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The ability and willingness of the organization to respond sensitively and effectively to the well-being and mental health of their employees has become an integral part of their brand and culture, impacting on their reputation for social responsibility and their ability to attract and retain the right talent. Measurable increases in well-being will also lead to higher performance and effective employee relations, contributing to a cohesive and productive corporate culture as well as significant cost savings caused by alleviating the expense of long-term mental health problems through early and sensitive intervention.
The return on investment for mental health programs is considerable. Unilever, for example, has calculated a return of €10 for every €1 spent on well-being initiatives. The company calculated the ROI of its well-being spend through a scorecard for senior leader engagement and a return-on-investment measure.(1) A study of Canadian businesses(2) found that the median yearly ROI on mental health programs was CA$1.62 among the seven companies that provided at least three years’ worth of data. Companies whose programs had been in place for three or more years had a median yearly ROI of CA$2.18. Programs are therefore more likely to deliver great returns as they mature.
Conversely, ignoring poor mental health poses considerable risk for organizations. A consensus paper published in 2020, Mental Health in the Workplace in Europe, highlighted data that calculate that each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 30.9 working days lost and that roughly a fifth of all sick leave is due to long-term mental illness. In addition, the report quoted research that suggests:
With these findings in mind, this report will examine why mental health has become such an important business issue, highlight the good practice pioneered by companies tackling the challenge, and point to sources of information, advice, and support.
The prevalence of mental health problems in societies around the world has always made mental health a critical social and workplace issue, and this is still the case today.
Estimates by the European Network for Workplace Health Promotion(4) suggest that a quarter of European citizens will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, and approximately 10 percent of long-term health problems can be linked to mental and emotional disorders. Similarly, results from the 6th European Working Condition Survey found that 1 in 4 European workers reported that work has a negative impact on their mental (and physical) health.(5)
However, in addition to these long-standing statistics, a variety of factors have combined to make it a strategic human capital priority in recent years. Firstly, evidence exists that suggests millennials are experiencing greater mental health problems than previous generations. A study of over 41,641 college students in the US, Canada, and the UK published last year in the journal Psychological Bulletin by researchers from Bath and York St John Universities in Britain, for example, found that they feel overburdened with a perfectionist streak unknown to their parents or grandparents. Striving to reach impossible standards, they are experiencing anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, and even thoughts of suicide.(6)
Secondly, in an age where well-being has become a key commercial goal, workers increasingly expect their organizations to provide appropriate support. It has become part of the growing expectation of a sustainable and socially responsible business.
Unilever discovered this when rolling out the benefits of its well-being program. “Employee engagement is through the roof,” Chief HR Officer Leena Nair said recently. “Pride in Unilever is in the high 90s. Every measure has increased significantly because people think we’ve really taken care of their well-being in this COVID crisis…People really see Unilever is putting their well-being first and that has a huge role to play in how engaged they are and how willing they are to go the extra mile.”(7)
The reference to COVID-19 is pertinent. By far the most recent and pressing reason why well-being and mental health has shot to the top of the corporate agenda has been the impact and legacy of the crisis created by the virus. The grief, anxiety, and stress accompanying the onset of the virus, coupled with the psychological challenges of working from home in often unsuitable domestic circumstances, has catapulted mental health to a new high of corporate concern.(8)
Leena Nair at Unilever also found that 35 percent of employees surveyed by the company recently said COVID-19 had affected their health, well-being, and the way they think about life. “COVID should convince us, if nothing else, of the importance of staff well-being,” she concludes.(9)
Companies at the cutting edge of this issue, mainly from North America, Australasia, and the UK, have developed a variety of interventions to support an effective mental health policy.
The greatest challenge faced by companies seeking to implement these policies is to create a culture where employees feel safe enough to disclose their conditions at a point early enough for these interventions to prove effective. Like any culture change initiative, this requires the active participation of senior management and appropriate measures and milestones of success, coupled with a strict and sensitive assurance of confidentiality.
These policies also need to be assimilated into existing talent management strategies to ensure that the company does not inadvertently write off or discriminate between the quarter and third of managers earmarked for fast-track development who may develop symptoms of a temporary or long-term mental health condition. Existing policies designed to cope with workplace stress and burnout may also need to be upgraded and expanded.
“We are all unique and diverse in our own distinct ways and, at Centrica, this is exactly why we’re committed to placing diversity and well-being at the top of our agenda. Everyone has physical health all the time and mental health is no difference—it doesn’t come or go—it’s with us all the time. Holistic well-being remains at the heart of our messaging, a key part of which includes raising awareness and normalizing mental health in the workplace.”
With this message to the Centrica workforce, the company’s Director of Global Health and Well-being, Claire Rowan, launched a series of initiatives to place good mental health at the top of the company’s well-being agenda.
Centrica is a British multinational energy and services company, based in Berkshire in the United Kingdom. Its principal activity is the supply of electricity to consumers in the UK and Ireland. It also provides energy services to businesses worldwide.
At the time of the announcement above, in early 2018, the company was in the early phases of launching its Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Network, with the aim of having 200 mental health first aiders (MHFAs) in place by the end of the year, trained and ready to support their colleagues in confidential conversations about mental health. By the end of 2018, the company had surpassed that aim with around 300 MHFAs in place globally.
Claire Rowan comments: “I truly believe there is no one-size-fits-all solution and we have seen an increase in requests for MHFA training and mental health awareness training. As such, we have developed several resources to make sure employees know what support is available to them. These include e-learning modules for employees and managers; a one-page document outlining all the existing support available; and a very simple sticker displaying contact details for 24/7 mental health support.”
In addition, mental health awareness training for line managers is being delivered to give them the opportunity to build their confidence in having mental health-related conversations in the workplace. As Rowan continues: “We shouldn’t, and can’t, underestimate the importance of managers feeling confident and able to talk openly about mental health with their teams, especially as we encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own well-being.”
All these initiatives are supported by a host of global activities and news articles centered around Mental Health Awareness Week and designed to support continuing conversations around mental health. “Of all things in the well-being space, this is one of the key areas that appears to resonate among our population at all levels and we will persist in pushing on the door that most definitely remains open,” Rowan concludes.
This foundation of well-grounded mental health policies served the company well during the 2020-21 COVID-19 crisis. A senior team leader described in the middle of 2020 how Centrica is using its digital capability to reach out to employees working from home:
“My team used Yammer (an online app) to create a thriving online community of more than 5,000 daily users to support people while they work from home. I am impressed by the initiative and creativity of everyone who has worked with speed to support our people when they’ve needed it most.
“The team has been spreading the word about how to use our digital tools in ways we’ve not done before—virtual coffee break, book clubs, online beers, and even team yoga. The use of digital technology will keep people connected and supported during these very worrying times.”
In another online post, Chief Technology Officer Luke Robertson described how the company is using digital technology to promote psychological safety among the workforce.
“As a technology team, we wanted to support the campaign for workplace culture change by Mental Health First Aid England, known as My Whole Self. The results are clear: people are empowered to bring their whole self to work, experience improved well-being and, as a result, drive better outcomes. It’s a very challenging time across the world right now, but it is vital that we stay connected, build trust within our teams, and for everyone to feel comfortable to be themselves.”
Finally, and most importantly, Centrica has realized that, to truly embed the culture of openness about mental health, the initiative must be led from the top. In October 2020, the company’s CEO, Chris O’ Shea, posted a very moving article about his feelings when his brother Carl took his own life 15 years before. The post was titled “Talking about mental health—a reality for everyone, everywhere.”(10)
This extract from NatWest’s 2019 Annual Report shows how seriously this UK Banking Group takes its policy of Well-being and Mental Health. It has a dedicated well-being team and a well-being implementation committee, which meets on a monthly basis.
“One of our core priorities is building a healthy culture. We have clear goals to reinforce our cultural priorities each year, which form part of our leadership team’s objectives. We gather feedback from our listening strategy, which includes a biannual colleague opinion survey, a Colleague Advisory Panel that connects colleagues directly with our Board, and ‘Workplace,’ our social media platform.
“We also track metrics and key performance indicators and feedback from regulators and industry bodies, including the Banking Standards Board’s (BSB) annual assessment of culture in the UK banking sector, where we have continued to make good progress, with improvement in all nine BSB categories. Having ongoing discussions and engagement with a number of employee representatives, such as trade unions and work councils, is vital, and we regularly discuss developments and updates on the progress of strategic plans.”
NatWest Group has set in place a series of interventions to promote better mental health in the company, including many initiatives highlighted in the list above.
Early in the Policy’s development, the Group introduced mental health awareness training for managers. “We have done this for some time, and it is proving hugely valuable,” says Fiona McAslan, NatWest Group’s Well-being Lead for Colleague Experience and HR Transformation. “Because people had not been talking about mental health historically, it has given them a safe environment to understand what we mean about mental health and ask questions they haven’t had the opportunity to pose before.”
More recently, the Group has supported this measure by introducing a team of well-being champions. “Emerging research in this area suggests that Mental Health First Aiders on their own are not making enough of a difference in organization, compared with broader champions,” McAslan explains. “With this in mind, we introduced our Well-being Champion Programme in 2020 and we now have around 1,200 champions globally, actively engaged across all jurisdictions and business areas. We are planning to put them all through MHFA training this year, along with other champion curriculum topics.”
To further support managers in responding effectively to the mental health needs of employees in their care, the Group has also launched a virtual training module. Ninety-two percent of the Group’s line managers, 9,597 people, had completed this training by February 2021.
Companies wishing to seek out sources of information, advice, and support can turn to a rich variety of organizations. These include:
(1) Mental Health and Well-Being in the Workplace: What Works and Why it Makes Business Sense, Amanda Popiela, The Conference Board, May 2017.
(2) The ROI in Workplace Mental Health Programs: Good for People, Good for Business - a blueprint for workplace mental health programs, Deloitte Insights, 2019.
(3) Mental Health in the Workplace in Europe accessed at https://ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/mental_health/docs/compass_2017workplace_en.pdf
(4) European Network for Workplace Health Promotion, https://www.enwhp.org
(5) 6th European Working Condition Survey, accessed 03 March 2021: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b4f8d4a5-b540-11e7-837e-01aa75ed71a1/language-en
(6) Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016,” Psychological Bulletin 145, no. 4 (2019): 410–429. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-bul0000138.pdf
(7) Ashleigh Webber, “Why, for Unilever, Well-Being has to Start with Local Culture Change,” Occupational Health and Well-being, Personnel Today, December 4, 2020.
(8) Royal Society for Public Health, accessed 03 March 2021. https://www.rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/survey-reveals-the-mental-and-physical-health-impacts-of-home-working-during-covid-19.html
(9) Webber, “Why, for Unilever, Well-Being Has to Start with Local Culture Change.”
(10) Chris O’ Shea. October 2020. “Talking about mental health—a reality for everyone, everywhere”. Accessed: 03 March 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/talking-mental-health-reality-everyone-everywhere-chris-o-shea/?articleId=6720269364114817024
(11) GMB Union. “GMB Union Guide to Mental Health”. Accessed 03.March 2021. https://www.gmb.org.uk/sites/default/files/HS_mentalhealth.pdf
World Federation for Mental Health
Mental Health Europe
National Association for Mental Health (MIND)
Scottish Association for Mental Health
European Association for People Management
Mental Health and Well-Being in the Workplace: What Works and Why it Makes Business Sense
Moving the Dial on Well-Being and Mental Health in the Workplace
Support our nonpartisan, nonprofit research and insights which help leaders address societal challenges.Donate