How mental health in the workplace and corporate purpose are irrevocably linked

Written by Charles Wookey

One in six workers experience depression, anxiety or unmanageable stress, a further one in six experience symptoms of mental ill health such as sleep problems and fatigue. Mental health is often still taboo in the workplace. This can mean employees keep quiet about their mental distress. As a result problems spiral and are often not identified until too late, exacerbating the business and human costs, as well as placing added strain on colleagues.

Earlier this month Unilever CEO Paul Polman convened a Blueprint roundtable of CEOs and civil society leaders on the theme of mental health and the link to organisational purpose, to galvanise a collective approach and help take forward some of the excellent recent initiatives that focus on mental health in the workplace.

The financial case for businesses to tackle the issues of mental health is one many of us have heard before, and it is certainly compelling. The Centre for Mental Health estimated in 2007 that the cost of mental health problems to employers in Britain is nearly £26 billion each year. That is equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce.
I was struck and moved by the fact that a number of participants of the roundtable had personal experiences of their own, or of family, friends, or colleagues which had profoundly shaped their attitudes. Mental health issues don’t fall into the neat divisions between work and home, but spill over from one to the other, and the discussion healthily engaged everyone at a human level as well as a professional one.

There is another answer, beyond purely financial concerns, to the question of why business should care about mental health and wellbeing. How organisations think about this kind of problem is greatly influenced by the purpose they seek to live out. A narrow focus on maximising shareholder value may lead a business to provide some support so people are able to perform, but it will offer in the end only an instrumental reason for doing so. Whereas if a business really seeks to live out a purpose that serves society, healthy and fulfilled people are not just a means to business success but part of what business success really means. Their reason for being gives them a reason for caring for people just as people.

We are all influenced by what happens to us at work, and over time changed by the cultures we inhabit. The power of openness, of storytelling, and the example of personal leadership can dramatically change how employees feel about the way the business cares for their mental health and well-being. There are also some excellent tools which businesses can use to give managers a mental health first aid kit, to raise awareness and give confidence. And a lived-out positive purpose creates a strong sense of wellbeing. Its absence can create a sense of dissonance, a ‘divided life’. Very many experience this dissonance when they feel that there is a discontinuity between what the leadership says and what it does. We also know that intrinsic motivation and engagement suffers when people feel their work is not making any positive contribution, or the quality of relationships is not humanising. Conversely, there is robust empirical evidence that employers who care about their employees are more successful in the long term.

Mental health is not just an issue for individual businesses. Participants at the event noted the shocking facts about the lack of resources in mental health provision in the UK – one participant spoke of a staff member who was sectioned for their own safety that day and there was no mental health bed anywhere in London. Collective action from business, the voluntary sector and government is crucial if we’re to improve the way mental health issues are dealt with. Then too there is the question of the comparative lack of investment including by pharmaceutical companies in research into the causes and treatment of mental illness. On the positive side, the growing attention being given to promoting well-being in the workplace and more widely is of course a very important preventative strategy and of value in its own right.

So at all three levels – personal, organisational and societal – the question of mental health and wellbeing invites businesses to think more deeply about the importance of living out a purpose that serves society. And as a provocation, a good starting point for any business leader is to ask themselves the question: ‘What would our employees say our business’ attitude to mental health is?’