Mental wellbeing must become a strategic business aim

Looking after psychological health needs to be adopted at all levels of the organisation and not just by HR, says Iain Fraser

Although mental wellbeing has been high on the news agenda during the pandemic, it continues to be underestimated as a source of longer-term organisational resilience. For example, few organisations are likely to have drafted mental health risk assessments for their post-pandemic return to ‘normality’ even though the Health and Safety Executive offers a tool to help

Yet organisations have certainly taken mental health more seriously over the last 15 months of lockdowns, furlough and social distancing restrictions. The response of many companies has been to acquire or regenerate employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and provide access to other outsourced professional wellbeing services or train staff to be mental health first aiders. 

Though commendable, the push to improve mental resilience must go further. With one in five people experiencing some form of depression in early 2021 and one in six adults having symptoms at any time, the potential impact on any business or organisation is significant. The scale of the problem means it is not going to evaporate once the coronavirus is under control. 

One cultural problem is that even though organisations have invested in strategies like EAPs, boardrooms often view wellbeing as a matter for HR – a purely transactional function that is ancillary to their main purpose of ensuring the company has the most productive and talented workforce it can obtain. In fact, wellbeing should be at the centre of organisational initiatives to increase resilience because resilience is a major source of competitive advantage. 

What needs to happen now is for HR to take the lead and ensure wellbeing is taken up as a priority by their organisation’s boardroom. The benefit of this is that senior business leaders see it as a strategic pillar of greater resilience, which they reinforce across the entire organisation.

A change in the common view of wellbeing will be necessary first, however. Currently, many efforts to boost mental resilience focus purely on time at work. Yet this accounts for only perhaps a quarter of our lives. Effective intervention requires a more holistic approach that acknowledges that people’s experiences outside the workplace have a huge effect on their wellbeing and performance as employees. It is naïve to think that someone whose child is very ill, is going through a terrible divorce or who has suffered significant financial losses can entirely compartmentalise the experience and that it will not eventually impact their ability to do their job.

This is why support for individuals has to be layered into an organisation so that with effective HCM or HRIS systems, two-way conversations open up about more aspects of an employee’s life – not just their feelings about work. Charities such as Solent Mind have some great resources that could be shared with employees to help normalise conversations around wellbeing and emotional health. It is not a question of interrogating someone but giving the individual a chance to open up to their team leader, an HR manager or, just as importantly, one of their peers. The advantage of a contemporary system with video and scheduled check-ins (especially with a remote or hybrid workforce) is that it is easier to judge changes in someone’s mood if you can also see their appearance or body language.

The purpose is to allow for positive but informal intervention at the early stages, to provide an opportunity to listen and support someone who may be suffering from stress, anxiety or who has started to have suicidal thoughts. After listening, colleagues can direct the person suffering to a source of informed advice or counselling. That could mean encouraging them to access the EAP system or referring them to people trained in suicide prevention on the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) or Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) programmes, who can make a judgement and offer help that makes a real difference. TRiM, for example, is an assessment and support system designed to be delivered by peers. Where necessary, HR can support the organisation’s leaders by signposting the route to professional advice or more formal therapeutic interventions. 

Of course, it is not easy to get all employees to open up. Severe mental health issues still carry a stigma and many employees may be reluctant to admit they have any symptoms. The boardroom needs to take a lead here, changing an organisation’s culture positively by speaking about mental health injuries and the importance of being open about them. All employees at every level should feel they can talk about mental health problems in the same way they might talk about a sprained ankle or the flu. 

C-level executives need to see the entire subject of mental wellbeing and resilience as much more than an area purely for HR. HR professionals, on the other hand, should empower members of the senior leadership team with the confidence to see wellbeing as a business priority and to speak out about it. In the process, HR elevates its own role and becomes more strategic, contributing to the overall resilience and competitiveness of the organisation. As we shake off the pandemic, organisations that take mental resilience more seriously are far more likely to have more productive and stable workforces.

Iain Fraser is an HR expert at People First, part of MHR International