Why staff mental health needs to be a C-suite priority

Employees now expect senior executives to care far more about their mental health. Forward-thinking companies are responding by using data insights and staff feedback to inform strategies and decision-making at board level


Where should employee wellbeing sit in a C-suite executive’s list of priorities? For Bill Michael, chairman of accountancy giant KPMG, this year was the moment to tackle the subject head on.

Addressing 1,500 staff on a Zoom call in January, Michael was widely reported as telling them to “stop playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their current working conditions. He added that the concept of unconscious bias had been, for him, “complete and utter crap for years”.

Even before the end of the call to KPMG’s financial services team, Michael acknowledged he had gone too far with his comments. Those in the virtual town hall said he had also told struggling employees how to reach out for help. But the damage was done and Michael resigned a few days later.

With businesses still reeling from the fallout of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, there remains a temptation among the C-suite to pass responsibility for wellbeing either to human resources or down the chain of command. But the strong internal reaction to Michael’s comments underlines a new employee expectation in a post-COVID world that those in the C-suite must lead, listen and show empathy around mental health.

The cost of overburdening a team can weigh heavily on a company as well as the individual. According to research by Gallup, an analytics and advisory firm, staff were 63 per cent more likely to take a sick day if they reported feeling burnt out, nearly three times as likely to seek another job and 13 per cent less confident in their own performance if they felt overwhelmed. 

The most visionary organisations are now looking to their own data and asking staff for insights around productivity, sick days and retaining talent. This might feel a tricky subject to address when employee health rightly remains paramount, but an understanding of the cost and benefits of mental health helps push this wider subject into the boardroom.

Vitrue Health is developing technology to help clinicians assess patient motor function. Using a motion capture tool and musculoskeletal artificial intelligence (AI), a programme assesses a desk set-up and suggests improvements to make home workspaces more ergonomic. “It’s incredibly important that we practise what we preach,” says the company’s chief executive Shane Lowe.

“I want my team to be able to work remotely and flexibly, but I don’t want this to come at the expense of their physical or mental health. That’s why I’m investing time and resources into protecting the wellbeing of my workforce.”

Since staff wellbeing is intricately linked to business success, it’s very important businesses tackle the issue collaboratively.

In addition to offering the AI tool to the Vitrue team, an in-house physiotherapist hosts virtual sessions every day at 3pm. To build internal morale, the London-based team has developed a fitness and conditioning game based on a person’s body movements tracked by webcam.

Lowe, who co-founded the company in 2017, is tracking the impact of these measures among his nine-strong staff. According to its own internal calculations, mental health and wellbeing measures introduced since April 2020 have reduced aches and pains by 43 per cent, improved morning energy levels by 16 per cent and reduced burnout risk by 36 per cent.

“Since staff wellbeing is intricately linked to business success, it’s very important businesses tackle the issue collaboratively,” he says. “If human resources teams are responsible for the day-to-day implementation of policies, the C-suite must be involved in the instigation and planning of robust, proven wellbeing initiatives.”

The startup has published its own data on how wellbeing and mental health measures could reduce pain-related and associated productivity losses. Its research says an average company with 1,000 staff could save £1.4 million a year if it took reasonable efforts to tackle these issues among its staff.

BDO, which employs 6,000 people offering tax, audit and other advisory services, asks its employees to complete the Workspace Wellbeing Index (WWI), an annual survey developed by the charity Mind. Together with its own internal surveys, this helps the company’s leaders to keep track of its wellbeing offering and get ideas on where it might be able to improve.

Chris Grove is national head of transaction services and sits on BDO’s leadership team. Alongside these roles he is also chair of the firm’s culture board. “Having wellbeing at the top of the agenda is nothing new for BDO,” he explains. “But the challenges brought on by the pandemic, which have had an impact on both physical and mental health, have certainly meant it is more important than ever before.”

Many of the firms’ staff are parents or have other caring responsibilities. In response to feedback, BDO has increased its “agile working offering”, which enables people to adjust hours to better suit their circumstances. 

The company won a silver award from Mind’s WWI initiative for its work in 2020. As part of the firm’s three-month Winter Wellbeing Package, it is now working closely with a clinical psychologist to provide short videos on key topics around home schooling, sleep and resilience.

“We are also in the process of planning a live virtual event with the psychologist and a panel, including our managing partner, which we’re expecting to see over 350 of our people attend,” says Grove.

Healthcare provider Bupa says its 23,000-plus employees around the world “expect us to play an active role in their physical and mental health”. Their Bupa Be.Me app is open to staff and regular People Pulse internal surveys allow staff to give anonymous, candid feedback. 

“We use this as our barometer of culture and we take action based on our employees’ insight,” says Tom Webber, people director at Bupa UK.

A company’s staff are its most precious commodity and the measurable benefits of a healthier and happy workforce are just as important as doing right by them.

Webber says investment in mental health is “not only the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense for talent retention and attraction, in addition to the bottom line”.

He concludes: “It’s no longer just an HR issue, but something that should be on the boardroom agenda. While they don’t necessarily need to lead on the day-to-day wellbeing strategy, CEOs can play a key role in shaping it, modelling it and ensuring there is accountability for it.”