Overnight, the pandemic plunged the world into uncertainty, a place of waiting, and not knowing, what anthropologists call a liminal space – a time between ‘what was’ and the ‘next’. The impact on world mental health has been immense and is undeniable. This important topic is now at the very forefront of business consciousness. ABOUT TIME is what I say.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, there was already a steady rise in mental health issues reported worldwide. Did you know that mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall global disease burden1 and that depression is the number one leading cause of disability worldwide2? NUMBER ONE! The most recent statistics show that 792 million people live with a mental health disorder. This equates to slightly more than 1 in 10 people globally3. Is this really surprising, given we live in world that is always on, with pressure from social media, increased globalisation, climate change and a trend towards extremist political views? Now add a pandemic to the mix and we have a perfect storm. This article will put forward the case as to why employee mental health should be top of the business agenda (now more so than ever) and provide the five things (based on my experience as a Psychologist) that businesses can do to better support the mental health of their people.
What I am hearing from business owners and HR is less worry about employee performance (which in many instances has increased), but rather a deep concern for the wellbeing of their staff. Again,ABOUT TIME is what I say. The WHO projected back in 2000 that mental disorders would increase from 12% of the diseases worldwide to almost 15% by end 20204. They could not have foreseen that a global pandemic would impact this number significantly. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in any given week will experience a common mental health problem5. Let me say that again, 1 in 6. In my immediate family that means 2 of us experienced a common mental health problem in the past 7 days. The estimated cost to the global economy of lost productivity due to depression and anxiety is $1 trillion per year6. In the UK, where I live, 12.7% of all sickness absence days can be attributed to mental health conditions7 and in the US, depression is thought to count for up to 200 million lost workdays annually at a cost of $17-$44 billion. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is evidence that supporting mental wellbeing in the workplace can actually increase productivity and reduce costs. Research suggests that for every dollar a company spends on the treatment and support of mental health they see an average return of investment of $3.27 in reduced healthcare costs9 and $4 in improved health and productivity8. Further to this, employers also save on average $5.82 in lower absenteeism costs for every dollar spent on employee wellness programs. If doing the right thing is not enough of an argument to convince you to support employee mental wellbeing; the bottom line is: It is financially beneficial to your bottom line to invest in supporting the mental wellbeing of your employees.
There are a number of things workplaces can do to support employee mental health & wellbeing. From my experience these are the top five things to consider when designing a mental wellbeing programme.
Number 1: Understand the need – The one sure way for a mental health programme to fail is to design it without understanding the unique needs of your organisation. Use data. Look for trends and themes in place such as exit interviews, feedback from unions, health risk assessments, sickness/absence records, and employee engagement surveys.
Ask your employees. Do not assume you know what your employees need when it comes to their mental health and wellbeing. Ask them. Take the time to survey your staff so you can target your investment smartly. You can tap into the thoughts of your employees through interviews, feedback circles and questionnaires. Use the findings to plan and deliver support programmes and inform workforce policies and practices.
Number 2: Involve your team; Go top down and bottom up – Senior leader commitment. We all know leadership creates culture and culture drives performance so having a clear commitment from the senior level of the organization that mental health matters goes a long way to showing how seriously your organisation is taking mental wellbeing. It also establishes a culture\ that values diversity, authenticity, inclusion, and acceptance. Find a sponsor. Preferably someone senior. You want the sponsor to be an advocate for change. Someone who will talk about their mental health and wellbeing, who will challenge discrimination and raise awareness to reduce stigma. If the sponsor is a sponsor in name only, you may as well not have one.
Involve employees. When I designed and implemented a mental health and wellbeing network at a financial institution where I worked in the city of London, one of the key factors in its success was having passionate employees involved. Mental health impacts everyone – encourage participation from all levels, teams, functions in the organisation. By having senior support and employee involvement, you can create an approach to supporting mental health at work that protects and improves mental health for everyone.
Number 3: Manager training and support – Line managers are often the first people to notice when something is not right with an employee. Giving managers the necessary skills to confidently support employees living with mental health problems and the wellbeing of all staff is vital to the success of any mental health programme. Consider providing training in mental health awareness, how to have sensitive conversations, managing sickness / absence and how to support employees returning to work. Support your line managers further by giving them access to relevant information, Human Resources, health & safety guidelines, and occupational health services. And equally as important, ensure they are also taking care of their own mental health.
Number 4: One size fits no one – Remember to consider the important characteristics that make your organisation unique such as size, office and work locations, products and services, employee demographics, and customers. A one size fits all approach to mental health may not necessarily work. When designing the aforementioned programme, it became very apparent to me that different office locations, had vastly different needs so it was imperative to provide local initiatives as well as company-wide ones.
Number 5: Create awareness of available resources – One of the most important things when supporting mental wellbeing at work is to ensure you signpost to employees where and how they can access mental health support services and facilitate access to these services. Raise awareness of any existing internal resources such as employee assistance programmes, mental health first aiders, training programmes and occupational health. If budget is a concern, consider making use of the vast array of external resources out there such as primary care doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors, charities, friends & family, the internet, and religious institutions. Signpost these on your intranet, in newsletters and corporate communication. Creating awareness about mental health does not need to be expensive. I know this from firsthand experience. I ran a mental health awareness campaign for 3500 staff with NO BUDGET. I got creative. I used what I could find online, published access to external resources and asked charities and mental health networks to help me by providing free training events. All it took was some gumption, a group of passionate employees and a supportive sponsor.
We all only have so much capacity to deal with everyday stresses. Add to that a global pandemic that causes isolation (which we know is not good for mental health), fear and anxiety about the unknown long-term implications, grief from losing loved ones and uncertainty, and we have a perfect storm. Supporting mental health at work is no longer a choice. When the economy starts to recover and the world opens its doors again, employees whose wellbeing was not supported during this time, will vote with their feet. The business case for caring about your employee’s mental wellbeing has never been stronger.
1.Vos, T., et al. (2013) Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 301 acute and chronic diseases and injuries in 188 countries, 1990–2013: asystematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study. The Lancet. 386 (9995). pp.743-800.
3.Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Mental Health”. Published online at
OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https:// ourworldindata.org/mental-health’ [Online Resource]
4.Murray CJL, Lopez AD (1996b). Global health statistics. Cambridge, MA, Harvard School of Public Health on behalf of the World Health Organization and the World Bank (Global Burden of Disease and Injury Series, Vol. II).
5.McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital. Available at: http://content.digital.nhs.uk/ catalogue/PUB21748/apms-2014-full-rpt. pdf [Accesed 5 October 2016]
7.ONS. (2014). Full Report: Sickness Absence on the Labour Market, February 2014. Retrieved from webarchive. nationalarchives.gov. uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov. uk/ons/dcp171776_353899.pdf [Accessed 28/07/16].
8.https://www.cdc.gov/ workplacehealthpromotion/health-strategies/ depression/evaluation-measures/index.html