Making mental and emotional health a strategic priority

Written by
Geoff McDonald

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Geoff McDonald

If people’s energy lies at the heart of organisational performance, leaders must invest in safeguarding employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing.

The most limiting resource in businesses is the energy of their people

Every organisation I go into is committed to keeping people physically safe in the workplace. So why would they not also commit to keeping people emotionally and mentally safe? The most important driver of individual, team and organisational performance is the ‘energy’ of people; that human capacity to perform well to get things done. We often refer to people as our most important asset. I suggest it is the energy of our people that is the most important.

Most workplaces tend to diminish people’s energy

People are frazzled, working to incredible deadlines, with little time to rest and recover. It’s today’s pace of change; this constant ‘being on’ and not being able to take time out to reduce cortisol levels in the brain. That stress eventually becomes distress and people get ill. The common forms of mental ill health, such as depression and anxiety, are now the leading cause of absence from workplaces in the UK.

Connection is key to enhancing wellbeing

In Lost Connections, Johann Hari links the increased incidence of mental ill health with the fact that we’ve lost our ability to connect – to a sense of meaning, to values, community, friends, family, to nature and a positive future. At its best, work gives people a sense of purpose, routine; the opportunity to connect. These touch points are critical in enhancing people’s lives and wellbeing. Mental health initiative, Minds in the Wild, runs challenges that help leaders and employees learn to reconnect, pushing them out of their comfort zones and developing agents for change, willing to address the stigma of mental ill health at work. My recent experience on a challenge in the Himalayas, with a large financial institution, bears real evidence to this.

We must position people’s health and energy as a strategic enabler

People’s energy should be considered one of the most important drivers of organisational performance, and given the same level of importance as skills, behaviours and experience in contributing to an individual’s performance. It should attract the same level of investment (financial and human) as any other strategic enabler would draw. This push should be CEO-led and facilitated by finance and HR with support from communications and occupational health.

Accountability for protecting wellbeing lies with both organisations and individuals

Organisations should undertake an infrastructural scan to understand any issues (ways of working, policies, processes, systems) that might be enhancing the stress of their employees – and have the courage to intervene. Be sure to distinguish between emotional health (how people feel) and mental health (people’s cognitive ability). Set individuals a wellbeing development plan in the same way that you would a skills development plan, where they talk to their line manager about their physical, mental and emotional health and how they are using the wellbeing resources the company offers to enhance their health, energy and ultimately their performance.

Wellbeing will be a commercial differentiator going forward

Today’s talented young people going into businesses ask “what is the role of this workplace in society? What is its purpose beyond growth and profitability? What is it doing to help me to maintain my health and life-work balance?”. Companies such as Unilever, LNG and Anglian Water are making a play in this area, to attract, retain and engage the best talent. As forerunners shine a light on these issues, other firms will have to start addressing them as well.

Geoff McDonald, former global VP for HR at Unilever, is a mental health campaigner, advocate and consultant to workplaces, and co-founder of Minds@Work. He recently co-launched mental health initiative Minds in the Wild.