The Role Business Must Play in the Struggle for Better Mental Health

By Suki Thompson, Founder/CEO at Oystercatchers

2017 has been a landmark year in terms of public awareness of the issues concerning mental health. Which is why the time is right for businesses in every sector to understand and – wherever possible – strengthen the positive impact they can have on their employees’ mental wellbeing.

In recent months, Princes William and Harry have spoken openly and movingly about their personal experiences following their mother’s death 20 years ago.

The British government, meanwhile, has put wellbeing in the workplace at the centre of a new strategy to transform mental health care across society and combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called the ‘burning injustice’ of poor mental health support.

But much can and should still be done by business leaders to create the positive work environments on which mental wellbeing depends.

The costs to business of poor mental health are clear. Not only does it adversely affect the personal lives of individuals in the workforce, it adversely impacts on employees’ productivity and performance so it can cost the UK economy dear.

According to the Centre for Mental Health, an estimated 91 million work days – equivalent to £26 billion in costs to employers – are lost to British businesses each year.

Conversely, businesses which take seriously the mental health of their employees outperform those without. The top FTSE 100 companies with robust wellbeing strategies are outperforming all of the others by a staggering 10%.

Also clear is the impact a workplace can have on individual workers’ wellbeing. According to Creative Review’s ‘Wellbeing in the Creative Workplace’ report, the most important factor affecting workplace wellbeing cited by employees is ‘How I’m treated by my managers’.

Architects British Land, meanwhile, have identified ‘absence of social isolation’ as one of the biggest indicators of employee wellbeing and are working to design offices not with process in mind but with an emphasis on fostering interaction.

The pressing challenge for us as business leaders, then, is to understand how we can make the place in which we and our employees work the best environment for mental as well as physical wellbeing, and personal development.

When our marketing management consultancy Oystercatchers last month hosted a far-ranging industry discussion of the issues, challenges and opportunities surrounding wellbeing in the workplace and how it can and should relate to business transformation, it was clear that old ways of working are becoming obsolete as employees crave more and more freedom – younger people, especially. And as a result, better work/life balance and a more personalised approach to careers are now widely expected.

What, then, should business leaders do to get ahead of the curve and help their employees thrive and flourish?

An important first step is to create a culture in which the stigma surrounding mental health is broken down.

This means cultivating a workplace environment in which people are treated as individuals and recognised for their own particular, individual strengths. And it means encouraging people to speak openly about their problems, ensuring they are properly listened to and reassuring them that it is OK to admit when they are not OK.

To achieve this, business leaders must bring their whole self to work – leading by example to harness a culture of openness and trust.

They must train managers to the be pillars of any wellbeing strategy – educating them in the best way to listen to and help employees when help is needed. And they must understand that no wellbeing agenda can be implemented as a blanket strategy that is the same for everyone.

It’s all about culture, then.

But leaders should remember that culture is and can never be static because with every new hiring, culture will shift. Experimentation should therefore play an important role and businesses should be open-minded about trying anything – from flexible working to mobile-only weeks.

Above all, however, wellbeing within your workforce will come from ensuring your people work within an environment built on and committed to fostering open communication and trust. Get it right and the benefits to wellbeing of that will last a lifetime, not just a few weeks or months.

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