Spotlight Series: Insight from BHP on tackling the GBC Pledge

The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health aims to help organisations all over the world to prioritise employee mental health. As a business-led initiative, the insights and best practices that we share will be heavily informed by the visionary leaders and companies who sign our six-point Pledge.

In the article that follows, Dr Rob McDonald, Vice-President of Health and Hygiene at BHP for ten years, shares his organisation’s approach to tackling the areas outlined in the GBC Pledge.

Developing an action plan

BHP’s own journey into employee mental health started seven years ago, when Rob was approached by one of the Business leaders following the  tragic loss of one of their employees to suicide.

“BHP started to ask itself some very challenging questions around what more they could be doing to support their employees. This was the start of a great many conversations, between people all over the organisation,” he said.

Over several months,  multiple conversations took place across the company;  raising awareness of poor mental health and its impact, exploring common problems, and delving into the sticky subject of stigma.  This resulted in sponsorship being secured from the executive leadership team to form a working group, with representatives from all functions of the business – including Human Resources, Health, Safety and Environment , Communications, and people leaders from operations around the globe. 

BHP decided to engage with external experts to find the most suitable framework for their global business. This discussion was facilitated by the University of Newcastle, and in the end, BHP adopted their blueprint for better mental health – focusing on the four pillars of culture, capacity, prevention and recovery. Key activities for each of these areas were then developed, to make BHP a more mentally healthy place to work.

Crucially, the working group obtained support from BHP’s CEO and executive leadership team in adopting the framework, and its implementation became one of their top business priorities for the next two years. A letter of intent from the CEO, with KPIs tied to demonstrating progress in each area, helped to keep up momentum and instil the importance of workplace mental health. 

Rob’s top advice for other businesses who are just getting started is to:

  • Involve a cross section of the business, including different organisational levels, functions, operations, geographies and those with a lived experience of a mental health condition to achieve a multi-disciplinary approach
  • Bring in external expertise for evidence-based and technical input
  • Ensure buy-in from senior leaders 


Eliminating stigma and developing culture

Although recognising the importance of all four pillars, BHP was deliberate in seeking to build a culture of care through raising awareness of the prevalence of poor mental health, the very significant personal, community and business impact this had, as well as a strong focus on removing stigma. They believed that this was a necessary first step to then get the buy-in from across BHP to make significant progress in the areas of Capacity, Prevention and Recovery.

One of the early measures BHP took was seeking volunteers from all levels across the business who were willing to share their personal experience of mental health. BHP enlisted the help of Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health and wellbeing organisation, to frame these stories with messages of hope and recovery – something that’s proven to be extremely powerful in their organisation. 

BHP’s approach continues to evolve, and this May was ‘Mental Health Month’ which aimed to:

Promote an open culture around mental health and reduce stigma

Empower our people to manage and prioritise their own mental health and to support one other

Raise awareness of the BHP mental health tools, resources and services available

Multiple channels of communication were utilised, including the Digital Workspace (BHP’s internal news portal), and Yammer (BHP’s social media platform). During the month, thousands of BHP workers, including a number of BHP’s executive leadership team, participated in the campaign by sharing, commenting and reading about mental health, overcoming adversity, and tips and tricks to stay well.

Recognising the limited access the front line workforce has to such mediums, a number of mental health ‘toolbox talks’ were also developed including:

  1. Looking after your mental health during COVID-19
  2. Talking about your mental health at work
  3. Supporting people with mental health conditions
  4. Living with anxiety
  5. Improving your sleep
  6. Strengthening our relationships
  7. Looking after our own mental wellbeing
  8. Calling the EAP

Toolbox talks are simple one, or two page, slides that are shared and discussed for a number of minutes during the pre-start meeting ahead of commencing the work for the shift. 

“Articles and the sharing of stories go a long way towards eliminating stigma, but it is also vitally important that our leaders can show their own vulnerability and that we prioritise psychological safety – allowing people to bring their full selves to work, and to confidently speak out and raise concerns when they need to,” said Rob. 

Showing vulnerability was actually quite uncomfortable for Rob in the beginning: during his medical training as an occupational physician, Rob’s own mental health suffered. He didn’t access the support he needed at the time because stigma was still so rife – and that stigma is something he carried with him.

“I don’t want  anyone else to go through what I’ve experienced, so I’ve taken on a personal responsibility to eliminate the stigma and create a more open culture by sharing my own story.”

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done. Rob talks about the prevalence of stigma in places like Latin America, and about the efforts that are still needed to help frontline workers to feel comfortable about speaking more openly about mental health. There is also the need to equip their people, particularly supervisors, with the tools and training they require to better support psychological safety, which will also enable more effective mental health conversations. 

“Supervisors have a vital role to play in creating a more open culture, as their direct reports will be looking to them for guidance, and essentially the permission they may feel they need to speak up and ask for help.  You need to create a comfort in people leaders to enable these conversations to occur.”


Empowering employees to manage their own mental health

BHP approaches the empowerment of its employees in three key ways:

  1. Employee Assistance Program (EAP): The EAP has always been a part of BHP, but there is now a far more deliberate campaign to make people aware of the resource, highlight its different modalities (online, over the phone, or face-to-face), and encourage its use. Available to employees and their family and dependants, the EAP is promoted as something that can be used for support with the daily challenges of life, rather than only considering EAP  in a crisis.
  2. Thrive toolkit: Through both a designated app and BHP’s digital platform, employees have access to a whole suite of digital resources. This is a complete self-help library, providing support around topics such as elderly care, children, remote working, anxiety, finances and depression.
  3. Peer-led resilience program: This resource provides tools and skills training to help employees become more resilient in the face of challenges. As a preventative measure, the peer-led program is a natural extension of BHP’s leader-led resources and serves to create a safe space where people can seek help and support. BHP Resilience Program coaches are trained by  expert psychologists, and volunteer facilitators can access Resilience Program coaches for support.


In order to understand which resources to place on the thrive app, and where to signpost employees to, BHP’s mental health their working group looked at the common stressors that most people face, took feedback from the many wellbeing committees that exist across the company and input from data sources such as EAP and the engagement and perception survey. During COVID there has been a strong focus on dealing with the many stressors this has introduced.


The Way Forward

When asked about the future, Rob highlights the important role the workplace can play both positively and negatively in mental health and stresses the importance of identifying and addressing psycho-social hazards such as excessive job demands, low work control, support and change. After all, good work is good for our health, and in fact can be protective for a worker presenting with a mental health issue, while bad work can be detrimental. We need to help our leaders to get better at recognising these hazards, just as they currently do with physical hazards, and demonstrate that their effective management will be great for their teams and deliver safer production. In support of progressing this work, BHP has just created a new role in Rob’s team ‘Practice Lead Care and Human Performance’ who will lead this work.

Measurement is another area where BHP wants to improve.  Currently, BHP works to verify which programmes and resources are being utilised, and which are really helping their people. They also have a suite of metrics around their Employee Assistance Programme, which helps them to understand the key reasons for referrals (whether work or personal), and the number of cases of mental ill health. And then there’s the engagement and perception survey, which includes a number of questions that can give BHP a handle on employee wellbeing levels.

Rob admits that they still have work to do in the measurement space, but explains that that’s one of the reasons they have signed up to the GBC pledge – they’re hoping to learn best practice from other organisations leading the way in this area.

“Ultimately, that’s why the Global Business Collaboration exists: to facilitate the sharing of best practice, and to support workplaces in becoming altogether healthier places,” he said.


Find out more about signing the GBC Pledge.