Clare Bennett (New Zealand Defence Force)

Nominee/entrant details

Clare Bennett, Director Integrated Wellness

Employer details

New Zealand Defence Force

Size: 10,000+ staff

Industry: Other Services

Background on entrant/nominee's employer

Te Ope Katua O Aotearoa New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) encompasses the Royal New Zealand Navy, the New Zealand Army, and the Royal New Zealand Airforce. The organisation is comprised of approx. 10,000 uniformed staff and 3000 civilians. The wider NZDF whānau includes around 2,000 Reservists, the families of service members, and veterans no longer on active duty. The NZDF has personnel throughout the country and offshore on both operational and non-operational duties. The last 20 years have seen NZDF personnel tested in a number of ways, perhaps most notably deployments to Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan. Over the last year, the NZDF has played a key role in planning and executing Aotearoa New Zealand’s pandemic response.

Executive summary

Col Bennett has worked to enhance the wellbeing of New Zealanders throughout her professional life. At the tactical level she has deployed on operations, such as to Timor Leste, offering her compassion and support to frontline personnel. At the strategic level, Col Bennett has made a tangible impact on the wellbeing of the NZDF’s personnel, whānau and communities through her tireless efforts to understand and enhance Mental Health systems and culture across the NZDF. At the centre of Col Bennett’s work has been a focus on prevention and equipping peers, leaders and units to take a proactive approach to mental health. Col Bennett’s work has led the way in New Zealand, and heavily influenced subsequent programmes in the public and private sector.

Authenticity and vulnerability

Col Bennett remains approachable to individual service members, defence civilians, and their whānau, and remains actively engaged in supporting personnel and their whānau. She endeavours to remain connected to the experience of people at all layers of the NZDF, and treats all with respect and dignity. She draws on her lived experience as the spouse of a service member and having transitioned out for a period herself previously as she considers the wider NZDF community, and consistently includes whānau and veterans in her whakaaro around wellbeing. Perhaps most importantly, Col Bennett has actively maintained her connection with a network of service members with lived experience of distress, and this perspective consistently informs her efforts. Clare is humble in her approach and makes others feel valued.

Courage and leadership

Col Bennett has been conscientious in her strategic approach to enhancing mental health, and relentless in executing this strategy. The four strategic themes of Col Bennett’s Mental Health Strategy are Lead, Understand, Prepare and Care. This focus on leaders and addressing mental health proactively has permeated the culture of the NZDF. Col Bennett has been unflinching in her willingness to provide senior leaders with an accurate appreciation of the wellbeing of the NZDF, and her perspective on where the opportunities might lie. She has consistently highlighted the role of leadership in mental health and sought to equip leaders with practical tools to support their people. This is reflected in the fact that the first theme in the NZDF’s Mental Health Strategy is Lead, highlighting the importance of culture and context in mental health. Examples of this include the production of a Leaders Guide to Mental Health that has since been adapted for the broader public sector. Col Bennett has also participated in a number of international research and intervention initiatives, and guided innovation. She is well respected in the international military mental health community. She has contributed to a range of publications, on topics as broad as Moral Injury and Mental Health service provision. She has been bold in recognising and responding to new challenges, and her rapid implementation of an organisational wellbeing measure has informed the NZDF’s understanding of the impact of OP PROTECT – the NZDFs significant contribution to the nation’s pandemic response – on our people and their whānau.

Engagement and communication

Throughout her service with the NZDF Col Bennett has provided service members, and their whānau, with a greater understanding of mental health and wellbeing. Her messaging has always been underpinned by a belief in the inherhent resilience of our people, and empowering NZDF members and their whānau to take ownership of their wellbeing, whilst also acknowledging that this is a collaboration between the service member, their whānau and the organisation. She has worked directly with the whānau of service members deploying, and provided them with evidenced-based and practical tools in relation to wellbeing. Providing leaders with the will and skill to address mental health has been a central tenet of her approach, and has amplified the impact of her work. Through her input into the NZDF leadership development system she has shaped the training of every NZDF leader, and she continues to provide direct personal input into the development of NZDF’s senior leaders. Col Bennett’s messaging has also enabled leaders to better understand how investing in mental health is a reflection of our organisational values, and directly enhances our operational capability. Linking a proactive mental health posture to organisational values and outputs has proven very persuasive. One example of this is in the title of the NZDF mental health handbook she sponsored, “Staying at the Top of Your Game” - A publication that has been modified for the public sector. She has also made most of the NZDF mental health material available via the NZDF internet site, allowing service members – and the general public – to have ready access to the material. Col Bennett has also developed relationships with leading international researchers in military mental health, and has influenced programmes of work around the world. She has presented in international forums and enhanced to mana of both the NZDF and Aotearoa New Zealand in doing so.


Col Bennett’s efforts have also seen greater integration of mental health efforts across the NZDF. In a sector where progress is often stymied by silos, Col Bennett has been able to bring capabilities together to provide holistic solutions. At the centre of this is the Te Whāre Tapa Whā model, which has been a centrepiece of her strategy from the beginning. This model is reflected in all her major lines of work. For instance, the NZDF self-assessment measure, a free online tool available to any NZDF member, is organised around the components of the Te Whāre Tapa Whā model, as is the “Staying at the Top of Your Game” resource (a comprehensive and widely utilised guide). Another example of this is the health coaching programme she piloted. This initiative was based on a holistic self-assessment, and integrated a range of providers from the medical, psychology and research capabilities in the NZDF. The organisational wellbeing measures Col Bennett put in place have informed the allocation of resources in very real ways, such as increasing the social worker workforce in the NZDF. Col Bennett’s focus on practical guidance and tools has resulted in mental health models and language now being part of the NZDF’s vernacular. NZDF members’ routinely use phrases like “orange gusting red” when talking about mental health, and everyone from recruits to the Army’s top shooting team are able to apply foundational mental health skills, such as “tactical” or diaphragmatic breathing. Col Bennett has embedded core mental health skills and models so they are reinforced across different contexts, ranging from pre-deployment to transition. Perhaps most fundamental to Col Bennett’s impact has been her conscientiousness, resolve and commitment to this kaupapa. Her efforts have played a key role in shaping the NZDF’s thinking on mental health and wellbeing over several years.


Col Bennett has made the reduction of stigma one of the pillars of her work, and has lead a number of efforts to address stigma across the NZDF. These have included health promotion campaigns and the promulgation of lived experience stories. These have resulted in a measurable improvement in the willingness of personnel to put their hand up and seek help. Col Bennett currently leads the Directorate of Integrated Wellness, and this directorate often collaborates with the Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion (e.g. on producing an annual guide to staying safe and thriving over the Christmas Festive season).

Innovation and creativity

Taking a strategic approach to mental health was innovative at the time Col Bennett did so. Even today, organisations mental health efforts are commonly piecemeal and disconnected across important organisational functions. A strategic approach ensured Col Bennett’s efforts were enduring, and were mutually reinforced across different components of the organisation and throughout a service member’s career. Col Bennett has also been at the forefront of describing the responsibility of an organisation to design a psychologically healthy workplace. Her persistent emphasis on preparation, prevention and leadership has compelled the NZDF to attend to the role it plays in mental health, rather than situate the difficulty in the individual. This has had a tangible impact on, not just the services provided, but the organisational culture. Also innovative was the focus on leadership, and making this a key focus for intervention. At the time, many organisations’ consideration of mental health focused on how to manage those who were struggling, whereas Col Bennett understood the pivotal role of social and work structures, and sought to influence these. Also innovative was the utility of a shared language and tools around mental health, which then allowed to peers and leaders to talk more usefully with one another.

Supporting materials (optional)

Photograph of entrant/nominee (optional)

Link to video (optional)

Referee details

Brigadier Andrew Gray, Director Defence Health (NZDF)

021 767036 • [email protected]

Key contact

Stephen Kearney, Chief Mental Health Officer (NZDF)

021338902 • [email protected]

3 Months
Since posted
Awards Ceremony & Gala Dinner Tickets

All remaining tickets for the Awards Ceremony & Gala Dinner are now available for purchase, up to a maximum total ticket allocation of 10 tickets per organisation.

There are currently only 32 tickets remaining, and these can be purchased on a first-come-first-served basis. Order now.

Principal Sponsor
AIA VitalityAll About People
ANZCO FoodsBenestar
Business Leaders' Health & Safety ForumEmployers & Manufacturers Association
Ember InnovationsMentemia
Ministry of Health
PwC New ZealandRussell McVeagh
SparkThe Warehouse Group
Whittaker'sWoo Wellbeing
Selected Category Sponsor opportunities are still available. Please visit the sponsorship page for more details or contact us to request a sponsorship prospectus.
Charity Partner
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand
Event Delivery Partners
Awards Trophy & Engraving ExpertsCreative Eye
Dave Simpson PhotographyMatley Chartered Accountants
Edwards Sound, Lighting & AVOutspoken
Sorrento in the Park
Awards night is now Tues, 16 November. Learn more about how we're dealing with COVID-19:
This is default text for notification bar