‘It’s a tragedy’: Woolies’ ‘critical’ plea
WITH a staggering 200,000 staff from all walks of life working in supermarkets, warehouses and corporate offices, in the city, suburbs and bush, Woolworths is a microcosm of Australia.
So it's not overly surprising that, like the rest of the country, the business giant is grappling with how to tackle mental health issues.
Brad Banducci, chief executive officer of Woolworths, told news.com.au that on average 13 team members a year will take their own life.
It's a fraction of the more than 200 Australians who die by suicide each month, but it's a figure that weighs heavily on Mr Banducci's mind.
"One team member a month lost to suicide - it's a tragedy," he said.
"We're on a journey like everyone else in terms of mental health. My view is it that it's as important as physical health in the whole context of wellbeing.
"We're endemic of Australia. We're 200,000 strong here and we represent the country in virtually every area of the business. This is happening across the community. It's why we want to talk about it. We're all in this journey together."
In a given year, some 2.5 million Australians battle a type of anxiety disorder, which is now the most common mental illness in Australia and the top condition that prompts people to visit a GP.
In their lifetimes, a staggering one in five people in this country will experience anxiety in a way that has a disruptive impact on relationships or work.
Woolworths has been running mental health-related initiatives across the business for some time now, including a dedicated employee assistance scheme, but about a year ago, Mr Banducci took things to a new level.
The I Am Here voluntary program trains workers in what to look out for, both in themselves and colleagues, and how to encourage those struggling to get help.
"It's aimed at destigmatising mental illness, which is critically important," he said. "The belief underpinning it is that it's OK not to feel OK and it's absolutely OK to ask for help.
"We're a year in and we're just scratching the surface, but to date we've had more than 22,000 people at Woolworths do the program.
"We've had about 8000 people from that group register to become ambassadors for the program and do further learning."
That's complemented by the company's investment in training 1200 staff to become accredited mental health first aid officers.
As the program has progressively rolled out, Mr Banducci said the feedback had been overwhelming.
"There's immense passion from the business for this because people want to look after their fellow team members," he said.
"It's equipping people with the confidence and skills to engage and support each other."
Removing stigma that discourages people from reaching out for support is one component - another is helping people to feel comfortable with acknowledging their struggles.
The success of this element was driven home a few months ago when Mr Banducci led a biannual meeting of the Woolworths senior executive team.
"We get the leaders of our business together every six months, it's somewhere in the order of 250 people, to talk," he said.
"At our last get together in June, we did a poll of everyone in the room about how they're feeling about their mental health. These are the most senior people in a very large business.
"Fifteen per cent of the room said they were struggling with things. For me it was incredible, firstly that people felt confident enough to say that, because even though it was anonymous, it's still a big thing to say that, but secondly that it shows (why) the work we're doing (is important)."
Corporate Australia needs to play a major role in leading efforts to combat mental illness, he believes.
"I think it's the biggest individual challenge in corporate Australia today," he said.
"We need to collectively confront mental health (challenges) and take away the stigma associated with it, to help our teams achieve their full potential.
"We all need to take accountability - we can't sit back when this is impacting our people. People are core to our business."
And while supporting people is the right thing to do, Mr Banducci said a proactive stance on mental health is good for business.
"There's an economic benefit to us. We're the biggest private employer in Australia. The more we can unlock the potential of our team, the better we can perform," he said.
"It's good for business and it's good for Australia."