If you asked a CEO twenty – even ten – years ago if they had a mental health plan in place in their business, you’d probably be surprised if they answered ‘yes’. Yet in 2019, as we face rising concerns about the mental health of workers across the country, the question should really be redundant.
One of the biggest hurdles facing businesses, and of course society, is that mental health is still treated as a taboo subject. As business leaders, we must be asking ourselves, are we doing enough to shatter the stigma?
Research from Mind suggests that one-in-four people will experience a mental health problem each year and the reality is that the world judges and dismisses those who struggle. People spend a huge amount of their lives at work, so we owe it to them to support them fully.
A global movement
Not so long ago, the World Economic Forum gave business and world leaders a space to come together and talk about how they can tackle the issue. It was the first sign that the business community is starting to understand that mental health needs to be mission-critical in the boardroom.
Seeing CEOs like HSBC’s John Flint, public figures such as Prince William and political leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speak out on the issue of mental health is a vital step forward. But there’s still so much more that needs to be done – not least in business.
When Prince William said that sharing his feelings with his colleagues stopped him from going down a “slippery slope”, it really stuck with me. Sometimes the simple act of talking can make all the difference, and it’s something that we should all feel like we have the opportunity to do, not only in our personal lives but also our professional lives.
Support, not first aid
It’s time for business leaders to implement a ground-up approach where every employee is encouraged to be open and honest about mental health. This will help to shed the secrecy that drives the taboo. It is, of course, a sensitive subject, and one that requires a measured and well-thought-out strategy; but this doesn’t mean it should be kept behind closed doors and left unspoken.
Those at the top need to lead by example to dismantle the taboo, and create a workplace where employees feel like they have the right support network of mental health advisors, friends or peers who they can turn to when they need it.
Many companies put forward mental health first aiders as a solution, but at MediaCom, our approach has been to build a network of mental health supporters; the term ‘first aid’ suggests that people can be patched up and sent back into the workplace with simply a few scratches on them. But the reality is very different.
Mental health problems are often long term and can’t be fixed with a ‘plaster and paracetamol’ approach.
Creating a culture that encourages openness
For MediaCom employees, we wanted to build a workplace which has openness and support as its foundation. This is why we trained 150 people to raise awareness of mental health issues, and 60 of those have become Mental Health Allies, who can be reached out to in confidence if anyone in the business. Our Mental Health Allies are there to provide meaningful support for colleagues who need to talk about issues within and outside of work.
As well as creating a strong support network, business leaders must instil a culture that does not encourage, nor reward, bad work habits such as presenteeism, but instead promotes transparency, openness and honesty. We have built a culture that allows people to disconnect from work – like our email ban after 7 pm – to reduce stress and build a good work/life balance.
And this balance is also helped by a flexible working culture that is not only about when people work but also where they work. Businesses should be doing all they can to help alleviate this pressure by offering employees true flexible working policies that cater to their personal needs. By creating a culture that allows this, you plant the seeds that will make employees flourish.
But it’s no good to preach flexibility and make big statements around mental health without action – leaders must be genuine in their approach. Telling someone that you support their struggles with mental health and then telling them they can’t attend their son’s graduation, for example, will undo any feelings of support and is unlikely to demonstrate that the business truly cares about their wellbeing.
Leading by example
Ultimately, there must be consistency in the way we approach mental health in the workplace – initiatives are great but not if it’s just part of a tick-box exercise. They’ll only be one-off and half-hearted, and that’s pointless.
They should be meaningful and not because we feel we have to implement them – but instead because we know it’s the right thing for our people. In order for your business to produce the right results, your team has to be healthy and happy.
It’s time for more businesses to put people first and build a culture that allows them to be themselves at work. We must break down the taboo around mental health, but this can only come when those at the top lead by example.