From a global pandemic to political unrest, the cost of living crisis to war in Europe, the events of the past 12 months have tested many people’s mental fortitude.
The workplace can be a particularly challenging environment to navigate when mental illness arises. The latest Working on Wellbeing report from jobs site Indeed found that 59% of UK workers are currently or have faced mental health issues, with anxiety, depression and burnout three of the biggest challenges.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness week, Raconteur hosted a panel of mental health advocates. They discussed some of the ways organisations can best address mental illness and champion mental wellbeing in the workplace.
How leaders can set the mental wellbeing agenda
As with many organisational transformation projects, change needs to come from the top. Creating a positive and supportive working environment has to start with those in positions of power, according to Rob Stephenson, CEO of mental health app Formscore and the InsideOut Leaderboard.
“Wellbeing needs to be seen as an essential component of high-performance organisations; that requires education at the leadership level,” he says. “When a leader shares their stories of mental ill health or passion for wellbeing, it creates a culture of permission that cascades through the rest of the organisation.”
If leaders are unable to demonstrate their commitment to mental wellbeing, it risks contributing to the stigma that already surrounds the subject, says Teresa Clark, founder and CEO of The Wellness Revolution.
“Leaders are asking their employees to share their mental health and be more open, but if they’re not prepared to be a role model it can create distrust within organisations,” she says. “We can only really address stigma if we start to normalise conversations about it.”
In order to encourage openness in the workplace, business leaders need to demonstrate two key skills, according to TLC Lions founder Gian Power. These are compassion and authenticity.
“Being an effective leader and being an authentic leader need to come together if we want a positive workplace and to attract the best talent,” he says. “It’s no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a business imperative.”
Business leaders themselves are not immune to mental ill health. A recent survey from the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that more than a third of business owners (34%) have experienced a decline in their mental health over the course of the Covid pandemic.
Clark recommends that leaders who find themselves in this situation set themselves wellbeing goals that clearly set out what to address. This provides a checklist to return to, to ensure that personal wellbeing is not being neglected.
“We’re all so busy and our own wellbeing is often the first thing to go out the window,” she says. “Especially for those in leadership roles.”
Mental health in the hybrid-work environment
Changes to the working environment have also placed new stresses on individuals’ mental health. The number of remote workers that report feeling lonely is on the rise and incidences of burnout have also spiralled as the distinction between work and home have become blurred.
Stephenson says: “A lot of work over Teams and Zoom has become very transactional and it leaves less space for that human connection. Facilitating and creating space for those connections is really important to connect us as human beings.”
Although these remote-working technologies have in some ways brought us closer to colleagues, letting us see into their living rooms, for example, if there is little room for discussion about how we’re feeling, that sense of connection can be lost.
“The pandemic has given us an opportunity to open up more, but just because you can see someone’s cat doesn’t mean you know how they feel,” says Petra Velzeboer, CEO of mental health consultancy PVL. “This virtual setting is often characterised by back-to-back meetings, task-focused discussions and very few breaks, making the workplace more formal.”
In order to bring this sense of connection into the hybrid-working environment, organisations need to ensure that all teams understand the importance of good mental health.
Introducing Monday morning yoga isn’t enough, according to Power. Businesses have to find ways to weave mental health into all aspects of their communications and training, while also making it mandatory to ensure that everyone benefits.
“Wellbeing cannot be standalone anymore,” he says. “The winning organisations are noticing this and it helps to attract the right talent to their culture as well.”
Velzeboer admits that many companies are still figuring out how to implement and invest in wellbeing in the new world of hybrid work. However, the consequences of not addressing the challenge can be stark.
According to research from Deloitte, the cost of mental health-related sickness absence reached a record high of £56bn last year. The largest contributor to this total is presenteeism, with UK employers losing an estimated £28bn as a result of people underperforming because of mental ill health.
This presents businesses with a “huge opportunity” to close the productivity gap by investing in developing working cultures that positively contribute to people’s mental health, Stephenson says.
“A company can have the best wellbeing strategy in the world but if it has a toxic environment where bosses are communicating in a very negative way or where the work demands are unrealistic, staff are not going to be well,” Stephenson adds. “Sometimes that can be seen to be at odds with the goals of an organisation in terms of billable hours or return on shareholder investment.”
In actual fact, the same Deloitte report estimates that for every £1 invested in staff mental health, employers can expect a return of £5.30. Yet still, despite the pandemic highlighting the importance of mental health and elevating the conversation, “there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of closing a perception gap,” Stephenson says.
Ultimately, he believes organisations should be focusing their efforts on answering one simple question: “How do we make work a life-enhancing experience?”