Until very recently, mental resilience was seldom discussed or even recognised as an issue in the workplace. Today, there is an increasing awareness that companies need to acknowledge, understand and address mental health issues – for the good of their employees and their stakeholders more broadly.
In 2014, Jeremy Connick’s world fell apart when his wife took her own life, leaving behind their three teenage children.
“I had a year off and couldn’t function,” says Connick, a partner at global law firm Clifford Chance. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to return to work.”
With support from colleagues, he eventually went back to the office, but the experience transformed his view of mental health and its impact on work.
“I would always have been empathetic, but it was only when I suffered a real problem myself that I realised we needed to do a lot more than just be good people,” he explains.
Pandemic adds to pressures
Connick encouraged Clifford Chance’s management to open up a firm-wide discussion about mental wellbeing. He told his own story and encouraged others to come forward in a sector where gruelling hours and an unperturbed veneer were standard practice.
Clifford Chance has since provided a helpline, mental health “first-aiders” to support people with problems, a website with advice on looking after oneself and others, wellbeing coaching, and an onsite psychologist at its head office.
The firm made these changes before the Covid-19 pandemic, but successive lockdowns and related stresses have brought mental resilience to the foreground across the business landscape.
While some people have thrived working from home, others have felt isolated, dislocated and insecure, forced to cope with home-schooling, loneliness and the worst economic crisis in living memory.
Huge cost for business
For many, mental health was already an issue. In 2017, more than half a billion people worldwide suffered from anxiety, depression or both, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Mind, a UK charity, says one in four people will experience a form of mental illness in any given year.
How much should this be a concern for businesses? Mental resilience is a complex matter, influenced by genetic make-up, family background, relationships and lifestyle. Yet work cannot be taken out of the equation. For many people, it takes up most of their waking hours. It helps to define them, determines financial security and is a source of regular human contact.
In 2017, the independent Farmer-Stevenson review in the UK found that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lost their jobs each year. It estimated the cost to UK businesses at up to £42 billion from sickness, staff turnover and poor productivity when people are ill at work.
In Germany, the number of sick days taken because of mental health problems rose by two-thirds between 2008 and 2019, according to the AOK Absence Report. It suggested that the way a company treated its workers had a direct effect on staff absences.
Employers should try to prevent mental health issues from taking root in the workplace by making practical and cultural adjustments, such as encouraging people to take lunch breaks, helping them to speak up and giving managers the confidence to support staff and to spot problems
Brian Dow, deputy chief executive of the UK charity Rethink Mental Illness, says: “There is a clear imperative on businesses to support employees with their mental health. The pandemic has accelerated that, and everybody is thinking about protecting the mental health of their staff.”
Dow says a big breakthrough in the UK came in 2011 when António Horta-Osório, the chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, was forced to take eight weeks off after coming close to a nervous breakdown.
Some predicted the episode would end his career, but he returned to work and spoke about the need to nurture mental health at work. He ordered a range of measures to support the bank’s employees, including awareness training, a helpline, and a network of almost 2,000 health advocates. Lloyds also forged a partnership with Mental Health UK, a group of four charities headed by Dow.
“When a company of the scale and reach of Lloyds took the issue as seriously as it did, that led other businesses to sit up and take notice,” Dow says.
Away from financial services, Australian project management and construction group Lendlease started implementing mental health measures almost a decade ago, partly in response to the high incidence of depression and suicide among construction workers.
The company has trained more than 500 first-aiders since 2013, and allows its workers a paid day each quarter to go to a spa, for a walk in the country or do something else for their wellbeing. Lendlease also has an anonymous support line – an important ingredient in a successful mental health programme.
In an industry where subcontracting is widespread, the company provides training to its contractors and has sought to build mental health into daily health and safety briefings at construction sites.
In Germany, the number of sick days taken because of mental health problems rose by two-thirds between 2008 and 2019, according to the AOK Absence Report
Culture of openness
Paul King, Lendlease’s managing director of sustainability and social impact for Europe, says he had to take time off with anxiety two years ago and, like Connick and Horta-Osório, was open about his problems when he returned to work.
“When you find yourself in that situation, you do worry about what people will think if you say you’re suffering from a mental health problem,” King says. “From my own experience, I know it can be tough.”
According to Connick, top-level candour can reduce the stigma of mental illness at work, but it is not enough: people at all levels need to tell their stories to create a genuine culture of openness.
He says: “You need leaders to show the way, but other people in the firm may say, ‘That’s interesting, but maybe he can say that because he’s in a privileged position.’”
At Lendlease, female staff discussed their experiences of miscarriage on video for World Mental Health Day, and workers from ethnic minorities talked about mental health issues in their communities. King said it was “humbling” to hear their stories.
For a mental health strategy to work, company leaders need to be committed and to accept that there is no quick solution, experts say. That means the strategy needs to be constantly reviewed, making sure that the ethos permeates all levels of the business.
“People may or may not feel free to talk to their line managers,” says Erika Kispeter, a research fellow at Warwick Institute for Employment Research. “People often understand there is a new policy but think they aren’t really supposed to use it, because they read between the lines about who endorses it.”
Dow says employers should try to prevent mental health issues from taking root in the workplace by making practical and cultural adjustments, such as encouraging people to take lunch breaks, helping them to speak up and giving managers the confidence to support staff and to spot problems.
“It can be easy to help if someone has a physical condition, but it is more difficult with mental health, so it is important to provide managers with the skills they need to understand the signs of distress,” he says.
When someone becomes unwell and has to take time off, employers should also make reasonable adjustments to help them return to work, Dow says.
Connick believes that Clifford Chance still has more to do to embed awareness across the firm, including measuring outcomes more effectively, and providing more training at managerial level.“I think any organisation should do what we have done as a minimum, but we’re now moving again,” he says.
The heart of the problem is that humans were not meant to be sedentary, work long hours and get by on minimal sleep
The heart of the problem is that humans were not meant to be sedentary, work long hours and get by on minimal sleep, says Tom Oxley, lead consultant at Bamboo Mental Health.
“Sleep, diet and exercise are the holy trinity,” he says. “If you’re not sleeping right and you’re drinking too much while working 10-hour days and sitting on your couch till bedtime… we are not designed to do that.”
Oxley’s key tips for self-help are to get moving, breathe, connect with people and do something creative. “Interaction can be 10 minutes playing with your child or professional counselling,” he says. “We don’t have to be broken to look after our wellness.”
Laura Peters, head of advice and information at Mental Health UK, advises people having a tough time to break big pieces of work into smaller tasks and to write things down.
This can include a wellness recovery plan that sets out how you are feeling and acting, how to take control and what colleagues can do to help.“It works well, and if you write it down there’s a proper record,” she says.
Among business leaders, looking after colleagues’ mental resilience has other benefits, too. Wellbeing is a central plank of the social element of the environmental, social and governance trinity, which is taken increasingly seriously by investors, customers and employees.
At Clifford Chance, for example, action on mental health is part of a wider push by the firm to show that it is on top of issues deemed increasingly important to core stakeholders.
“We want to be the employer of choice and to attract the best clients, and we see that as a virtuous circle,” Connick says.
Some companies still do not take the issue seriously and are looking for quick fixes to show they have done something. But, according to Nigel Jones, co-founder of London’s City Mental Health Alliance initiative, they will be left behind.
He says: “A lot of large investors are saying, ‘We are only going to invest in organisations that look after their people.’ There are organisations that haven’t picked this up, but far fewer than there used to be.” n