Tuesday, 01 May 2018 18:50

Workplace culture key to fighting depression, says SAS VP


David Bowie, vice-president ANZ for global analytics leader SAS, says a safe, open and caring workplace culture is key to helping employees manage, and work against, depression even when not linked to the workplace.

Bowie recently addressed the Australian Kookaburra Kids Foundation during a fundraising luncheon. Kookaburra Kids was founded in 2001 and provides support for children living in families affected by mental illness.

The issue is one SAS, and Bowie personally, takes a strong interest in. The business has long supported the Black Dog Institute, also focused on the drive for mental wellbeing with its LifeSpan suicide prevention programme, that is supported by SAS' Data for Good program. SAS donates software licensing and technical expertise, giving valuable analytics support, underpinning Australia's first evidence-based suicide prevention programs.

Depression is a topic iTWire and this writer takes seriously; some online assert computing professionals may be predisposed to it, and there is a frequent discussion that computer programmers exhibit traits of Asperger's syndrome. This has led to the rise of groups such as BlueHackers, seeking to provide safe, supportive meeting areas at technical events.

Bowie was one of four panellists addressing the Kookaburra Kids' event, the others being Lucy Brogden of the Australian Government’s National Mental Health Commission; Karen Oldaker, Medibank’s Wellbeing and Community general manager; and Royal Marine Commandos veteran Adrian Talbot, who is now the executive manager of the RSL’s Life Care Homes for Heroes programme. 

Some 300 people attended the Sydney event which, coincidently, was held only days after Australian businessman, investor and philanthropist James Packer stepped down from his corporate roles, publically citing mental illness. The timing of this high-profile announcement lent added meaning to the event, given the stigma that still attaches to a condition which is all too often ‘swept under the carpet’.

While support services for those experiencing mental illness are improving, the sad truth is few services exist for children living with an afflicted family member. It is estimated that one in four children in Australia is in such a family and studies show that — without early intervention — they are 50% more likely than others to develop their own mental health problems.

The four panellists were unanimous in declaring business has a vital role to play in addressing the problem of mental illness in today's fast-paced society – a problem which goes way beyond concerns of worker absenteeism, lost productivity and staff disharmony. In fact, Brogden said, the cost to the community is estimated at $12 billion per year, equivalent to 4% of GDP. As such, companies are well advised to invest in mental wellbeing and employers need to regard mental illness like any other medical condition and address it openly. The panellists emphasised the need for managers to ensure a caring workplace in which employees feel no reluctance to speak up when mentally troubled.

SAS offers a model for such workplaces, being consistently recognised as a leading employer. David Bowie told of a company-wide meeting which discussed mental wellness openly, leading to one troubled employee overcoming denial of the problem and seeking help. This was not said in terms of "problem solved"; his own and his company’s understanding of the issues are a continuing journey. 

Talbot pointed out that while Defence Force personnel were often placed in highly stressful situations, the way to address mental illness was no different. The need is for an environment in which sufferers can speak up and admit to difficulty, even when it is accepted that the nature of their employment automatically attracts stress.

The discussion was summed up by moderator and TV news personality, Chris Bath, dwelling on how businesses can help, closely reflecting SAS’ Data for Good ethos:

Ensure a safe, caring and open workplace culture in which managers accept that mental illness is real and are alert to the signs, even when they are not directly related to workplace matters. Recognise that addressing mental illness is not HR’s responsibility because afflicted employees won’t through channels to seek understanding and help. What they need is a workplace culture in which they can speak freely to the manager who they expect will listen, sympathise and willingly try to help.

Dr Jim Goodnight, SAS chief executive, told iTWire, "We’re seeing a growing trend especially among millennials and those born in this century. They really do believe in using data for good, and more and more companies are saying, like SAS, we ought to have a corporate social responsibility to use some of our resources to make the world a better place."

The Kookaburra Kids fundraiser lunch proved successful, with attendees leaving with a better understanding of mental illness in the workplace and how business' must address the issue, and also digging deep to contribute to the Foundation's valuable work with relief programmes for children in families where mental illness impacts their young lives.

DavidBowie KK

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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