Helen Hewett: deserved recognition for making a difference

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Helen Hewett, a former chief executive of the big industry fund Cbus, was awarded an ‘AM’ in yesterday’s Queens Birthday honours. It was probably, hopefully, for her work with mental health, more so than her, also very commendable, super fund work, for which she has been recognised.

The ‘Member of the Order of Australia’ (AM) is often given to people who spend a lot of their time working for the betterment of society in general, not just within their chosen profession. In Hewett’s case, her work with mental health has quite probably helped save lives, not just adding to the retirement incomes of Cbus members.

Hewett spent nine years at Cbus, 1995-2004, the last seven of which were as chief executive. In that time she established the fund as a public offer fund, she built a strong management team, she introduced the concept of ‘limited financial advice’ which widened the scope of financial planning services for all members, and played a central role in the establishment of the fund’s direct property investments.

In the mental health area though, Hewett went way beyond her career brief. She was the driving force behind the establishment of SuperFriend, the industry fund-owned and insurance company-backed educational and research body which promotes the discussion of mental health issues in the workplace, as well as providing measurement standards and suggested practices for dealing with those issues.

SuperFriend, under chief executive Margo Lydon, has grown in the past few years to an organisation with about 20 staff and an annual budget of more than $4 million. It has also moved beyond the initial aim of raising awareness in the workplace of the problems that many people suffer due to mental illnesses or other issues. It has become an influencer in the wider mental health debate, including recommending standards of practice for insurance claims assessments.

After leaving Cbus, Ian Silk, the chief executive of AustralianSuper, approached Hewett and recommended she apply to run the nascent Industry Funds Forum. It was in that capacity that she spoke with many of the executives and directors of the country’s biggest funds to discuss what their major issues were. The mental health of their members – which actually costs the funds and their insurers a lot of money, apart from the terrible personal consequences for affected members – was among their top concerns.

Hewett not only talked the big funds into setting up SuperFriend, she also worked out how to fund its operation, due to the help of the major insurers. She says: “We were aware of the Sole Purpose Test, of course, and so we had to work out how the actuaries at the insurance companies could measure the benefits of helping with mental health issues. We discovered how difficult it is to measure that.”

Mental health issues are not just about the increased incidence of suicide, which is clearly a cost to a fund and its insurers. It’s also about absenteeism and what is now known as “presenteeism”, where the worker is there but not really tuned in. The annual cost to employers, the super funds, and insurers is enormous.

Hewett also had a personal connection with mental illness. Her late brother, former trade union official Don McDonald, who passed away last year, had a son, Warwick – Hewett and her family’s beloved nephew – who suffered from schizophrenia for most of his adult life. As anyone who has been in a similar situation knows, there is no cure for schizophrenia – you just try to manage it, with the help of medication and, usually, but not always, the love of parents like Don.

Don McDonald was a driving force behind the establishment of the Schizophrenia Research Institute and became its patron. He never gave up on either Warwick or the search for a better way to handle the illness, if not a cure for it. He was also awarded an AM for his work with the Institute. As an aside, another brother, Tom McDonald, a foundation trustee of Cbus, also got an AM, making three out of the family’s 10 children to be so recognised.

Lucy Brogden, the national mental health commissioner and another champion of the cause for more help for those with mental illness, was also awarded an AM in yesterday’s honours list.

Hewett, 71, had a battler’s upbringing in the-then working-class inner-western Sydney suburb of Glebe, which is now rather more expensive and gentrified. She devoted most of her career to helping others in one way or another. Thank you, Helen.

– G.B 

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