This is part three of eight articles on the upcoming trends that executives in Australia need to watch out for. In this story, we explore the value of nurturing workplace mental health and how it pertains to attracting and retaining talent — especially in these trying times. 

At a time when societies and governments are thinking about how to harness the rise of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) while dealing with the threat of job automation, it is vital for businesses to become ever more human in terms of their understanding and empathy.

The importance of nurturing workplace mental health has increased in view of COVID-19, as has the scrutiny on business leaders when it comes to having robust support systems and clear policies.

But how well equipped are organisations to offer this support? Are senior leaders themselves doing enough to look after their own mental health?

Workplace support networks

According to the UK-based Mental Health Foundation, 86% of employees believe their job and the act of being at work are important for their mental health. This highlights the need for a supportive company culture that helps make any problems visible and better understood. And that should come from the top down. Although C-suite executives should lead by example, it is important to remember mental illness does not discriminate by level of seniority.

People with responsibility and the pressure to set an example have an even higher risk of suffering from mental illness. Business in the Community’s Mental Health at Work report says, “authority may be linked with depression and CEOs may be at twice the risk of the general public.”

Managing mental health in the workplace

Executives and employees suffer the effects of mental illness, so why are people not talking about it? UK charity Mind’s 2018 study revealed that 50% of employees who experienced poor mental health spoke to their employer about it. But PageGroup research shows that, of employees who reached out, one in five felt misunderstood and no better off after talking to their manager about their mental health.

While half of mental illness sufferers talk to their managers about their problems, those who do are often reaching out to someone without the experience to help them. This highlights the need for education on mental health and training for managers to help recognise and respond to employees’ mental health concerns.

Companies like RBS and Unilever offer training to help managers identify signs of mental health distress so they can connect employees with treatment programmes. Many companies have incorporated telemedicine technology for employees, which allows people to access healthcare remotely though live video. This means employees can speak to specialists when necessary, including psychologists.

Fighting stigma

There is a reluctance to talk about mental health in the workplace, which has contributed to an increased presenteeism (employees working when sick, injured, fatigued, or below normal productivity). In Japan, the costs of presenteeism due to mental health issues reaches US$14 billion per year, and affects almost 22% of the working population. In the United States, the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation time, this cost represents US$225.8 billion annually.

PageGroup research found that people think talking about mental health will hamper their career (36%), leave them ostracised (20%) and reflect badly on their ability to do their job properly (34%). Many felt their colleagues would judge them for talking about their condition (52%).

“HR directors should own the wellbeing strategy of an organisation. They are responsible for the strategy, but the responsibility to push the agenda and support the programme sits with all senior leaders,” Jessica Whitehead, Partner and Head of HR Practice, Page Executive, explains. “A key aspect is strong communication channels, to ensure conversations are being had about mental health.”

Some companies are battling the stigma behind mental illness. Barclay’s launched This is Me, where employees shared elements of their personal life, touching upon mental health issues like depression, personality disorders and anxiety. The campaign was so successful in educating people that other companies launched their own versions, reaching people from the UK, US and South Africa.

Top-level professionals often work excessive hours and have limited days off, meaning they have less time to access support to manage their own mental wellbeing. Andrew Berrie, Time to Change Employer Programme Manager at Mind, explains that CEOs need to be more open about their own problems, as this will cascade down.

“One of the biggest challenges for CEOs is to accept the advice that is now being shared with employees as part of corporate wellbeing strategies – don’t suffer alone, learn to manage your stress, understand that depression is common and treatable, maintain a balanced life and do things to boost your wellbeing,” Berrie explains.

Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post founder and CEO of THRIVE Global, is a public advocate for the management of mental health. Influenced by her own experiences, she believes in the power of mental health for a more “productive, inspired, and joyful life.” Her company, Thrive Global, offers a platform for open discussion of corporate and consumer wellbeing.

A supportive company culture

To drive the change surrounding mental health in the workplace, businesses should build cultures of trust, acceptance and openness, as this makes a positive difference and empowers people to develop in their roles.

“Company culture is vital in supporting employees overcoming stressful times. Personal circumstances often impact performance at work, particularly when faced with a difficult situation or tough period,” Simon Nolan, Senior Partner and Head of Consumer Practice, Page Executive highlights.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen a shift towards companies providing flexible working environments,” Nolan says. “Talented professionals seek companies that provide flexible, family-friendly working practices.”

Diverse, inclusive and inspiring leaders

Leadership needs to start the conversation shift, encouraging open communication between employees and management. The economic benefits of an open approach to mental health in the workplace are plain to see: a WHO study into mental health treatment and productivity found that every US $1 invested in care programmes resulted in a US $4 improvement in health and productivity.

As Sarah Kirk, Global Diversity and Inclusion Director at PageGroup, explains: “Businesses simply have to remember the vital role that senior leadership plays in driving inclusive cultures and de-stigmatising mental health problems. Employees can benefit from directly hearing senior executives talk about their career journeys and vision for an inclusive workplace.”

Creating a culture of openness and trust is crucial, and using your leadership team to do so is powerful. By being more educated, supportive and open, businesses can transform the issue of mental illness into a platform with life-changing impact and long-term payoff.

From now on businesses that succeed in a world fuelled and disrupted by technology will be those that learn to make the most of human intelligence. That begins with keeping the mind of every employee healthy.

Businesses that create supportive people-centred cultures reduce the effects of mental health illness, improving enterprise performance.

  • Employees avoid talking about mental health issues for fear of negatively impacting their career and being judged by colleagues.
  • Seniority may be linked to depression. Executives are at twice the risk of suffering from mental health issues.
  • Company culture needs to express trust, acceptance and openness.
  • Economic benefits behind an open approach to mental health include ROI reaching 400% in some cases.
  • Established company policies and training.
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