Brave new mind

Photograph by Stefanie Zingsheim, University of Sydney Photographer


With work changing and fatalities at an all-time low, mental health is the next frontier in the battle to improve workplace health and safety. New technology is transforming the way care is provided.

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INDUSTRY: TECHNOLOGY Technology-enabled products and services that will revolutionise how mental health care is delivered worldwide are being commercialised by the University of Sydney and PwC.

Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the university’s Brain and Mind Centre, and Professor Jane Burns, of the Young and Well CRC, have spent years researching and developing technology products to help Australians better manage their mental health.

“PwC is working with the university to broaden out the scope of the trials, to continue with the academic rigor and work with consumers,” PwC partner Kristin Stubbins says.

“It’s strongly differentiated, which gives us the opportunity to disrupt the way care is currently provided and put more personalised information in the hands of the consumer.”

When fully developed, the technology, known as InnoWell, will allow Australians to answer a number of questions online to assess their mental fitness and develop a tailored wellbeing or health care management plan. It includes a range of services from mindfulness apps to online psychology consultations and clinical escalation.It will also allow consumers to sync their mobile devices with the technology platform, so wearable technology, smart apps and e-tools can feed back data about anything from sleep cycles and mood patterns to the number of steps taken daily to give consumers a holistic picture of their health and wellbeing. Participants can use this data to see how their wellbeing changes over time and use the platform to receive tailored support suggestions

Companies are going to have to ask very interesting questions about where they set the boundaries between providing support and the privacy of the individual.

Diane Smith-Gander

InnoWell’s chief operations officer, Louise Halliwell, says: “What excites me most is the personal insights that can be gathered from the data. It means mental health services, interventions and treatments can be tailored specifically to individuals – it could make a huge difference to people of all ages and in all communities.”

The project is supported by the Commonwealth government and has received significant funding to refine the product, build the scale of the technology and administer 10 national community research trials over the next three years.

Following a female leaders’ trade mission to Israel to explore Tel Aviv’s vibrant start-up sector, Stubbins returned full of ideas and a passion to make a difference in Australia.

On the trip she met University of Sydney vice chancellor Belinda Hutchinson. The pair saw first-hand the great collaboration between the Israeli universities and business.

Then while chairing a leadership group focused on fostering innovation in Sydney, Stubbins met Professor Burns, who was working on developing the technology with Professor Hickie. “We’re producing world-class research on mental health disorders in Australia, but we perform poorly by international standards when it comes to the development side of R&D,” Stubbins says.

PwC and beyondblue estimate that 45 per cent of working Australians experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, with the cost of mental ill health to business at an estimated $10.9 billion a year. On average, an employee takes three days a year off work due to stress and workers’ compensation claims from mental ill health in Australia total an estimated $146 million a year. Mental health claims are the fastest growing segment of insurance claims in Australia, according to Bupa. Safe Work Australia chair Diane Smith-Gander told The Press that increasingly mental health is one of the biggest occupational, health and safety issues for Australian companies. “For some years now there has been a strong focus from industry groups, members and unions on psycho-social issues,” she says.

“We know that when people are fatigued or under stress they make poor decisions, which can have a very serious impact on health, safety and productivity.

“It really is a business issue to make sure that the risks and hazards that come from mental health issues are managed well.”

Photograph by Matthew Galligan

Smith-Gander says companies have clear responsibilities in terms of providing training for workers and supervisors to ensure they have the knowledge and skills to do their work effectively. “That can’t be limited to training of just how to use equipment, software and production techniques, but it should also provide techniques and training for working with people and building positive relationships, so that going to work is not the cause of mental health issues.”

She says Australian businesses know that work is changing, with flexible working, automation and the rise of the contracted worker.

Many companies and managers are expected to be more supportive of their people in a holistic way.

“Companies are going to have to ask very interesting questions about where they set the boundaries between providing support and the privacy of the individual.’’

They are going to have to be vigilant about testing themselves and ensuring their managers and leaders have the skills and capabilities to help their people broach these topics and have courageous conversations, Smith-Gander says. “It’s about people caring about each other at work and having empathy.”

A PwC report commissioned by beyondblue in 2014 found that for every dollar invested in effective mental health strategies, Australian businesses received an average return of $2.30.

PwC will be one of the first companies in the world to test the technology products among its 7500 workers Australia-wide.

“We as an organisation have a long way to go on this, but we are investing heavily in having support services, driving awareness, talking about the issues and exploring technology solutions,” Stubbins says.

The Press is a publication by PwC Australia, aimed at sharing expertise, capturing insights and working together to solve important problems.

This article first appeared in Edition 4 of The Press
By Lucille Keen, Senior Reporter, The Press, PwC Australia

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