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The catch-22 of mental health initiatives in the workplace and how the people profession can help 

John Crowley
mental health initiatives in the workplace

Many western societies aspire to be meritocracies—that is, a system where you and me and everyone who we know should be rewarded with a level of status, wealth, and power based on our own proven abilities, rather than being based on the wealth and status of our families, our race, our gender, or any other external factor.  

In the past, research and criticism has focused on the obvious limitations of the system. For example, the fact that there probably aren’t enough positions of status, power, and wealth to be shared equitably amongst those of us who prove our abilities. Or that, so far, people who don’t have wealthy families, people who aren’t white, and people who aren’t men, haven’t generally had as many chances to show their abilities in the places that matter and to the people who can lend a helping hand. Or, that it’s simply a bit of a sham.   

But there’s a more subtle problem with a system that rewards us all based on merit. And it’s this—which behaviours, abilities, and characteristics are classed as being worthy of reward, and which aren’t? And what do we do with the aspects of ourselves that aren’t worthy of reward? Do we hide them? Do we pretend that we’re only made up of the ‘good’ stuff?  

And if everyone in society—workplace societies included—only exhibit these select behaviours, abilities, and characteristics, will that bring about the best, most balanced, most productive, and most healthy environment for us all? 

For example, workplace societies traditionally value superior intelligence, skills, experience, education, knowledge, networks, ambition, and the list goes on. Our success, recognition, and level of pay are (usually) directly based on all those things. 

It’s these values that put us on the ‘treadmill of success’ from the morning that we’re first dropped at the school gates—or earlier for children whose parents’ hothouse them—to the moment that we’re ejected into our retirement, wondering what to do with ourselves now that there’s nobody to tell us ‘Great job! Here, have a cookie pay rise’.  

Oof! Has anyone got a marshmallow that I can toast on that sentence, ‘cause that was some white-hot cynicism.  

Sorry about that but stick with me… it’ll all be worth it in the end.   

The point is this: 

When our workplaces are meritocracies; when certain abilities, characteristics, and skills are seen as having merit and others aren’t; and when we’ve been conditioned to accept the established system since preschool and earlier; are we likely to disclose anything about ourselves that isn’t considered to be a merit?  

Like, for example, poor mental health.  

Are we going to stride confidently up to our manager and tell them about our depression or send them a matter-of-fact email announcing our incapacitating stress levels? Or are we more likely to turn up to work and try to ride it out?  

The staggering and increasingly expensive levels of presenteeism point to the latter.  

And as we focus all our energy on keeping that stiff upper lip, it’s more than likely that our productivity will wane, our motivation will flatline, our self-confidence will shrink, our company loyalty will fizzle to embers (or even ashes), our work relationships will suffer, our mental health will deteriorate, and our exhaustion will mount. And if we can’t get it together, we’ll find ourselves at the epicentre of a negative spiral that affects colleagues and our organisation.  

If you look at that scenario from a purely logical standpoint, rather than through meritocratic tinted glasses, it makes no sense at all.  

Imagine if Burt, the Systems Analyst, fell of his bike on the way to work and broke his ankle. Then, bloodied, bruised, and hopping into the office, he made his way to his desk and started… analysing systems. Everyone would be shocked, right? Concerned crowds would gather. Someone would call an ambulance.  

But imagine if they didn’t.  

Imagine if day after day Burt just kept coming into work without seeking help or treatment—wounds festering, leg swelling—and acted like nothing was wrong.  

Of course, it’s not directly comparable to mental health struggles. But untreated broken limbs and untreated mental conditions can both lead to permanent disability. And a system analyst probably needs their mental acuity more than they need a functional leg. So, which scenario is worse? 

What’s a good workplace to do? 

In the perfect world, the answer is simple. The meritocracy of the workplace should actively value openness, human vulnerability, and the courage that it takes to disclose personal struggles.   

But for smaller organisations and start-ups, it’s hard to take a leap of faith into untested practices, especially those that could backfire financially.  

Workplaces, after all, primarily exist to make a profit. And while mental health issues don’t increase profitability, neither does openness, human vulnerability, or the courage to disclose personal struggles. Everyone knows that. Including all the people who are struggling. And we’ve been happily ignoring mental health issues in the workplace for centuries, right? 

So, we can begin to understand the catch-22 of introducing mental health initiatives.  

But is it true that openness, human vulnerability, and the courage to disclose personal struggles don’t improve profitability? 

Because when places like Barclays, Ernst and Young LLP, Microsoft, and Unilever start introducing policies and practices that put the good mental health of their people first, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Are they doing this out of the goodness of their multi-million-dollar hearts, or do the figures stack?”  

The fact is, that everyone—every single one of us—yup, Barbara from accounting, that exec you see climbing into her brand new Merc’ every day, the chap who handed you your Starbucks this morning, you, me, every single person on this list, Ernst, Young, Bill Gates, and even Jeff Bezos (… even if he doesn’t know it)—Every.Single.One.Of.Us—have experienced some form of poor mental health at some point in our life time. Probably multiple times. For some of us the experience might have lasted a very short time. For others it might have lasted for months or years or be ongoing. Some of us may have experienced burnout, stress, or a crisis of self-confidence, and worked through it alone, or with loved ones. Others might experience clinical disorders. And some live with recurring conditions.  

Think of any 6 people who you work with. Chances are that at least one of them is experiencing the symptoms of a common mental disorder (CMD) right now—that’s problems like depression and anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.  

Or maybe the one in 6 is you this week or has been for quite some time? Trust me, you’re not alone.  

So, the stigma doesn’t exist because mental health problems are rare. It only exists because the meritocratic standards of workplace society, and all western society, has historically dictated that it’s not worth talking about.  

But that’s changing.  

It’s changing very fast.  

And the people profession will be in the driving seat of the mental health express. So, buckle up, because this is how you can stem the tide of poor mental health for your people. And make sure that your organisation reaps the benefits while you’re at it.    

Highlight the costs of ignoring mental health 

The first step to a successful mental health initiative is clearly outlining the costs of poor mental health in the workforce. Share the figures with leadership. Share them with everyone.  

Remember those self-sacrificing multinationals that we mentioned earlier? Well, maybe they’ve been keeping on top of all the new research.  

Findings by Deloitte show that 28% of employees either left their job in 2021 or are planning to leave in 2022. And 61% of them cite poor mental health as the reason. While 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, and that was according to pre-pandemic research. The costs of high staff turnover are eye-watering, at upwards of £30,000 per member of staff. Surely, on that basis alone it’s worth supporting good mental health. 

But that’s not all. Mental health related absence is costing UK employers around £56 billion a year. While the hard and soft costs, across all industries, and both the public and private sector, amounts to almost £2,000 per employee. And if you happen to be an HR manager working in the private sector finance industry, then you’ve got your work cut out for you—the total costs per employee for your organisation is more likely to be almost £4,000. Yikes! 

So, by spending time and money now, you can save your organisation a lot in the long run.  

OK, that’s the bosses convinced. What’s the action plan? 

A culture of openness  

An open culture doesn’t mean that you have share everything with everyone. The downsides of which had to be learned the hard way for the tech giants of Silicon Valley. 

It just means that organisations should support a culture of internal trust and honesty, demonstrated by open dialogue and the sharing of experiences. Microsoft claims that this happened organically for them, with leaders spontaneously sharing their own experiences of poor mental health or struggles and encouraging others to do the same. “It has naturally become pervasive in the culture,” says Sonja Kellen, senior director of global health and wellness at Microsoft, “It’s been gratifying to see the sheer volume of people to speak up.” 

The main takeaway here, is to lead by example, or people won’t feel like they can speak up.  

Studies in the US show that 66% of people feel comfortable talking to family about their own mental health issues or 56% for friends. But that figure drops to 28% for talking to managers, 28% for colleagues, and only 25% for both HR and senior leaders. Which means that HR might have some way to go in creating a culture of company-wide openness and trust, especially if they’re having trouble doing the same for their own department. And it also means that the people who are most likely to be able to make necessary changes, are the least likely to know that the changes are necessary—try and say that one five times, fast.  

Training for all 

One of the most important steps to a workplace that supports good mental health is the destigmatisation of mental health problems. And that begins with and is maintained by mental health awareness training. Not only does it combat the stigma, but it also helps people to recognise their own mental health issues and be more aware of the symptoms in others. As a result, people can use positive coping strategies or actively limit their personal stress triggers.   

HR professionals can also appoint mental health champions for people to talk to, either in their own department, or in every department. And they can arrange workshops to keep momentum and awareness throughout the organisation.  

But make sure that a culture of openness does not extend to gossiping about others, which can become a form of bullying and shouldn’t be tolerated. Professionalism and confidentiality (unless explicitly waved) are vital to a successful mental health program.  

Supportive policies and procedures 

Introduce a mental health at work plan, outlining policies, procedures, and best practice. But a written plan can only support positive action, it can’t replace it. Because putting mental health policies in place without promoting a health-positive culture and training, will only lead to a workforce who takes advantage of the policies, rather than valuing and respecting them.  

Eventually mental health and wellbeing policies can be incorporated into every aspect of the organisational approach and vision.  

Kelsey Raymond (née Meyer), president of content marketing agency Influence & Co., describes the process of building their company’s mental health policy in an op-ed for the Harvard Review. And she says that, “Without a proper mental health plan in place, your company is not only neglecting the well-being of its employees, but it’s also missing out on the significant returns that fully healthy employees can deliver.” 

Perks that support mental health 

There are so many company-perks out there that support physical wellbeing and lifestyle. But relatively few that are focused around mental health.  

EY’s mental health perks are impressively comprehensive including up to 25 free visits per year/per issue with a licensed mental health clinician, sleep enhancement programs, and the EY Mindfulness Community and Mindfulness Champions. They do fall into the high risk finance industry, after all.  

Some organisations provide training, opportunities, and spaces for meditation.  

At SAP, the German multinational software company that’s considered to be a thought leader on employee mental health, one offering is a two-day immersive mindfulness program. The downside is that it’s become so popular, it has a waiting list of 9,000. Which shows that there’s a hunger for this kind of perk.  

One-on-ones 

In a poll of 2,000 workers by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, 25% of respondents said their workplace did not check in on their mental health during the pandemic. While 29% have never talked to their line manager about their mental health. 

Regular one-on-ones or check-ins with a trained line manager, can help people destress and feel listened to. While peer counselling or buddy systems mean that nobody has to feel alone.  

And access to leadership can help too. Mark Zuckerberg, affectionately (or perhaps coercively) known as the ‘Zuck’ to his army of minions, hosts Q&A time every Friday, and employees at any level and in any role can directly ask him questions. It’s just one way in which Facebook attempts to breakdown traditional hierarchies and nurture internal trust and comradery.   

Make people matter 

Something as simple as introducing a thank you or kudos board, either manual or digital, can help people to feel recognised and appreciated by both their peers and managers.  

While offering people the opportunity to take the spotlight at company-wide meetings or video calls can boost self-confidence and self-worth. And a focus on the person themselves—their history, hobbies, and time outside the company—can help them to feel valued for who they are, and not just what they provide.  

Flexible working and contract types 

Challenging traditional expectations about where, when, and how work gets done, can empower your people, as well as customers and business partners. And it can help everyone achieve a better work-life balance, which is one of the most robust indicators for good mental health at work.  

And introducing freelance specialists or cross functional teams for one off projects, or temporary staff members for busy periods can help to invigorate core teams and prevent stagnation of ideas. As the saying goes, a change is as good as a rest.  

Good communication 

Feedback and employee voice programs, coupled with confidential support channels are vital to support mental health. Asking people to conduct self-assessments concerning mental health, and to complete evaluations the organisation itself, can help build awareness and improve company systems. And giving people the tools and the know-how to support workplace relationships in remote setups, or to share positive experiences, as well as struggles, are all ways to prevent stress, loneliness, disconnection, and demotivation.  

And you can organise, offer funding for, and encourage team-building initiatives—both company and employee led—to strengthen workplace bonds and trust.  

Volunteering and physical health programs 

It has been proven that doing things for other people improves our feelings of wellbeing. Rather than simply donating money, or organising sponsored events, you could encourage your organisation to give people paid time off for hands-on volunteering. The benefits for the organisation are two-fold, because not only are they donating to a good cause, but they’re promoting the health of their own people too.  

And physical activity is linked to good mental health because what’s good for the body is also good for the mind. Gym memberships, sports groups, or charity walking events are all good ways to encourage physical activity and support mental health.  

Data-backed prevention and intervention 

One of the most powerful tools in an HR professionals’ belt is next generation HR software. With powerful data analytics and reports, employers can gather data about how many people are stressed or burned out. And people can access relevant educational material and support whenever they need it.  

While communication tools can keep everyone connected, even remote or deskless workers. And digital thank you boards can encourage recognition. Or company news feeds can keep everyone in the loop with the information that matters to them.  

And reports can help to support training and one-to-ones too. As well as guiding organisations in the right direction to a mental health utopia… or something very close.  

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