Communicators at the frontline of mental health

A young woman sits at her keyboard to write an article, but her chest feels like it’s crushed in a vice and pain stabs her left arm. Classic symptoms of a deadly condition, or so she thinks. As unlikely as it seems for a woman in her 20s, she must be having a heart attack. She tells nearby co-workers, and they urge her to see the company nurse.

That’s where she learns she’s not having a heart attack. She’s suffering from an acute mental health issue. It’s a severe stress reaction brought on by a court case the young journalist has sat through for days — a case involving the vicious bashing and rape of an elderly grandmother in her own home for which the journalist will now be debriefed by a qualified psychologist.

Putting yourself in this journalist’s shoes, would you speak up to your colleagues if you thought you were having a heart attack?

What if you thought you were having a mental health episode?

I’ve thought a fair bit about the answer to those questions, because the young journalist was me at an earlier point in my career.

How might this have played out had I suspected my issue was mental, not physical? Would I have spoken up so readily or suffered in silence as so many employees do across industries, age groups, genders and the globe?

The mental health stigma is one of the biggest barriers to people getting the support they need.

In addition to raising awareness of mental health symptoms and where to seek help, addressing stigma is perhaps the greatest area where communication professionals can contribute to creating mentally healthy workplaces.

That’s one of seven insights I gathered after leading the communication strategy on a life-saving mental health program by Ambulance Victoria (AV). AV employs about 5,000 paramedics who provide emergency pre-hospital care for almost 7 million people in the Australian state of Victoria.

Tragically, in 2015, the rate of suicide by Victorian paramedics was four times the state average and three times that of other emergency services personnel such as police and fire fighters.

AV CEO Prof. Tony Walker, ASM, recognized that something had to change. How could the organization create a work environment where people felt safe to speak up about mental health and get the support they needed? Communicators can follow these seven recommendations for prioritizing mental health and supporting employees in the workplace.

1. Partner with the experts.

When people’s well-being and lives are at risk, it’s not a time for guesswork or experimenting. AV partnered with mental health organizations beyondbluePhoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and Black Dog Institute. Mental health experts bring much-needed expertise and credibility to your research, strategy and programs and offer external voices to start a conversation with your workforce.

2. Stigma is a barrier and a symptom.

As well as creating fear to speak up and get help, stigma can make symptoms worse for people with a mental health concern, exacerbating feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. Reducing stigma as both a barrier and a symptom is core to any mental health strategy, including addressing its intersection with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Because of the stigma, fewer than half the paramedics were comfortable to talk about their mental health concerns to a colleague, and 40% said they wouldn’t talk to their manager. Along with training to help staff recognize symptoms and understand available support, AV fostered safe conversations within teams by encouraging staff to make a “mental health pledge” about what they would do differently. The CEO and other executives showed transparent leadership by sharing their own mental health experiences.

3. Mental health factors may not be obvious.

It may be surprising to learn the trauma a paramedic deals with on a daily basis is not necessarily the biggest factor impacting their mental health. Administrative factors also take their toll, including shift work and its impacts on sleep and relationships, as well as unplanned overtime which causes stress and family conflict.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of mental health concerns around the world, with recent Australian research finding major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders have increased by more than 25% worldwide. During the pandemic, health and support agencies around the globe have reported significant spikes in people seeking help.

If there’s any silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that mental health has gone from being perceived as an issue for the few to a potential concern for many and, as a result, the conversation is becoming more open.

The mental health factors affecting your employees may not be obvious, so it’s important to seek their input. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups, provide channels for people to give feedback and use the insights to target well-being initiatives and communication activities where it will do the most good for your people.

4. Integrate communication from the outset.

This feels obvious for us as communication professionals, yet how often is the communication function brought to the table only when an initiative is “ready to launch”?

When AV’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2016–2019 was written, key aspects of the communication strategy were included in the organizational strategy. By making the promotion of mental health at all levels of the organization one of the four strategic objectives, we entrenched the organizational commitment to ongoing communication.

5. Avoid the temptation to launch and leave.

To achieve meaningful and lasting change, any cultural shift takes shared purpose, commitment and teamwork. That’s particularly true in tackling stigma.

The AV mental health strategy started with a three-year framework, and AV continues to review and build upon that initial work. After the first year, paramedics were already more willing to talk to someone. Less than one third indicated they would not speak to a colleague, which was down from 50% or more. Fewer than 25% were unwilling to speak to their manager, which was down from 40%. Some 90% or more were now able to identify the warning signs and were familiar with self-care strategies and the available treatments and supports.

6. Authentic storytelling is not easy, but it works.

Storytelling is a powerful weapon against stigma, but it can take creativity and persistence to get people talking about their mental health.

At AV, we found paramedics’ family members — a wife, a mother and a husband — who were willing to speak on camera, and their comments were moving and powerful. A couple of years on, one of the biggest symbols of success was finding paramedics willing to tell their own story. One paramedic was featured in the Ambulance Today magazine, along with an in-depth look at the AV case study.

7. You can’t help others if you don’t look after yourself.

Communicators are good at putting the needs of the business ahead of their own, and unfortunately that’s reflected in United Kingdom and Australian research identifying significant rates of stress, anxiety and depression within our profession. We must take better care of ourselves to best take care of our colleagues and clients.

As COVID and the acceleration of digital transformation redefine our workplaces and workforces, businesses are resetting ways of working that blend home and work like never before. We should strive to bring more “heart” into business and business communication. That starts with recognizing our employees as human beings and making it safe for them to bring their whole selves to work.

How will we measure when we have been successful?

When a mental health issue carries no more stigma than talking about something physical, like a heart attack.

To help you create a mentally healthy workplace, download Pinch Yourself Communication’s complimentary:Mental Health Insights Checklist.”

First published in the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) publication Catalyst in November 2021.

Wishing you a safe and enjoyable holiday

A huge thank you to all our clients for your continued support and trust in 2021.

We value our connection with you and the opportunity to help you achieve measurable business and community outcomes through effective communication and storytelling.

During another year that brought challenges, disruption and change, we managed to enjoy our share of ‘pinch yourself moments.’ Some of these we found by practising gratitude for the simple things in life and others we created through an issue well-managed or a piece of work well-executed.

We hope that’s been the case for you too and that there are many more such moments ahead for you and your organisation in 2022.

We are taking a break and our office will be closed from 22 December to 4 January 2018, reopening on Wednesday, 5 January.

Merry Christmas and whatever your traditions, we wish all our clients and everyone in our network a safe and enjoyable holiday, as well as good health, happiness and meaningful endeavours in the year ahead.

Best wishes

Build trust and protect reputation by doing what you say

Part of the Effective Communication series from Pinch Yourself Communication

A telecommunications company with dropouts in its broadband service; a grocery chain that accidentally charges customers twice for the same groceries; a big bank that fails to detect and stop money laundering transactions; a CEO who continues to fly first class while saying everyone must tighten their belts to cut costs; and a colleague who fails to meet an agreed deadline.

These issues have more in common than might appear at face value. Continue reading “Build trust and protect reputation by doing what you say”

Holiday wishes for a year unlike any other

This year we’ve all faced so much disruption and isolation, and my biggest challenge came when my elderly mother suffered a life-threatening illness and was hospitalised in another state with its borders closed to me.

Once I secured permission to enter Western Australia from Victoria, and completed two weeks of hotel quarantine, I really appreciated being able to spend a few months caring for Mum after months of strict lockdown in Melbourne and thankfully, she is now well on the path to recovery.

A heartfelt thank you to my clients for your ongoing support and flexibility which helped make it possible for me to spend this time supporting my mother back to health. The lines between work and home life became more blurred for all of us this year as we honed skills in remote working. In addition, I really appreciated being able to continue delivering your important projects while working across Australian time zones.

Thank you also to the clients who entrusted me to help you plan and prepare for issues and crises, and to navigate the pandemic by putting in place communication strategies and implementation plans to help people in your organisation and networks manage through uncertainty, isolation and change.

Amid the trials of the year, 2020 has also brought a good reminder about what’s most important. Top of the list for me is the people with whom I am connected – my family, friends and clients – the opportunity to spend time in our natural environment, and maintaining good health.

This festive season, I’m planning to savour the simple joy of spending time with people, while supporting local businesses and enjoying the diverse beauty of Melbourne and Victoria.

Our office will be closed from 24 December to 6 January 2018, reopening on Thursday, 7 January – but please don’t hesitate to reach out if it’s an emergency.

I look forward to continuing our conversation in the new year about how effective communication can help you achieve better business and community outcomes.

Whatever your beliefs and circumstances, I hope the festive period brings you an opportunity to stop, refresh and reconnect with people who are special to you, and with our community and natural world. Above all, please stay safe and well.

Best wishes

PS: Thank you to my talented sister Janet Robertson for the use of her beautiful hand-drawn mandala on our Christmas card this year! 🙂

Digital communication award memorably delivered by mail amid COVID-19

A digital communication project led by Pinch Yourself Communication has been recognised with a Bronze Quill Award in 2020 by the Victorian chapter of the International Association of Business Communication.

It’s a mark of our socially distant and disrupted year that the award was conferred by mail in recent weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions. Our thanks to IABC Victoria for their significant effort to ensure winners received the recognition they deserved despite challenging times.

The project for which Pinch Yourself Communication was recognised – with both a Gold Quill and Bronze Quill in 2020 – was delivered for a wonderful non-profit organisation that’s also been grounded by the pandemic this year.

Our Bronze Quill award was presented for the Fearless Flyers digital hub, an integrated digital and social media strategy and channels including a new website:, developed in partnership with our Fearless colleague Vicki Huggins. This has given Fearless Flyers a low-cost, resource-effective way to connect with potential new clients and foster a community among inspirational course graduates, backed by the digital processing of bookings and payments.

The Bronze and Gold Quill Awards are presented annually by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in recognition of communication excellence.

We hope circumstances will enable our pro bono client Fearless Flyers to find their wings again soon and in the meantime, we send our best wishes to all their volunteers and to everyone in the aviation sector who continues to do it tough due to COVID-19 impacts.

It’s been a year that has also mobilised and tested the communication profession globally, and as communicators rose to meet those challenges and help people navigate uncertainty, isolation and change, they have undoubtedly laid down the foundations for some stellar entries for the next Gold Quill awards.

All the best to all our fellow communication professionals who are working on their Gold Quill entries over the next month and congratulations to all our fellow winners for 2020 – Bronze and Gold – from here in Victoria and right around the world.

These awards reflect a standard of innovation, impact and excellence in communication that makes a real difference for our profession, for the organisations with which we work and for our communities.

All in this together for our mental health and wellbeing

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated a number of trends for our communities and businesses including working from home, shopping online and the overall rise of the digital economy.

It has also accelerated another, more concerning trend: the increased prevalence of people feeling stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

Read on to explore 7 key insights from an IABC Gold Quill Award-winning case study on mental health communication from Ambulance Victoria.

Continue reading “All in this together for our mental health and wellbeing”