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How to build a ‘heart team’

by Hannah Dowling13 minute read
How to build a ‘heart team’

The co-founder and board director of R U OK?, Graeme Cowan, reveals his top tips for running a resilient and futureproof workforce, particularly in light of growing public mental health concerns. 

Research suggests that one in five Australians currently lives with a diagnosable mental health condition, and this figure is rising. Given that 85 per cent of Australians know someone that lives with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or bipolar – it’s important workplaces are equipped to manage a team that can support this growing pool of people.

With these figures in mind, Graeme Cowan, co-founder and board director of R U OK? recently spoke to a room of eager business leaders about how they can build a team of resilient individuals and future-proof their workforce in light of the growing prevalence of mental health issues in Australia. 

At the event, run by wellness-focused recruitment agency Parity Consulting, Mr Cowan focused on the idea of a “care revolution” within organisations and emphasised that caring for staff, particularly in regard to stress management and mental health, is both the “right thing to do” for the individual and a worthy investment for the business. 


Mr Cowan emphasised that smart and successful business leaders should be investing in their employees’ – and their own – mental wellbeing. 

His mantra for the day became: “A future-ready leader’s number one priority is to build a more caring and resilient team who enjoy growing together.” 

The “Green Zone” is when an individual is at their best in terms of mental wellbeing, with minimal stress, anxiety or worry.

“When we’re in the ‘Green Zone’… we know, intuitively, that we’re better parents, we’re better partners, we’re better work colleagues, but there’s also incredibly tangible research to suggest that this is great for businesses,” Mr Cowan said. 

“According to the research by Shawn Achor and Harvard Business Review, people in the green zone are 31 per cent more productive, they sell 37 per cent more, and they’re 300 per cent more creative.” 

How do you maintain a team of people in the ‘Green Zone’? 

According to Mr Cowan, research suggests that highly productive, highly profitable, high customer service levels, and those who stay at organisations for a longer than average period of time, all appear to be able to say, “I have a supervisor, or someone above me at my organisation, who seems to care about me as a person.”

In order to foster a resilient, productive and healthy team, Mr Cowan stated that you need to create a caring team – what he refers to as a “heart team”.

“Google has spent billions of dollars to find out what was the number one secret of the best teams, and the number one secret is to have [a team with] an immense respect for each other and to trust each other, safe to take risks, we have each other’s backs,” he said. “These are the fundamentals to great team performance.” 

What to do if your team member hits the ‘Red Zone’?

A key component of creating a “heart team” is understanding how to care for those who may be struggling in the “Red Zone”, which not only has negative impacts on the individual, but also on the business. “It’s not just in the absenteeism, but in the presenteeism,” Mr Cowan warned.

“People at work [in the Red Zone] are not fully productive,” he said.

With rates of diagnosable mental health conditions on the rise, it’s important for managers and team leaders to be able to address and assist team members who may be “in the Red Zone”, and not to promote stigma and shame within their teams. 

Through his own research, Mr Cowan has recognised that most people struggling with mental health problems do want help and want to recover, but often aren’t sure how to do it. He said it is therefore important for leaders in businesses to step up and provide their staff with the necessary resources to get help, should they need it. 

Knowing I CARE

“In my third book, I surveyed over 4,000 people [with mental health conditions] to find out what worked best in their recovery, and what worked can be explained with the acronym ‘I CARE’,” Mr Cowan explained.

I is for identify, so knowing who is in trouble. It’s usually around changes [in someone’s] mood, or appearance, and so on.

C is for compassion, which is putting yourself in someone’s shoes, and asking them ‘are you okay?’

A is for access to experts, to help guide them to the help that they need.

R is for revitalising work, because work is really good for our recovery, and a lot of people think that someone [battling mental health] should go home, but that’s not the case. People are better off being at work if they can, than being at home staring at the walls.

“And, finally,
E is for exercise.” 

Mr Cowan said he co-founded R U OK? Day in 2009 in order to address the first two steps of assisting someone in your organisation who may need help. 

However, he encouraged business managers and leaders to educate themselves on how best to approach someone in need of help with their mental health. This could be through partaking in educational programs run through the R U OK? foundation, partnering with employee assistance programs to provide employees with free counselling services, or researching local GPs who specialise in mental health.

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Hannah Dowling


Hannah Dowling is a journalist for The Adviser and Mortgage Business.

Prior to joining Momentum Media, Hannah worked as a content producer for a podcast catering to property investors. She also spent six years working in the real estate sector at a local agency. 

Email Hannah at: [email protected]


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