In recent years there have been significant steps in removing stigma around mental health problems in society. But what about in the workplace?
As adults we spend around a third of our life at work, points out James Routledge, author of Mental Health at Work, which sets out to explore how organisations can begin to nurture mental wellbeing among employees.
Routledge makes a strong and persuasive argument, backed up by case studies, that by nurturing and investing in employees’ mental wellbeing, organisations and businesses can benefit, whether through improvements to productivity or better staff retention.
The author, who begins the book talking about his own mental health, is refreshingly un-preachy. He writes as a mental health advocate rather than practitioner, having founded Sanctus, which partners with businesses to support employees’ mental health through proactive and preventative approaches.
No such thing as ‘perfect’ mental health
The underlying purpose, Routledge writes, is not to define ‘perfect’ mental health. Instead, we need to get out of the habit of labelling certain emotions as good or bad in pursuit of this elusive goal. Thinking of mental health as a process and not as an end goal is crucial, he advises.
The book argues that, whatever your level of seniority, you can be an instigator and get the mental health agenda moving at work by participating in it. This begins with practising and working on your own mental health so you can authentically be part of change; this should come from a place of connecting with your own experiences. Importantly, you can choose how much to share and with whom.
Communication is key
The focus on mental health in the workplace is broken down into sections: finding the right approach, leadership, communication, community, creativity and investment.
The advice given is non-prescriptive. Communication, for example, might be something as comprehensive as a company-wide survey or organised one-to-ones; or it might just mean the CEO has a weekly open office policy.
Routledge discusses how work can be great for mental health if the workplace environment feels like a community, one where people can bring their whole selves to work. Businesses that have a positive and forward-thinking approach to mental health at work often have a workplace with a strong sense of community.
Making the case for investment in mental health at work
The section on investment draws attention to the tech industry, which is known for investing heavily in employee perks, benefits and wellbeing, because demand for software engineers is so high. Routledge argues that investment in mental health benefits can be viewed in the same way.
Many companies already invest in physical health benefits, from fresh fruit in the office to subsidised gym membership. Healthier employees are ill less frequently, which can in translate into increased productivity.
Our mental health is even more closely linked to our life at work and so influences how productive we are, Routledge argues. Though it is challenging to attribute or quantify positive impacts, or find cause and effect in mental health, this isn’t stopping a growing number of organisations from making these investments.
Case studies reveal a range of approaches
Because there is no standard approach to implementing a more progressive approach to mental health in the workplace, one of the most useful aspects of this book is the case studies, which span a variety of organisations and different approaches.
In a case study of one enterprise, the managing director worked with the leadership team to establish a workplace culture and operation that cares for employee health and happiness as a priority, with approaches including an on-site therapist and an in-house life coach. The result is a workplace that fosters loyalty and has lower than average attrition rates for the industry it is in.
Another case study describes the CEO of an oil and gas company who learned via conversations with his executive assistant of staff being signed off work due to mental health problems. He wanted to show people that he supported them and had their back. Through sharing their stories, the staff had made a business case for investing in mental health at the company. The CEO saw that investing in mental health was an investment in people. The board agreed, and the result was a seven-figure budget ring-fenced for health and wellbeing, focusing on mental, physical and financial health.
In addition, the CEO and leadership team started to see the positive impact on performance.
Start by talking
Routledge reveals that quite often many of the stories of businesses ‘supercharging’ their approach to mental health and wider wellbeing in the workplace come down to conversational awareness of mental health, which only comes about by people talking about their own experiences at work. Importantly, it shouldn’t be a top-down conversation.
Leaders should listen but their employees should also be able to talk.