A business imperative for promoting employees’ mental health

A corporate leader felt strongly about addressing mental health in the workplace, so she wrote a book about it. Creating “a sense of belonging” is one first step for organisations.

Genevieve Hawkins, a business leader based in Melbourne, Australia, had a previous career in occupational therapy. That's one part of her background that contributed to the decision to write a book about workplace mental health.

Hawkins said that, in the past, most organisations left mental health to the employee. That's changing, but it can change more. In this podcast episode, to recognise mental health awareness in the month of May, Hawkins explains simple ways that leaders and companies can create a sense of belonging for staff. She also addresses how managers can "understand their shadow".

What you'll learn from this episode

  • The reasons Hawkins decided to write a book about mental health in the workplace.
  • Her explanation of the multiple layers of connection.
  • One aspect of working from home that is good for Hawkins' mental health.
  • Why Hawkins said that the move to remote and hybrid work has been both a benefit and an obstacle to employee mental health.
  • What Hawkins means by understanding "our shadow".
  • A Stephen Covey quote that stands out to Hawkins.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:


— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: May is Mental Health Awareness Month in various spots around the world, including the US, and there are also mental health awareness weeks within May in places such as the United Kingdom. For this episode, our focus is going to be on mental health. I'm speaking with a corporate leader about the topic that mattered so much to her, she wrote a book about it. Here's that interview.

Welcome to the FM podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. Our guest for this episode is Genevieve Hawkins. She's an author, speaker, and executive focused on mental health in the workplace. Genevieve and I are 14 hours apart as we record this podcast. Kind of crazy to me — I think that's a record. But again, we're going to talk about mental health. Genevieve has written a book called Mentally at Work: Optimising Health and Business Performance Through Connection. So, Genevieve, first welcome to the podcast, and then also what would you say inspired you to write that book?

Genevieve Hawkins: Thanks, Neil, and it's 14 hours apart, and you're finishing a day and I'm starting a day. The inspiration for writing the book was really missing a bit of a gap in the marketplace in terms of how we're thinking about mental health within the workplace. And as a business leader, I was saying that you can have a lot of information out there that's just purely from a medical point of view and understanding the medical impacts of mental health. Or you have things that are about leadership in the workplace but not really talking about the impact that leaders have in actually influencing mental health. Or it's really been a focus on the individual and what the individual can do, not what the organisation can do.

The book really was about, I wanted to help people to understand, hey, look, you do need to understand a bit of the science, but actually you don't need to understand heaps of it. But here's some basic science about it. But actually this is how we interact as individuals, and this is how our bodies and our brains react to the conversations that we have in environments we have. I just wanted to give you some really practical tips for things to do in the workplace that make a difference to your own mental health as well as other people that you interact with.

Amato: There is clearly a business tie-in to having mentally healthy employees. Can you talk about the importance of connection for mental health and business performance and how you define "connection" in this context?

Hawkins: So I might go, "Here's what connection means for me, and then this is the link between the two." Because there is a thing for me around as an individual, we need to feel like we belong, so we are fundamentally tribal in nature. We need to feel like we're part of a community. When we feel part of a community, we feel safer. If we actually feel like we belong, our brains can actually calm down and go, "I'm OK now. I feel safe. I can now actually perform." If I'm feeling anxious because I don't feel I'm part of the tribe, I don't feel like I have a key role and contribution to make within that team, then actually I don't feel safe. We go for hours on the chemicals within our brain and what happens with it, but our brains react to that.

For me, the first layer of connection is, I feel connected to myself. I'm aware of where I'm at. My second layer of connection is, I feel like I belong in this community of people, which then helps me to connect to this bigger picture of where is this business heading and what am I trying to do within that business. When we talk about this link between health and performance, it's this idea that says, if I'm feeling that I don't belong, I have more cortisol running through my brain, which is making me more uptight and more stressed and, therefore, that's actually not healthy on a longer term for our own bodies. The second part from a performance point of view is, if I had those high levels of cortisol and therefore stress over an extended period of time, I can't perform or I can't be my best self for you if I don't feel I'm connected with you and I feel like I belong in that team.

Amato: The pandemic disrupted that tribal mentality or that tribal connection so many of us had. In a remote or hybrid working environment, which is obviously far more common now, is it tougher or easier for employees to improve their mental health?

Hawkins: That's a great question. Actually, the interesting thing is I'm going to answer some and some. Because actually a hybrid world on the one hand gives us this benefit that says, if I feel like I can be a bit more flexible in what I can do, then I don't have to feel as stressed about -- I have to leave at this time, and I'm going to get stuck in traffic because I've got to get home. Because I've got to do X, whether it is actually look after little kids, look after elderly people, get to the basketball game, whatever it might be. A level of flex in the way in which we operate means that that ability to go, "I'm not stuck in traffic for extended periods of time."

I work at home on a Monday. I love the fact that I could put a slow-cook meal on at lunchtime. I hear the smell during the afternoon; that's great for your mental health, to feel that smell coming through. But also then dinner's ready and so I can then go right. I can keep working until the last minute and then come out and go, "There we go, everyone, dinner is here." That part helps. The part that it makes it harder for is connection with other people and feeling that sense of tribal nature, and so that's the bit that leaders have actually got to really work on, is how do we still get that really strong sense of I belong and I'm really connected with these people that I'm working with, if I'm not seeing them every single day of the week.

Amato: The way I asked that question was about employees improving their mental health. What is the role of the organisations, the employers, to make sure their employees are mentally healthy?

Hawkins: This is really one of the such important conversation topics and is part of why I wrote the book, because I wanted employers to start thinking about this piece around what our role is to play. Because in a past world, the view would be, that's your problem, like your own mental health or your own physical health, that's what you need to deal with and, when you come into work, I just need you to do the job, is an old-fashioned way of thinking about our employees and what they do. What we have to recognise is a couple of things. One is the societal challenge that we're facing, so the way the world is changing, the level of uncertainty in the world is actually contributing to significant increases and will continue to see a significant increase in anxiety and depression, and so this is a tsunami that is going to hit society that we really need to face into.

The idea that an employer can sit back and go, "Ah, It's fine. I'm just going to get the fittest people and the best people, and they can do my jobs and, if you can't do the job, bad luck, go away." You're not actually going to be able to do that. That's number one. We have that challenge they have to appreciate. These are challenges that people are facing with.

The second thing is the way in which we design work and the way in which we interact with each other impacts people's mental health for better or for worse. Therefore, our role as an employer is to go, we need to make sure that we're designing our work in a way that's reasonable for people that's not actually contributing to poor health outcomes, and also we need to understand that what we all call our shadow, so how we impact people because of the way we're interacting. No one intentionally sets out to make someone else feel really bad. Well, unless you're a sociopath, but we don't set out to make people feel bad. But the way in which we interact can do that and so employers, if they want to have a sustainable business long term, achieving the goals that they want to achieve, they actually have to have mentally healthy people in the workplace, and their responsibility therefore is to understand how they impact that.

Amato: Do you have one or two examples that maybe you could share about strategies that organisations have used successfully to improve the mental health of their workplaces or their workers?

Hawkins: I could probably give you a few different examples, perhaps just a couple. I'm going to give a really simple example that you can actually implement tomorrow, or today.

Amato: Depends on where you are in the world, whether it's Australia or the United States.

Hawkins: The first really practical one is just a sense of how do we create a sense of belonging with people? That sense of belonging we can speed up with people by this simple question: What do you have in common with the people in your team that has nothing to do with work? Find that out, and use that as a common bond, and it's got to be at an individual level. If I use an Australian example, the classic thing in Australia is that people talk about we're a mad, sport-loving country, that we all love our sport. I see that at times. We have a game called the Australian Football League, or the AFL or footy as we call it, and on Monday morning, across lots of teams, there's conversations about who won what games on the weekend. I am not an AFL fan. I probably shouldn't state that publicly, should I? I can tolerate the football, but it doesn't do much for me.

If I've got a team and everyone's just talking about football because they assume that's what everyone wants to talk to, it doesn't help me feel like I belong and, in fact, it can always make me feel like I don't belong because I'm not a sports person.

But if you want to talk about the latest Star Wars that's come out. What's the latest show on Star Wars or you want to talk to me about cooking and some amazing thing that's been discovered that you tried a recipe on the weekend, I'd love that. Finding out what you have in common with someone else and actually having a regular conversation, not for hours and hours, because it's like our brain's going, I like you. I like you because you like what I like.

That's a practical thing everyone can do straightaway. Do not underestimate the power of our brains will go, this feels good. I feel I belong more because I can have a laugh or I can share deep conversation about, could be sport, could be animals, could be hiking, cooking, particular books, movies, whatever it might be. But that type of conversation helps, so that's a first, immediate thing that anyone can do.

The other thing that I can see that organisations do that make a difference, is actually helping leaders to understand their shadow. Understanding the impact that they unintentionally have on others. There's a great, I think it was Stephen Covey, that had the comment around "I judge myself by my intent, but others by their behaviour." It's a really good thing to be thinking about as a leader, because you're sitting there going, well, I'm not intending to offend anyone or ostracise or isolate someone or upset them, whatever. But we have to understand that we have an impact, so where you see organisations work effectively, there's this really great ability to go, "How do I understand my impact, and how do I seek feedback from my teams and my peers to actually understand that impact and learn from it and change my behaviour bit to create a better environment for others?"

Amato: Now, in some bio information that I got about you, it said that Genevieve Hawkins "has had a passion for understanding and influencing the psychology of how people not just cope but thrive under pressure." Why do you think that's something that's interesting to you?

Hawkins: This is getting into a whole, let's talk about my childhood. Actually talking about childhood, so I'm the eighth of nine children. And actually that has influenced me, because I think that when you're the eighth of nine, you are left to your own devices a bit to work out the world, and so I think I was not only born a bit with this, but I think my environment encouraged me to naturally have a curiosity. The other thing for me is that I actually recognised from a reasonably early age my own anxieties and recognising the parts where I was feeling, what this doesn't quite make sense because people aren't behaving the way I thought they would behave in this space and so why is that? I think that has helped me to be naturally curious because I wanted to solve my own problems as well as ultimately then become — I studied occupational therapy, like I said, becoming an occupational therapist in my first part of my career because of that fascination with how people think and act.

Amato: Now a little background for the listeners, I'd say that both my mental wellbeing as well as Genevieve's was tested by the fact that we could not record the first day we tried to because of some technical difficulties, so I appreciate her taking the time to do this again. Genevieve, thank you for being on the show. Is there anything you'd like to leave the audience with as a closing thought?

Hawkins: Neil, I think, well, looking outside the "Hey, buy my book book because I actually think it'll really help you," is I think just, ultimately, I would say what we have to all remember is that we have to look after our own mental health as much as we look after our physical health. That we all have to understand that that is such an important responsibility and learn a bit more about it, understand a little bit more about how your brain reacts to things and what you can do on a practical basis.

Amato: Genevieve Hawkins, thank you very much.

Hawkins: Thank you, Neil.