While mental health was once a taboo topic in the workplace, many high-profile campaigns have encouraged a more open attitude towards it. As employees become more willing to talk about their mental wellbeing, do leaders need to be better prepared to support them?
Recognise the scale of the challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for employers; but supporting employees who are struggling with mental health issues has been one of the most complex. From anxiety over their physical health, to experiencing loneliness while working remotely, many workers have experienced additional mental strain in 2020.
In fact, according to US mental health provider Ginger, 69 per cent of US workers said the pandemic has been the most stressful time in their professional lives. Furthermore, a study conducted by Hays in Australia & New Zealand found that just 42 per cent of the local workforce rate their current mental health & wellbeing as positive, down from 63 per cent pre-COVID-19.
Of course, many workplace mental health challenges were already in place well before the pandemic. According to a report by Mercer and Business in the Community, 39 per cent of UK employees experienced poor mental health due to work in 2019, up from 36 per cent the previous year; meanwhile 2019 research by AIA Vitality found that in Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, more than half of the respondents had experienced work-related stress.
Aside from the ethical duty employers have to their employees, there are financial implications too. Internationally, the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety issues cost the global economy $1 trillion a year in lost productivity.
This year, the challenge is likely to have grown. According to the same research from Ginger, of the 88 per cent workers who reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress, 62 per cent noted losing at least one hour a day in productivity and 32 per cent lost at least two hours a day due to COVID-19-related stress.
Set the tone from the top
The figures suggest it is important for employers to take these challenges more seriously, and take more responsibility for the mental health and wellbeing of their people. But what does this mean for leaders? Whether they are executives or managers, should they be equipped with the skills and knowledge to identify any potential issues and offer support to anyone who is struggling? Or should this already be part of their skill set?
“It’s critically important for organisations to ensure their leaders have the right leadership skills to create an engaging and inclusive environment,” comments Mark Edgar, Co-Founder of future foHRward in Canada. “More specifically, skills that increase awareness and confidence around managing mental health issues are a very important component of leadership development.”
Yet Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio, a licensed therapist, author and leadership advisor in the US, believes that training leaders on awareness of mental health issues, while helpful, misses the heart of the matter. “Leaders need to be educated on leadership skills. Effective leaders develop respectful, caring, trusting relationships with those who report to them. If you’ve got highly effective leadership, you’ve got what you need for a mentally healthy workplace culture.”
And while there may be a belief that these skills are a prerequisite for leaders, it seems that many organisations have a long way to go in convincing their workforce they understand mental health challenges. Research by Mind Share Partners found that only 41 per cent of employees felt mental health was prioritised at their organisation, and just 37 per cent viewed their leaders as advocates for mental health at work.
This indicates there may be problems with culture. If workers do not believe that their organisation provides a positive and inclusive working environment, or trust that it will provide the support they need, businesses may not be able to break down the stigma around mental health. So how can leaders ensure employees are willing to open up?
“It’s important to be deliberate in creating and maintaining a culture that allows people to bring their full selves to work,” advises Edgar. “This can be done by reviewing processes, policies and people practices to ensure they are amplifying the positive elements of the culture and creating an inclusive and safe environment.”
Treacy Webster, Director of Talent Management at Ceuta Group, a global brand management business, says that the most effective way to create a supportive culture is to normalise all support mechanisms, such as mental health first aiders, internal communications on mental wellbeing, mental health training, and mental wellbeing services available through employee health schemes. “By doing so, we can proactively reduce the stigma around mental health that often prohibits people from openly seeking support, while increasing awareness for those who may be hesitant to offer support,” she says.
Share personal experiences, but only if you can do so authentically
Another way leaders can offer their support is to act as a role model and be open about their own mental health challenges. Kelly Greenwood, CEO of Mind Share Partners in the US, believes leaders must go first in setting the example. “Being vulnerable – whether about mental health or not – is critical in creating a safe team environment where direct reports feel comfortable opening up about their own challenges. We find that employees typically only need a small window to do so. Having leaders open up about their mental health challenges is a hugely powerful mechanism to reduce stigma since it flips the stereotype on its head.”
Dolan-Del Vecchio believes that leaders are role models for everyone in the organisation. “Leaders should be encouraged to be as open regarding personal mental health challenges, as they are when it comes to their physical, family and other life challenges.”
He adds, however, that leaders also need to be thoughtful regarding when it makes sense to share these aspects of their selves. “They should not do it gratuitously,” he notes.
Edgar agrees, warning that being authentic in these scenarios is vital: “A key component of successful leadership is building trust. This requires a level of authenticity to allow leaders to be a positive role model. However, they should only share what they are comfortable sharing and shouldn’t be expected to unless the environment supports them appropriately.”
Many of the senior leaders at wellness platform Gympass have opened up about their mental health journeys, to show that anyone affected by mental health issues will find understanding at the highest level. Pietro Carmignani, CEO, Gympass Europe, is one of them.
“A number of leaders in our business have already shared their own stories and struggles of mental health, including me,” he comments. “People really appreciate the honesty and feel that if their managers can talk about it, so can they. Encouraging employees to talk in an open, supportive and honest environment is powerful and effective. That said, you can only ask leaders to do what they feel able to; their privacy must be respected.”
Be the first line of defence
Another effective initiative to reduce the stigma and raise awareness around workplace mental health is to train people – including leaders – to be mental health first aiders (MHFA). Webster remarks that the most effective mental health first aiders are those who volunteer willingly.
“It takes understanding, calm and quiet confidence to be able to talk, listen and support. When leaders have these attributes and are readily available to assist, they are great candidates to be mental health first aiders, but those who would make effective mental health first aiders can be from any level within an organisation.”
Global engineering and design firm Atkins – a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group – introduced a MHFA programme in 2017. Jilly Calder, the company’s Vice President HR, UK & Europe, says that while they do have a number of senior leaders who are MHFAs, they have tried to ensure they have a mix of people from all levels.
“In our organisation, it is more about getting the right individuals involved and we intend to get representation across the whole hierarchy within the business. One of the challenges in ensuring the programme is successful is making sure we are selecting the right people.”
Following a campaign raising awareness around mental health and the role of MHFAs, Atkins advertised for people to sign up to the programme. All MHFA volunteers undertake a two-day training course, on behalf of MHFA England, while existing MHFAs receive refresher training every two years.
“The MHFA network is an internal service staffed by volunteers that have successfully completed an approved MHFA training course,” explains Calder. “Previous knowledge and experience are not prerequisites to becoming an effective MHFA, as the training course and reference materials provide an excellent foundation.”
As a result of the MHFA service, the firm has started to see a decline in occupational health referrals and an increase in the number of MHFA interventions year on year. There are also now over 100 people on the waiting list to join the programme. “More and more people want to become MHFAs, which is a great sign that the business is embracing it and seeing the benefits it can bring to an organisation,” remarks Calder.
Furthermore, Calder says Atkins is now actively encouraging colleagues from the BAME community to become MHFAs as well. “It would be beneficial for our BAME colleagues to have better representation in this space. That’s definitely a priority going forward for us. We recognise we need to do more to attract BAME employees to take on the mantle of MHFA.”
Carmignani points out that mental health first aid is only one part of the puzzle. “You don’t need the full training to have sufficient awareness to be supportive and understanding. All leaders should have some form of awareness training, so they can identify mental ill-health, know how to support it and be able to signpost people to further help where needed.”
Ensure supply meets demand
While identifying and supporting employees with mental health problems can be a good first step, many companies choose to outsource mental health care to third parties, offering access to expert help and guidance. However, organisations still need to ensure mental health support is entrenched within the business.
“I believe leadership teams should drive support within the company,” comments Carmignani. “Third parties can provide excellent training, practical and professional support and an outsider perspective, but when it comes to day-to-day engagement, attentiveness to who needs help, and on-going efforts to de-stigmatise mental ill-health, it must be embedded in a business through initiatives and an open-door policy.”
Calder adds that, while Atkins does rely on a broad spectrum of external suppliers to support their MHFAs, the company still holds responsibility for employee welfare.
“We are very aware that we have overall accountability for the wellbeing of our employees. As a company, we are ultimately responsible and our line managers are accountable. They play a key role in assisting employees to access support. It has to be a collaboration across that supply chain.”
Companies could also consider implementing employee resilience programmes to combat workplace mental health issues; however, it’s important to first find out if these programmes suit the needs of the employees.
Also, while they may be beneficial, these programmes can imply that mental health challenges appear due to a deficit in an individual employee, rather than the company’s culture, policies or processes, warns Greenwood.
“Companies need to consider their role and minimise workplace factors that are proven to negatively impact mental health, such as job strain or lack of trust. Teaching employees an effective, evidence-based strategy to manage stress is helpful, but doing so within an ecosystem of unhealthy work practices and a toxic culture will inevitably result in turnover.”
Dolan-Del Vecchio says that while such programmes are nice to have, they will not be effective without ensuring leaders support employees struggling with mental health. “The solution is effective leadership within organisations that have reasonable productivity expectations. In other words, the solution is a healthy, including mentally healthy, organisational culture.”
Webster agrees, concluding that while there are further steps businesses can take, mental health care must start with company culture. “People, including those in leadership positions, will only be open about their challenges when they are ready. If the company culture is right, people will feel comfortable to share, regardless of their position.”