Managing mental health in times of ambiguity: the role of leadership

Workers in the financial services industry are experiencing a period of heightened uncertainty.

The industry has been under sustained scrutiny and is now facing an unprecedented era of change following the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

It is natural for people to feel a sense of uncertainty about where the industry is headed and worry about their job security and role within the organisation. 

Related News:

Many employees in the sector have been feeling the effect of this scrutiny on a very personal level, and this could potentially have an impact on their mental health. 

From our research conducted shortly after the Royal Commission was announced, we can see that compared to the national average, workers in financial services experience higher levels of stress in their job, and lower levels of engagement with their work. 

People who experience prolonged periods of high stress and poor mental health are not thriving, and therefore are not bringing their best selves to work. This may result in unintended consequences of lower productivity and engagement in work, which in turn may negatively affect the one thing that this industry is trying to address – better customer outcomes by meeting customer expectations and increasing trust across the Australian community.

Therefore, it is critically important for financial services organisations to take a close look at their mental health and wellbeing practices, particularly currently, and take proactive steps to support their employees.


The financial services industry experiences one of the highest rates of mental ill-health in the workforce, with analysis by PwC and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance finding that 33 per cent of its workers live with a mental health condition.

The current level of ambiguity facing the sector is unprecedented, in the wake not only of the Royal Commission, but also the Productivity Commission’s Competition in the

Australian Financial System inquiry, and changes through recent Federal Budgets.

Our research found that over a quarter of financial services workers are experiencing very high levels of stress in their job, and only 13 per cent report being highly engaged with their work, well below the 19 per cent national average. 

Financial services workers also have much less confidence in their leaders creating a sense of cohesion in work teams (8.4 per cent feel confident versus the average of 16 per cent), and feel they’d be a lot more committed to their organisation if it was a mentally healthy workplace.

These statistics do not bode well for a sector that needs engaged leadership, strategic foresight and member-focused decision making.

The good news is that workplaces have been responding proactively in recent years. Mental health and wellbeing initiatives are evolving at a rapid pace, with far more resources focused on this sector, and there is an increased awareness of mental health issues. 

The formerly independent sectors of financial services and mental health are beginning to converge more and more. This brings new opportunities for innovative mental health and wellbeing solutions, designed for the unique needs and challenges of superannuation and insurance organisations, their staff and their members.

This new era requires an increased effort to identify and address mental health issues in the workplace to ensure employees are supported to thrive, even through this time of flux. One of the most important factors to address this issue will be cultivating positive leadership within organisations.


The SuperFriend 2018 Indicators of a Thriving Workplace Survey identifies positive leadership as one of the key factors supporting mental health among employees.

Despite workers’ high expectations, Australian workplaces ranked Leadership the lowest among the five domains of Connectedness (68) Culture (65), Policy (64) and Capability (64) – which means they’re looking to their business leaders to create a culture of care that enables workers to be happy, healthy and productive. 

Research strongly supports the return on investment in workplace mental health and wellbeing; businesses thrive when people thrive!

The report identifies eight characteristics of positive leaders.

1. Being accessible when you need them and willing to listen

Leaders wanting to support the wellbeing of their workers could make sure people feel comfortable voicing concerns about their job by setting up safe, non-judgmental environments where they feel okay about sharing. Starting a safe dialogue about mental health in the workplace can also facilitate greater trust for people to speak up.

2. Modelling the values of the workplace

It is important for leaders to consider how they can champion every aspect of their organisation’s wellbeing strategy and initiatives and engage other staff to do the same.

Something as simple as being courteous and treating other people with respect will help promote a real sense of workplace connectedness.

3. Providing useful and constructive feedback

Setting job-related goals, provided these are realistic, and then making a regular time to review progress and learnings using a coaching approach, strengthens performance and professional relationships. Providing strengths-based feedback leads to greater engagement and outcomes. 

4. Creating a sense of cohesion within work teams

Leaders can promote unity within their team in a variety of ways including ensuring there are agreed goals and targets, valuing everyone’s contribution, helping to resolve conflict within the team, celebrating successes, and building trust, such as through team and cross-team activities.

5. Proactively encouraging and promoting good mental health policies and practices

A leader might know, for example, that there are workplace mental health policies in place, but staff aren’t aware they exist. A proactive leader will engage people is discussing these policies, and more importantly, bring these to life through practice. One way is by encouraging work life balance through flexible work arrangements.

6. Providing opportunities to develop professionally

Continually learning is known to be good for people’s mental health. Leaders should seek to understand the aspirations and development goals of team members and take active steps to develop people skills and expertise.

7. Acting as champions for their work teams

A positive leader supports his or her team members so they can get the job done. This means helping them overcome whatever challenges might be standing in the way of them achieving their goals. Team members can feel safe and secure because they know that when times get though, their leader has ‘got their backs’.

8. Reward and recognition are received for good work

Providing relevant acknowledgement and appreciation of people’s efforts in a fair and timely manner can motivate workers, build their self-esteem and enhance team success.


Helping to create a thriving workplace is no longer just the role of the HR department, but of every leader in the organisation, and every worker. There needs to be investments made in education, resources, time and tools to develop capable leaders. Armed with more knowledge, skills and confidence, leaders will be better able to implement a positive workplace culture and identify early and address mental health issues as they arise.

Training of frontline managers in particular can benefit both staff and customers, who may also present with mental health issues.

The benefit of investing in front-line team leaders and supervisors is that they are quite often the staff that will pick up the early warning signs that someone is not coping – and they can have an early intervention conversation, which may start simply with asking the person how they are going. The early conversations are often the most critical ones.

SuperFriend provides a range of solutions, including programs, resources, insights and events. We also provide specialist mental health and wellbeing training for managers and other staff that is specifically tailored for superannuation and insurance organisations.  

For those organisations not sure of where to start, we’d recommend using a diagnostic tool such as Wellbeing Works, which will highlight specific things you can do to improve your organisation’s performance in this vital area. Our Building Thriving Workplaces resource also offers a range of clear, straightforward actions and activities that any organisation can apply—including links to templates and further reading.

At SuperFriend, we are evolving our strategy in consultation with our partners to adapt to their evolving needs. In this new era for financial services, we maintain a laser focus on advocacy, insights and solutions for our industry partners and their members. 

There is no doubt this is a challenging time for the industry, from senior executives and regulators through to frontline workers. However, we have the resources to address this important issue if we remain vigilant and work together.  

Margo Lydon is the chief executive officer of SuperFriend.

Recommended for you



Add new comment