Out of the shadows: Sustainably improving workplace mental health

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Note: Automated text-to-speech doesn’t always get all pronunciations or voice nuances right. Our apologies in advance.

Poor mental health can have a major impact on individuals, employers, and societies, and the pandemic has brought additional challenges. Many companies, however, think that taking action on workplace mental health means setting up a collection of programmes owned by human resources (HR). In our experience, this approach and mindset are not sufficient to generate the real, sustainable change that is necessary now more than ever.

Instead, workplace mental health best practices should be integrated into all elements of a company’s operating model, including its organisational culture. Doing so means bringing together workplace mental health research, deep organisational design and change expertise, and a value-first perspective. Taking such action can significantly bolster employee mental health and job satisfaction and has been shown to be good for business: international research estimates a return of 4.25x ROI for every dollar spent.1

Leaders need to think about mental health outcomes across a variety of domains: designing workplaces to minimise harm, building both organisational and individual resilience, facilitating early help-seeking, and supporting recovery and return to work. Through our experience working with leaders across geographies and sectors, we have identified five core principles that can help leaders to create—and sustain—a more mentally healthy workplace.

Mental health conditions profoundly affect individuals, employers, and society

Diagnosable mental health conditions are common. In Australia, for example, 20 percent of people aged 16 to 85 experience a mental health condition in any given year.2

For individuals, common mental health conditions can have a major impact on work performance and career trajectories. Individuals experiencing mental ill-health miss an average of ten to 12 workdays per year and suffer 14 to 18 days of reduced productivity.3 Where help is sought—or offered—early, recovery is possible and negative effects can be minimised. Sadly, delays in seeking help and inadequate provision of care are common. In Australia, it is estimated that 54 percent of people with a diagnosable mental health condition do not receive treatment.4

For employers, the cost and impact are significant. The Australian Productivity Commission estimates that mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces AU $17 billion (US $13.6 billion) every year through absenteeism and lost productivity.5 Costs related to other factors, such as healthcare and insurance costs, are not included in this figure.

For society, the impact of poor mental health is also a significant and growing challenge. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that mental and substance-abuse disorders accounted for 12.1 percent of Australia’s total burden of disease in 2015.6 Depression—which is only one of the common mental health conditions—is already the leading cause of disability worldwide,7 and by 2030, it is forecast to be the leading cause of disease burden globally (exhibit).8

Understanding the human element is key to overcoming workplace mental health hurdles.

Preexisting issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with psychological effects forecast to outstrip physical effects in Australia.9

This trend is both a demand and a supply issue; many existing mental health stressors—including social isolation, job and financial loss, and housing insecurity—have worsened, and lockdowns have made it more difficult to access mental health services. As a result, there has been a deterioration across a number of key mental health outcomes.

The domains that matter for workplace mental health

Against this backdrop, there is a new urgency for leaders to act in support of workplace mental health. Activity to protect against poor mental health outcomes can be clustered into domains10:

  • designing workplaces to minimise harm
  • building organisational resilience
  • building individual resilience
  • facilitating early help-seeking
  • supporting recovery and return to work

Designing workplaces to minimise harm

This domain involves addressing core risk factors, such as high levels of role stress or a lack of support or flexibility. Positive action can take many forms. In the case of a lack of support, for example, peer support schemes and buddies can improve the experience of new hires. Meanwhile, encouraging informal social groupings, such as interest-based work collaboration channels, can foster an organisation-wide sense of connection.

Many mental health risk factors are well known, but the majority of workplaces still fall short in proactive monitoring and awareness and in taking consistent action.

These are examples of what organisations did during the pandemic:

  • Community building. One organisation’s “neighborhood groups” brought together people across roles and levels, helping build organisational cohesion. Many of the groups continued after mandatory or recommended catch-ups or activities had ceased.
  • Enhanced flexibility. Ensuring flexible work hours for parents took many forms, such as offering additional paid and unpaid time off, reduced hours, or changed work patterns. Some organisations also offered activities for children, such as online activities during evenings or school holidays.
  • Workload monitoring and dynamic rebalancing. For some organisations, this was informal or low-tech, such as greater use of team stand-ups with work for the day adjusted to suit capacity. Other organisations used system monitoring to spot spikes in activity and adjust accordingly.

Building organisational resilience

Organisational resilience comes in many forms. Programmes focused on psychological safety and broad-based mental health awareness have proved to be effective, especially when paired with leader training.11

Here are examples of what organisations did during the pandemic:

  • Mental health promotion. Leaders publicly shared their commitment to supporting and improving mental health, often through storytelling. Effective examples used a range of communication channels, with storytelling paired with tips, details of available resources, and activities. Some adopted a storytelling and check-in cascade, in which leaders shared stories with their direct team members and so on throughout the organisation.
  • Supported boundary setting. One organisation agreed to a meeting-free lunch break, during which no internal or external meetings were to be booked. Automated nudges were given to employees who booked or accepted meetings during the hour.
  • Leader capability. Many organisations provided access to additional mental health training for leaders, with some even making it mandatory across their entire organisation.

Building individual resilience

We have observed employers provide a range of interventions, including stress-management programmes built around cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Using a range of approaches, CBT aims to change an individual’s specific misconceptions and maladaptive assumptions and to teach new skills for handling stressful situations.

Examples of what organisations did during the pandemic include the following:

  • Resilience training. Some companies distributed workbooks containing a series of resilience challenges. Although the vast majority of the challenges were meant to be completed on an individual basis, such as identifying three things that had gone well that day, employees were encouraged to form pods to share their experiences.
  • Mindfulness programmes. One organisation started an opt-in programme for employees to regularly share their experiences and participate in evidence-based positive psychology activities. Others offered free or subsidised mindfulness and meditation apps.
  • Physical activity. A number of organisations used virtual physical challenges for individuals and groups, such as opt-in daily step challenges, with stories and photos shared weekly.

Facilitating early help-seeking

Early help-seeking is more likely in organisations that have a strong awareness of the signs of mental ill-health, appropriate services available, and a culture that encourages asking for help.

During the pandemic, some organisations provided the following:

  • Tailored mental health awareness. One organisation created a multichannel communications series focused on the experiences of working parents, including detailing typical challenges to increase awareness, as well as providing advice and details on support resources.
  • Mental health-focused events. A number of organisations planned town halls to share stories, build awareness, and reduce stigma. This often included storytelling from the CEO or senior leaders, which helped foster an environment in which employees could show vulnerability.
  • Expanded employee assistance programmes (EAPs). Some organisations with preexisting programmes expanded access to include the family members of employees—or even small-business suppliers or customers.

Supporting recovery and return to work

Historically, many organisations expected employees with mental health issues to make a full recovery before returning to work. We now know that this approach is often misguided, and that returning to work is an important part of the recovery process.12 Changes to the workplace or job design may, however, be necessary. These changes can often be gradually modified and reduced as the employee recovers.

In many organisations, individuals who have sought adjustment or taken leave are treated as the responsibility of the HR team. The level of contact and support from leaders during an absence is inconsistent, with some leaders expressing discomfort and a lack of confidence in their ability to support employees on their return. Improved leader training can significantly improve return outcomes.

Recovery and return to work have been especially difficult during the pandemic, and leading organisations have developed additional tools and services to assist their people:

  • Direct access to psychological support. One organisation provided preferential, subsidised access to psychologists for its top 300 leaders.
  • Increased leave. A number of employers have offered five days of additional “pandemic leave” on a no-questions-asked basis.

Five principles to sustainably improve workplace mental health

The development of a comprehensive programme of mental health interventions across an organisation’s entire operating model and cultural system can sustainably address the issues across these domains. Listening to leaders from across geographies, industries, and the public, private, and social sectors—and leveraging the most up-to-date research—we have identified five core principles that can help leaders to build and sustain this comprehensive programme to sustainably improve workplace mental health.

Understand how core risks play out in your workplace

To take effective action to sustainably improve workplace mental health, an organisation can start by understanding the factors that have been shown to contribute to the risk of diagnosable mental health conditions. Risk factors include a low level of support provided in completing work, an imbalance between effort and reward, and a low level of autonomy in the use of skills and expertise.

A mixture of quantitative and qualitative research is required to deeply understand how these and other relevant factors show up in your workplace and how they vary by layer, role, and location. As you investigate, also seek to understand current and prior attempts at change and what got in the way. Understanding these factors informs your improvement aspirations.

Be integrated and holistic in your actions

Whether you choose to take action as part of a focused workplace mental health effort or part of a broader organisational change, it is critical to be holistic and consider the entire operating model and cultural system:

  • People. What level of understanding and awareness of mental health challenges and workplace mental health do you need from your leaders?
  • Process. How do you need to change the way work gets done, either on a macro or team level? How do your core people-related processes—such as remuneration and performance review—support workplace mental health?
  • Structure. Does your structure give people the ability to get the support they need and use their skills and expertise? Could it be more dynamic?
  • Culture. Are you reinforcing a purpose and a set of values and behaviours that support mental health?

Understanding and addressing the whole operating model and cultural system help you craft an integrated programme of work that can sustainably shift the organisation.

From our experience in driving cultural and operating model change, it is not just what is changed that matters; who is driving the change is also critical. Change is best led and supported from the top and not treated as “just another HR programme” or as something that is being “done to the people.” HR leaders are often the first to make this point based on their careers of working to make change happen and seeing important change efforts sidelined.

To help keep change on track, it is best to integrate the mental health work into broader organisational change, maintain a strong organisational imperative, and ensure broad-based and visible leadership support.

To help keep change on track, it is best to integrate the mental health work into broader organisational change, maintain a strong organisational imperative, and ensure broad-based and visible leadership support.

Use data to personalise interventions

One size does not fit all when it comes to improving workplace mental health. Individuals experience each workplace differently and bring different elements of themselves and their personal life into the mix. If you reflect on your employees during the pandemic, a parent with school-aged children at home would have a very different experience from a young person living alone. Both have faced challenges, including to their mental health, but their stressors and needs are different. Demographic and other data can help you to identify different cohorts or personas that inform the suite of interventions necessary to build a more mentally healthy workplace, as well as identify the best way of tracking improvements.

It is also important, however, not to fall into the trap of thinking your people are one-dimensional and can be perfectly segmented. Driving sustainable culture change requires a multilayered approach. Communicating a mental health message once, using one channel, is rarely effective. A better approach is to ensure that the message is being broadcast from the top, from local leaders, and from peers—both formally and informally—and through different channels. The aim is to give the recipient a broad range of opportunities to receive, understand, and connect with the message.

Co-design solutions with your people

Involve a broad array of your people in understanding the root cause of your current challenges and in co-designing solutions.

Your people are your secret weapon in driving sustainable change. If given the right opportunity and support, they will help you to understand what is really going on—especially deep in the organisation or far from HQ—as well as provide a range of fresh ideas. By taking an inclusive approach to designing your change, you boost the odds of your people owning and driving improvement, which is key for sustainable change.

Solve with your community

Many organisations strive to keep the work and the home separate when it comes to mental health, drawing a distinction between what they influence at work and what employees bring with them. Through the pandemic, the line between home and work became more blurred. As a leader, you must maximise the engagement and performance of your employees, and that means seeing the whole person. If you look beyond your workplace and engage with your communities, you can build an even stronger and more mentally healthy workplace.

With challenges continuing through the pandemic, sustainably improving workplace mental health has never been more important. The good news is that recent research shows how and where action can be taken. Leaders can take this knowledge and act now to shine a light on the critical topic of workplace mental health and to help their people thrive outside of the shadows.

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