Mental health at work: is anyone getting it right?

Written by
Andrew Dickens

16 May 2019

16 May 2019 • by Andrew Dickens

Organisations must ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to addressing workplace mental health, and the key to success is addressing culture.

The penny has finally dropped. Well, not so much dropped as drifted down slower than a feather on the Moon, but that penny – employers realising that mental health should be talked about it in the same way as physical health – has at last touched down.

But it’s easy to talk a good game. If businesses are serious about improving employees’ mental health, action is needed from all those involved in developing people and culture. There’s little point in acknowledging the black dog in the room if nobody takes practical steps to usher it out the door.

A recent study of 1,000 managers, C-suite executives and employees by City & Guilds Group, illustrates the problem. It found that, while 94% of businesses say they consider workplace mental safety as “important”, only one in 10 is proactively trying to improve matters.

Worse still, a fifth (22%) of senior managers say they would only be motivated to take action if a “high-profile press incident occurred” – akin to saying you’d only help a drowning puppy if your children were watching. However, the tide is turning.

In January 2017, the prime minister ordered an independent review into workplace mental health, led by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind; in October that year, the Thriving at Work report was launched.

“It really outlined the human cost of not supporting employees around their mental health, but also the financial impact for businesses, government and the economy as a whole,” explains Faye McGuinness, head of workplace wellbeing programmes at Mind.

The review has, if not caused, then coincided with, an apparent sea change in attitudes. The 2018 Employee Wellbeing report by the Reward & Employee Benefits Association found that, if employers follow through on their intentions, nearly 80% of UK companies will have a defined mental health strategy by the early 2020s. Good intentions, but what can they actually do and, more importantly, will it work?

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England has trained nearly 400,000 people in mental health first aid. In November 2018, it sent an open letter to prime minister Theresa May challenging the government to prioritise its manifesto promise to give equal weight to physical and mental first aid. The letter was signed by some of the country’s biggest employers including Thames Water, WH Smith, PwC and Ford.

“The thinking behind it is straightforward,” says Jaan Madan, workplace lead at MHFA England. “Everyone knows a physical firstaider, so why not train someone to spot the signs of mental health distress and teach a simple and robust framework so they can have a safe and guided conversation before, importantly, signposting the most appropriate professional help? It’s a very simple set of skills.

“We also have a seven-day instructor programme. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen businesses start to put their individuals through this programme, so they can then have that resource internally.”

Mental health first aid is patently valuable; having people in an organisation who can spot signs of mental stress could save lives. However, like physical first aid, it’s patching up. Other tools are needed: you can’t build a house using only a screwdriver.

“This is why we have a whole organisational approach,” says Madan. “The most successful organisations take that approach rather than just saying ‘we’re going to give everyone some fruit and reduced gym membership and run some MHFA courses’. This is really about a culture change.”

Employers have access to a raft of wellbeing tools – fruit and gym memberships included. There are training organisations such as MHFA England, free online resources, including Mind’s Mental Health at Work gateway, and employee assistance programmes, often outsourced to healthcare providers. Some employers take a pic ‘n’ mix approach, selecting different services from different sources.

Many of the options chosen – helplines, paid therapy, resilience training – while having value, address symptoms rather than causes. This is where things can get challenging for employers.

If you have an organisation where wellbeing is a problem, that may be as much to do with the culture of the organisation as anything else,” says Dr Martin Edwards, a reader in organisational psychology and HR management at King’s Business School. “For example, we’ve seen a growth in resilience training: employees learning to be more resilient under conditions of stress. That’s almost blaming the employee for not being able to deal with stress the culture may be putting them under. It’s putting a plaster on the problem.

“One would hope that employers are also evaluating possible sources of stress within the workplace, to see whether there’s something in their organisational culture, or how jobs are designed, that could be creating the negative wellbeing. It’s a difficult thing for an organisation to self-reflect on and diagnose and change.”

Collective heads, however, are regularly buried in the sand, muffling some tricky questions. Do ingrained attitudes to targets, absence and time-keeping drive employees to tears or drink? Does devotion to team collaboration software create ‘digital presenteeism’? Is flexible working blurring the lines between office and home life? Changing a working culture, a mindset, takes time, but it’s not impossible, with a dash of imagination and a heap of determination.

For instance, a significant number of companies are turning to a four-day week on full pay and noticing improved productivity. Old-fashioned performance reviews are being replaced by a slew of alternatives, from phone apps to something called ‘conversation’. US technology company Next Jump has taken things even further: its ‘lifetime-employment’ policy means that it never fires anyone based on performance. Ever. And it isn’t an act of charity.

“We used to adopt the Jack Welch model of getting rid of your bottom 10%,” Next Jump’s co-CEO Charlie Kim told Conscious Company magazine in 2016. “We got to a point in 2012 where we found there were surveys going around the office of who was going to get fired. But at that point we had hired so well we actually hadn’t planned to let anybody go. I remember we sat down as the leadership team and said, “what would happen if we didn’t fire anyone?’”

Job security has a proven impact on mental health. A two-year study of 23,000 employees by Australian research company Roy Morgan found that employees who rate their job security as “very poor” are more than 50% more likely to suffer anxiety, stress or depression than those with a “very good” sense of security.

That’s not to mention how removing the fear of dismissal could potentially improve productivity, cooperation and the flow of creative juices. Next Jump’s approach might sound like Shangri-La, but might it be practical, too?

It’s easy to assume that such radical thinking is easier for small ships – businesses agile enough to manoeuvre sharply – than big oil tankers; that geographically diverse organisations with thousands of employees are encumbered by the processes and structures needed to keep them afloat. Size, though, is no excuse for not spinning the wheel hard a-starboard.

“People don’t believe me when I say that it’s no different,” says Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer at Thames Water, a company with 6,500 employees, 10,000 contractors and more than 7,000 sites.

“You can make changes very quickly once your managers are educated to understand the outcomes that can be achieved by creating a culture of care; how people being more open will increase productivity.”

Simons, who joined in December 2012, has been the driving force behind a profound overhaul of the company’s employeewelfare practices, inspired by an unacceptable number of lost-time injuries. He convinced senior management of the link between psychological pressures – both at work and at home – and the human error that invariably causes such injuries.

The company now has a ‘time to talk strategy’ that encourage openness and honesty, a mental health Yammer group, hundreds of mental health first aiders, and staff go through Mind Fit awareness training. It doesn’t stop there.

Simons’ open mind to wellbeing solutions (when we speak, he’s just emerged from a sleep pod the company is trialling) led to Thames Water commissioning its own virtual reality (VR) training film aimed at creating an immersive experience of everyday stresses that can harm mental health.

“The only way to do that is VR,” says Simons. “We build the frustration. You’re at home, laptop open, glass of whisky on the table. Your phone is ringing, the emails are coming up. The kids are playing and arguing, your wife is complaining about you working late.

“Then we transport that into the workplace. You’re sat in the car, the boss is phoning. Then he comes out and says, ‘get in here, we’ve got a meeting.’ In the mess room, somebody’s saying, ‘you’re meant to get tea and coffee’. Simple things constantly building up to where, eventually, you’re on the roof, folding up your gear, going to jump.”

Impactful stuff, but Simons’ methods have been so effective (injuries have decreased every year for six years) that he’s delivered training to more than 50 other companies across several sectors and is consulted on workplace mental health by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Thames Water isn’t the only example of a major employer making significant changes in the realm of mental health. Global IT and business consulting services firm CGI employs around 74,000 people across 40 countries yet has found a way to care for each of them with its bespoke Oxygen programme.

“The three main risks to the health and wellbeing of our members (employees) are mental health, ergonomics – things such as crouching over laptops – and physical, cardiovascular health,” says Julia McDonald, CGI UK’s director of talent acquisition. “We have a strategy around that. I think a lot of organisations think in terms of wellbeing, but separately. It’s not linked. You need to know why you’re doing things and to have a cohesive approach.”

Looking at the mental health strand, in the UK alone, this means 186 first-aiders trained by MHFA England, a member assistance programme, mental health blogs by employees, yoga and meditation classes, resilience training and webinars on subjects such as sleep, mindfulness and autism. The programme, which won a recent best health and wellbeing initiative, isn’t only cohesive, it’s flexible, adapting to its planet-wide reach.

“Oxygen employs about 24 people globally,” says Anne Bartlett, the company’s UK health and wellbeing manager. “We have a lead for the programme in most of our major countries. I’m Oxygen lead for the UK, but there is the equivalent in Canada, the US, India, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Part of the role is to interpret and apply policies and initiatives which match local needs and culture. What I do in the UK, for example, is very different from what my colleague does in India.”

It appears to be working. While McDonald points out that the return on investment of most health initiatives is inherently long term, CGI has already reduced its mental health-related absences, both in terms of number and time taken.

Of course, in these wobbly economic times organisations watch for a ROI on every penny they spend. Results of initiatives at Thames Water and CGI show tangible benefits, but the sage view goes beyond statistics.

“We look at absenteeism, but I think a bigger problem is presenteeism, where people are there in body, but not engaged, not achieving much,” says McDonald. “Looking after health and wellbeing pays dividends in terms of engagement and productivity.”

Even the most Gordon Gekkoesque CFO should know that healthy employees equal healthy profits: better staff retention, decreased absence, increased creativity.

The Thriving at Work report estimated the cost to employers directly every year at between £33bn and £42bn,” says McGuinness. “To the UK economy, it was nearly £100bn per year. It also shows that around 300,000 people every year lose their jobs because of poor mental health.”

A sound mental health plan helps you hire the best people, too. A survey by recruitment consultancy Robert Walters revealed that 97% of professionals believe employers have a responsibility to support the mental health of their staff – and 88% of job-seekers consider the mental health policies of potential employers. With sites such as Glassdoor allowing employees to rate their workplace, there’s nowhere to hide shoddy practice.

Taking action on mental health is the epitome of a ‘no-brainer’: so, how to make it happen? “You get the best engagement when you have senior leadership buy in and senior leaders talking about their own experiences,” argues McGuinness. “Alongside a grassroots movement, the two things together can be really powerful.”

At CGI, the Oxygen programme was started by senior management, who encourage openness about mental health issues. It’s a similar story at Thames Water, whose commitment extends to the company’s supply chain, with an obligatory ‘essential suite’ of mental health measures written into every supplier contract.

“Health needed to be top of the agenda on all the company board reports,” says Simons. “Mental health KPIs are reported at every board meeting. It’s been there for six years now.”

Once you have that commitment, there are organisations that will help, including Mind and MHFA England. You should also speak to your peers about what they’ve done to find out what genuinely works.

“My hope is that we start to see employers supporting each other,” says McGuinness. “I think that will have a big impact on large organisations, on the supply chains that they work with and impact customers. I’d really like to see a sector approach to this work.”

Madan agrees: “There is an enormous amount of great information out there,” he says. “I’d like to see more of these agencies stepping away from commercial privacy and secrecy and sharing best practices.”

There really are no excusable barriers to safeguarding employees’ mental health. To pretend that the workplace isn’t a major causal factor in levels of stress, anxiety and depression, or to pass the buck onto employees, is ducking responsibility. It’s bad for your bottom line, too.