Speaking out about mental health is no longer taboo. In 2021, American gymnast Simone Biles, and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, identified their mental well-being as a reason to step back from competing.
But sports is just one example, as more and more people in the public eye are finding their voice and speaking openly about mental health challenges. As the impact of COVID-19 continues to blur the lines between work and home, the response of companies is vital and will be closely scrutinized.
The debates created by those in the public eye exemplify the complexity of an issue amplified by the “always-on” culture and pervasive technology. Employee mental health was a major issue well before the pandemic, affecting almost everyone. Research explained how 90% of workers are affected by mental health challenges, either personally or through someone they are close to.
The pandemic, however, has exacerbated the difficulties many already faced. A study by the OECD reports that anxiety has as much as doubled in some countries, with employees no doubt questioning their employers’ role in protecting their mental well-being.
Organizations that ignore or downplay these trends do so at their peril. As many as 200 million workdays are estimated to be lost due to mental health issues each year. This is the equivalent of $16.8 billion in lost productivity. In contrast, innovation is more likely to blossom in environments where people feel valued and where they feel they can be open and honest with managers about personal challenges.
How can businesses support the mental well-being of their employees to boost engagement and productivity? Solving this conundrum relies heavily on the ability and willingness of leadership teams to tap into their emotion and intuition, which means being truly human, and showing compassion, humility, and openness.
Executives will struggle unless they truly understand stakeholder sentiments and provide employees with the communication channels and psychological safety to speak out. Today, just 55% of employees say senior leaders understand what they “need and want” in their working lives. To drive change, emotion and intuition must be diffused throughout an organization in two ways.
First, by developing and maintaining active, two-way communication channels with employees – an “open dialogue”. And second, by adopting a set of wellbeing practices we call “active resilience” which focus on the causes of mental health concerns, as opposed to simply the symptoms. Both are vital to companies looking to value the healthy mind.
The key to “open dialogue” is comprehensive communication, which can take the form of regular employee engagement, or training for senior leaders on how to talk about topics like mental health. The importance of leaders speaking out cannot be underestimated.
Antonio Horta-Osorio spoke out publicly about his health challenges in 2011 when leading Lloyds Banking Group. He took eight weeks off to recover before returning to lead the then-struggling bank into clearer waters, drawing on personal learnings to develop a mental health awareness program for senior executives.
Sincere feedback mechanisms, which measure employee views and bring perspectives into the heart of the organization are also essential. One example is employee engagement surveys. When 75% of their caregivers went on strike in January 2020, the Seattle-based non-profit healthcare provider ‘Swedish Health Services’, created an after-action report to listen to, analyze and capture what was learned.
The findings included ‘communicating clearly’ through an intranet site, and ‘delegating authority’ to flatten hierarchy and empower teams. It would turn out to be vital when combating COVID-19 just a few months later.
The second area of focus is “active resilience”. Some stress in the workplace is inevitable as we encounter ‘stress triggers’ an estimated 36% of the time. Resilience describes people’s capacity to recover quickly from its impact. Employees increasingly expect practices that improve health and well-being in the workplace – 65% of employees believe organizations should be responsible for leaving their people “net better off” through work.
One way organizations can help is by adopting progressive working practices. These might include flexible working provisions, day care services and fair compensation policies. They could also provide employees with the incentives and flexibility to deliver around their non-work commitments and lifestyle.
For example, during the pandemic, Bumble gave its global staff an additional week’s paid leave, demonstrating the importance of both individual resilience and the resilience of the organization to flex and adapt. The UK’s Atom Bank launched a four-day working week in November 2021. More recently, over 3,000 employees at 70 UK companies have begun trialling a four-day week.
Organizations are also increasingly offering specific programmes to boost well-being. In professions such as law, which often require long hours, companies are launching well-being programmes, mental health training and hiring “burnout advisors”.
When well-being is recognized as a benefit on a par with traditional incentives like money and healthcare – rather than as a “bonus” – it can create more value for the organization, improving talent retention and attraction, while safeguarding employees.
Proactive oversight of mental health by authentically engaging with employees, can help companies develop solutions that build resilience with empathy, valuing the mind beyond productivity. This is an opportunity for businesses to redefine their responsibilities to their employees and to shape more sustainable organizations in the process.
Debra McCormack, Global Board Effectiveness and Sustainability Lead, Accenture
Daniel Shropshall, Sustainability Research Specialist, Accenture
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
Companies that value healthy minds need to prioritize open dialogue and active resilience.
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