“Even in the toughest of industries, transformational, cultural and actual change is possible”

In this exclusive interview, we were shocked to learn from Sonia Higgins that in Australia, “a construction worker is 6 times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace accident”. In the UK, “one construction worker dies by suicide every 2 days”. Read what Lendlease did in response.

ELM: I understand that Lendlease have a Health and Wellbeing Framework, which since October 2014 has focused on a global yet holistic approach to health and wellbeing within the organisation. Can you tell me what triggered this internally?

Sonia: With a view that you can’t manage what you don’t measure; Lendlease conducted a baseline health assessment of the organisation in 2013. The data suggested that across our global workforce, 16% of our workforce were at high risk of depression, 9% were experiencing increased levels of workplace stress and 43% were unable to cope with the demands of their job.

Accompanying the statistics, the assessment also took qualitative feedback and comments from employees and senior leaders and there was a common thread across all our organisation regarding stress, work hours, fatigue and increased levels of anxiety and depression.

This review focused on the physical, behavioural and environmental health risks of our global operations. The report led us to establish and implement a framework centered on 4 core pillars: Supporting Healthier Minds, Developing Healthier Bodies, Building Healthier Places and Creating a Healthier Culture.

One of the four focus areas within the Framework is Supporting Healthier Minds. What made this become a core area?

In our industry in general, you might be surprised to hear that the construction industry is one of the top 10 industries globally at high risk of mental health issues.

In Australia, a construction worker is 6 times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace accident. In the UK, one construction worker dies by suicide every 2 days.

So it made absolute sense that mental health became a key global priority in the Supporting Healthier Minds pillar.

ELM: Statistics like that are alarming! Obviously, the general issue of workplace mental health is an important one across Australia and New Zealand. We are seeing an uptake on the issue by many public and private organisations. However, there still remains that percentage of companies and senior management that require “more evidence” before doing something. How did you and your team go about building a business case to make this the global initiative that it is now?

Sonia: Sadly, we were in the same place a few years ago in regards to that attitude. Despite running a number of ‘health’ programs for some time, we didn’t have the type of comprehensive data and information to accurately help us understand where the key issues and areas of concern were across our various operations. Collecting this data was critical.

There were a few key areas that helped us get the appropriate buy in:

  • Obtaining company specific baseline data – matching both our internal data and also the growing amount of evidence/research externally
  • Formulating a response with a supporting strategy and implementation plan that was both globally consistent, yet flexible enough to be regionally relevant
  • Ensuring that the whole organisation would play a part in Health and Wellbeing – that it wasn’t just being driven out of one area
  • Key recommendation of establishing a global and regional governance group to monitor and evaluate progress and help guide initiatives.
  • Aligned it to our business strategy as well as our Sustainability Framework

ELM: What pointers do you have for HR and Wellbeing Leaders who may be facing this internal challenge?


  1. Relevance – Build the evidence and data points for your organisation, compare it to industry (where you can) and to the geographic areas where you have a presence
  2. Engagement – Ensure all key stakeholders internally and externally are engaged, involved and contribute to the development of the strategy
  3. Management Endorsement – Get engagement and endorsement from the top – find an ambassador (preferably the CEO)
  4. Hard Work – Be prepared for some really hard work but that is truly rewarding and is ultimately focused on your biggest asset – the wellbeing of your people


ELM: So how is it actually going and what has been its impact on Lendleases’ workplaces?

Sonia: We are really encouraged and proud of the indicative results (not to reveal too much of my presentation!) and we have seen some significant improvements in key areas. We already know we have made a positive impact on the organisation from the overwhelming feedback we get regularly, but it was rewarding to have this validated with data.

ELM: Guess we’re only going to hear the results at the event! The job title of General Manager, Group Sustainability is a common one across industry. However, what’s not so common is the connection between group sustainability and health and wellbeing. Can you comment on this? What does this say about Lendlease’s approach to the issues of workplace mental health, physical health and wellbeing, and healthy workplaces and cultures?

Sonia: Lendlease’s vision is to create the best places. We believe that a critical part of creating the best places is placing people’s wellbeing at the heart of this vision. As an organisation, we operate guided by four core principles: safety, sustainability, diversity and customer focus, and yet it is the safety of our people that has always been our number one priority.

We believe every person who works with us, and for us, has the right to return home in the same way they arrived at work. Therefore, it has made sense over the last six years, for Lendlease to evolve and extend our notion of caring for people to include their mental health.

We believe a mentally healthy workplace culture improves productivity, strengthens our relationships and reputation with our clients, and makes Lendlease an even better place to work.

Leadership has an important role influencing our culture. In June 2014, our CEO and Managing Director, Steve McCann became a founding ambassador for beyondblue’s Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance – Heads Up.

ELM: Over 65 HR and Wellbeing leaders have already registered to attend Workplace Mental Health Australia in Sydney. As a case study presenter for the event, what is the number one take away you hope to provide the attendees based off your experience and presentation?

Sonia: My number one takeaway for attendees working on the business critical issue of wellbeing is that even in the toughest of industries, transformational, cultural and actual change is possible. It takes time, however with a clear understanding of workplace trends we are able to create a resilient and inclusive workplace. This is good for everyone and it starts with a commitment to care.


About Sonia Higgins:

Sonia Higgins has over 17 years’ experience in the corporate and private sector working in a variety of industries from Real Estate, IT, Retail and Consumer Goods, and Property & Construction.

Most recently, as General Manager of Sustainability and Head of Lendlease Foundation, Sonia has led strategic, global initiatives around health and wellbeing, community/social investment and engagement, shared value, and the Lendlease Foundation – a function of Lendlease dedicated to the wellbeing of employees, families and community.

Sonia holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science, majoring in Organisational Psychology and Communications, is an alumni of the Young Achievement Australia (YAA) Program, is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and an active mentor of the UTS Lucy Mentoring Program.

She has a passion and commitment to health and wellbeing in the workplace and in particular education and raising awareness of mental health. She was one of the featured speakers at the Workplace Mental Health Australia event in Sydney.