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Making workplaces better

Mental health advocate Melinda Upton knows what makes a supportive workplace, and it starts with proactive leadership.

Yoga and fruit bowls. It’s a band-aid, reactive approach to mental health and wellbeing of employees in the workplace.

At least that is the view of one of Australia’s most experienced lawyers and prolific advocates of psychologically safe workplaces who believes change begins at a leadership level.

Melinda Upton has always cared deeply about the welfare of her colleagues – from those she worked beside as a junior employee, to those who followed her lead once she climbed the corporate ladder.

Being in the legal profession for more than 25 years as an intellectual property lawyer by default across major law firms, she quickly learned how important proactive approaches from leaders contributed positively to the welfare of staff.

She remembers seeing a colleague struggle for a long period of time. Deciding to intervene and call out his exhaustion, she was able to alert the leadership team who put a plan in place to provide him with necessary support.

Since then, she has proudly been involved in a variety of organisations to drive forward her passion for mental health and the collective power of change.

Based in Sydney, today she serves as chair of national not-for-profit Minds Count, board director of Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia and newly appointed CEO of Positive Group, a company that helps businesses thrive by building the psychological skills of their people.

“What I love about what I do is that I get to bring a different lens to reactive approaches and I try to champion and influence organisation to deal with this on a proactive basis,” she tells My Weekly Preview.

“Focus on leadership is the absolute key. If leaders from the top down are not equipping themselves in terms of these skills to manage and lead and also look after themselves, you are not going to have that cascade down through the organisation so you get that stickiness.

“The roles that I have are a real privilege to be able to advocate and influence those conversations.

“It may be easy for some, or less comfortable for others to really shine a light on creating psychological safe workplaces for individuals and organisations.

“While yoga and fruit bowls are great and you tick a box and you get short-term incentives, what you really want is to equip people with skills from top down.”

Ms Upton refers to the idea that free lunchtime yoga classes and office fruit bowls may boost office morale, but that workplace mental health plans need to extend far deeper than this to create meaningful change.

She says especially in the wake of our recent “black swan” event – being the COVID pandemic – workplaces have needed to adapt in ways they were never prepared for and there is a great deal to be learnt from this.

“We talk about black swan events and the pandemic is definitely one of them.

“I think those situations, if you look at the pandemic and from a Queensland perspective the effects of the recent floods, as a result of that leaders needed to come up pretty quickly with ways to keep people employed and engaged and connected.

“Leaders needed to come up with approaches that continued to service the needs of the business and clients but also provide the necessary support that was needed in terms of remote working.

“It crystalised to leadership that leaders have a responsibility from the very top down to ensure that we provided psychologically safe environments.

“Whether that’s in an office or remotely, it’s important that people can feel happy and excited, contribute to their roles and have a good day.”

Recently visiting the Sunshine Coast as keynote speaker of the Suncoast Community Legal Services dinner hosted by Travis Schultz & Partners, Ms Upton says it is important regional settings have access to the same support that is available in the cities.

“I think it’s incredibly important to be able to continue and elevate this conversation outside of the main cities,” she says. “I think in terms of the regions and when we think about the Sunshine Coast, there really are issues around isolation and access to the toolkits to help shine the light on why this is so important.”

For more information on Corporate Mental Health Alliance Australia visit cmhaa.org.au.

If you, or someone you know, needs help contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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