, it’s about knowing every individual on your team well and knowing what their baseline is and have good prerequisite conversations that help identify when they’re slipping. So when you think about the kind of energy and time and resource that takes for leaders to not only know that for themselves but also for all their direct reports that they’re checking in with regularly and supporting when they need support, and at the organisational level, to know what the load is on their leaders and whether they have the capacity for it, then you understand that this is a completely whole-system approach. What often happens is that leaders are given the responsibility to do this but no space to do it, and the whole system falls over.

You mentioned the benefits of good workplace wellbeing – what are some of the big reasons to invest in supporting better mental health at work?

The average return on every dollar spent on mental health investment at work is $4.20. It goes up with smaller organisations. What you see in the research is that productivity goes up for individuals, creativity goes up, innovation goes up. When we think about what makes a successful business in 2021, it’s not bricks and mortar, it’s people’s minds. So being able to utilise knowledge and collaborate well is critical. There’s something called psychological safety. If you look at the basis of the most effective teams is a dynamic where people feel confident to speak candidly without fear of judgment or retribution. You get better customer satisfaction, lower absenteeism, higher productivity, lower presenteeism. Presenteeism is when bodies are in the building but brains aren’t and it costs organisations three times as much as absenteeism. So you can see some massive benefits.

Jacqui will be the first in Britomart's 2021 series of talks entitled The Good Citizen. Her talk will be held on Zoom due to Level 3 restrictions. Click here to register for the webinar.