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Getting comfortable with mental wellbeing

“Our aim is to make it as comfortable to ask someone about their mental health as it is to ask about their physical health,” says Sarah Brown, Cawthron Institute’s Human Resources Manager.

Cawthron is New Zealand’s largest independent science research institute. Located in Nelson, it has been supporting primary production and enhancing ecosystems for more than 90 years.

“Most of our staff are highly qualified scientists. They tend to be high-achieving individuals who might be more vulnerable to burnout or stress from their own expectations,” says Sarah.

“We decided we could do a better job of noticing and responding quickly when staff were experiencing mental distress. We knew we weren’t as comfortable handling mental health as we were other wellbeing topics.”


Sarah heard about WellBeing@Work, a programme developed with support from the Health Promotion Agency through Like Minds, Like Mine, and delivered to workplaces in the Nelson Tasman region by Health Action Trust. After a discussion with the rest of Cawthron’s leadership team, the company decided to take part in the mental wellbeing programme.

WellBeing@Work is an accredited programme that works with organisations to help managers and staff learn about mental health and wellbeing. It provides guidance on how to protect your own mental wellbeing and support others, and have conversations with people in mental distress.

It also helps the organisation enhance policies and practices to maintain positive organisational mental health.

An important component of WellBeing@Work is to encourage staff members to stand up and share their stories of mental distress. In doing this they become WellBeing@Work ‘Champions’, modelling that it’s okay to talk about mental health. Also, the programme trains ‘Connectors’ – other staff members who help people get support.

Cawthron’s Health and Safety Advisor, Jessica Trott, has had her own experience of mental distress and put her hand up early to become a champion.

After WellBeing@Work had run its workshop for managers, as a way of introducing the programme to Cawthron’s wider workforce and inviting them to the staff workshops, Jessica shared her story. 

With a senior manager, who also had experienced mental distress, she spoke very frankly about her own mental health at one of the company’s fortnightly organisation-wide talks.

“I wanted to share that I was in a seriously bad state four years ago but now I’m totally recovered. I’m fine, fully functional. It was a strong message for people to receive,” Jessica says.

“That’s one of the messages the training gave us – that people can recover,” says Sarah “Having a mental illness, or poor mental wellbeing, is not a lifetime affliction.”

“I was obviously nervous about baring my soul but my message was really simple. No-one would hesitate to ask how you are if you had a broken leg, so how hard is it to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ The feedback couldn’t have been more positive,” says Jessica.

Spreading the message through staff workshops

To reach as many of the Cawthron staff as possible, WellBeing@Work ran eight workshops (usually 1.5 hours in duration) over two weeks at varying times of the day so most staff could go if they chose. The workshops were timed to begin in Mental Health Awareness Week, leveraging that week’s momentum.

“It’s totally voluntary. Our Chief Executive [pictured running in the top image] emailed his encouragement and we just said, ‘If this is something you want to learn about, come along to the workshop at a time that suits you’,” says Sarah.

They did come. “We’re an expertise-based organisation so our people are hungry for knowledge and good at applying what they learn,” says Sarah.

“WellBeing@Work has given people the confidence to talk about mental wellbeing. In the same way they might say, ‘I’ve started going to the gym’, they might say, ‘I’ve realised I need to pull back on a few things to get a better balance in my life’. Or, ‘I’m finding things really tough at the moment’,” she says.

Including a mental health focus in workplace wellbeing

As well as using WellBeing@Work to change people’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health and those in distress, Cawthron is adding a focus on mental health to its already broad wellbeing programme. “This is the next layer on top,” says Sarah.

“It’s allowed us to make our health and safety focus more holistic, which we’ve been wanting to do for a while. We already do a lot of general wellbeing work and now we’re adding a mental wellbeing focus to keep up the momentum from the workshops.”

For example, the company runs a programme over summer called RACE, which stands for Rewarding Active Cawthron Employees.

“We’re promoting each RACE initiative using one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. For instance, for ‘Connect’ the organisation encouraged people to do what they’re doing with someone else. Say, if they’re going for a walk or run, to invite someone to go with them.

“For the ‘Give’ component, employees can donate the points they earned through RACE to a charity of their choice at the end of the RACE season. This is a new initiative this year,” says Jessica.

And for ‘Keep Learning’, the company encourages people to come down to the local sports field and try out a new sport, something it does as part of its TOM Sports (Try Out More) programme.

“We try to be subtle, but still get the message out. Whether 10 people turn out or 100, that’s okay. But generally we’re surprised at how many people participate,” says Sarah.

Mental health now an essential part of Cawthron's processes

Sarah and Jessica will also be strengthening the focus on mental wellbeing in how the company works and leads.

“We’ll keep up our manager training and we’ll put some more supports around our WellBeing@Work connectors. We’ll check in with them regularly to see how things are out there and to provide support and development,” says Sarah.

“We’ve now got a documented wider wellbeing plan, based around what we learned from WellBeing@Work. We’re going to review and update our harassment and bullying policy and other guidelines. and we’ll provide more information for staff through our intranet."

“And I plan to include mental wellbeing in our health monitoring as well, as wellbeing is about far more than biometrics,” says Jessica.  

They both say completing the WellBeing@Work programme has already made a big difference in how staff look at – and talk about – mental health.

“The training made most people realise that asking how someone is, or if they can help, isn’t going make it worse for that person. There can only be an upside from that,” says Sarah. 

For more information see the WellBeing@Work website

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