Understanding wellbeing and psychological distress in New Zealand workplaces: Raising the bar of knowledge and practice

This paper is a summary of the presentation by Dr Jeremy Robertson at the HASANZ Conference, September 2018

What is the state of employee wellbeing in New Zealand? What are the work factors that can affect our wellbeing and psychological distress? These are hard questions to answer without good data. There has been growing recognition of the impact of work factors on the mental wellbeing of employees and how this then impacts on organisational performance and productivity, especially in light of New Zealand’s relatively high rates of depression and suicide in the general population.

The Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) places a responsibility on employers to consider work-related health matters, including psychological conditions. Although we have national population survey data, we do need more specific baseline data on employee wellbeing from their organisations. Without good data, we don’t know who is flourishing and who is languishing, nor where to best invest in support for staff.

It is important to have an accurate picture of the wellbeing and mental health of your workforce, and where the pressure points lie in your organisation before designing programmes or support.  While there are a range of tools to measure physical health and workforce engagement, measuring workforce mental health and wellbeing is in its infancy.

Good wellbeing data:

  • provides an accurate picture of employees’ wellbeing across the organisation
  • gives a baseline measure for monitoring change over time
  • identifies pressure points (e.g. workgroups)
  • highlights the main challenges for staff and therefore what might be the most targeted and effective interventions
  • measures the capacity of staff to handle stress, i.e. their resilience.

The Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment

Over the last 18 months, Umbrella has developed and piloted a unique wellbeing assessment.  We reviewed relevant scientific research and existing health risk assessment tools.  We identified potential measures of wellbeing and mental health, and of relevant work dimensions (Table 1).

The assessment is completed online and the data is collected under the NZ Privacy Act, so individual data is held by Umbrella and is not shared with the client organisation.  Individuals receive a personalised report containing weblinks and other resources. Organisations are provided with a summary report based on aggregated data, identifying areas of strength and vulnerability for their staff and recommendations for staff support.

To date, Umbrella has received 1,180 completed assessments, from a range of organisations with a response rate from 70% to 91%. This is an excellent response rate for an assessment of this type, particularly one that asks some personal and sensitive questions, and reflects the level of interest people have in receiving feedback about their wellbeing.

The results are exciting and we will be sharing more as we do further analysis. Here are two key findings so far.

Wellbeing classifications find both thriving and languishing employees

Across all organisations, approximately a quarter of employees were classified as “thriving”. This is a positive result, in line with the large NZ population Sovereign Wellbeing Index survey (2014), which classified 25% of New Zealanders as “awesome”.

In the Umbrella sample, 51% were scored as “managing well”, which represents an interesting question for organisations – do you invest in initiatives to support more of these employees to move towards “thriving”, or is “managing well” good enough?

There was also a clear proportion of the sample who were not doing so well – 15% were classified as “surviving” and 5% “finding it tough” (Figure 1). The finding that approximately 20% of people were struggling is clearly a concern, both in terms of their personal wellbeing and the likely impact on performance at work. For organisations, this means a fifth of your employees are likely to need support to lift their wellbeing and also to improve productivity.

Figure 1. Wellbeing classification

Higher rates of psychological distress than expected

The Kessler10 provides a measure of an individual’s psychological distress by asking about common symptoms experienced in the last month. People with higher scores (12 and over) are more likely to be experiencing depression and/or anxiety. It is important to note that this is not a diagnosis of mental illness – rather, it serves as a screening tool.

We found more than a quarter of employees (28%) scored above the cut-off point. This is higher than NZ population norms, higher than we expected and is an important finding for organisations to know about. There may be particular work challenges contributing to this distress which can be proactively addressed, such as the nature of work activities (e.g. shift work) and organisational restructuring underway in some of the organisations in the survey. It highlights that people leaders need to have sufficient training and support to be able to spot signs of distress in their direct reports, know how to respond appropriately and safely, and to be able to implement appropriate care.

Umbrella will be continuing to explore this issue, including talking with other researchers who have used the Kessler10 measure in other New Zealand populations.

Figure 2. Rates of psychological distress

In conclusion

Our experience with the assessment demonstrates that it is possible to comprehensively measure wellbeing and mental health (psychological distress) in workplace settings. The high response rates reflect the importance that employees place on receiving individual feedback and access to the post-assessment resources. Providing clear data on work and non-work factors also enables organisations to identify the main drivers of their people’s wellbeing and psychological distress, something that is not possible through measuring wellbeing in isolation.

Developing a wellbeing assessment

To develop the Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment, we drew on established international measures – the Satisfaction with Life Scale, the Flourishing Scale and a measure of affect or happiness. Included in the assessment is a widely used international measure of psychological distress, the Kessler10, and items from the UK Health and Safety Executives Management Standards Indicator Tool, to measure work-related stressors.

Also included in the assessment are measures of:

  • Organisational climate – positive perception of the organisation as a good place to work (proud to work here, committed, recognised and rewarded).
  • Organisation support for resilience and wellbeing – six items to measure employees’ perception of the organisation’s support for their resilience and wellbeing.
  • Individual resilience – items to measure the main dimensions of resilience: emotional agility, mental fitness, strong relationships, meaning and purpose, and health and habits.
  • Satisfaction with work-life balance.
  • Intention to leave employment in next 6 months.
  • Rating of job performance.
  • Health behaviours – degree to which they are engaging in these, e.g. exercise and nutrition.
  • Non-work stressors – stress experienced from aspects of their life in the last 30 days (e.g. financial, relationships and caregiving).
2018-09-28T11:52:32+00:00September 28th, 2018|