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Mental Health As A Strategic Issue

While the overall numbers of people affected by mental health issues is a cause for concern, perhaps as alarming are the number of firms or individual managers who engaging in well-being washing.
This article is part of my FY24 Strategic Outlook series.

Right off the bat, I need to make one thing clear — I am a philosopher, not a psychologist. If you are after a clinicians view, please engage my wife Halaina Winter. Thus, what I am embarking on in this article is to speak to the issues that face all managers, how they can be approached from a non-clinical position, and how your approach to mental health can benefit or hinder your organisational strategy. I should also add that while ‘R U OK‘ days are wonderful and it is vital you check in with your team and colleagues, please ensure you engage the right people rather than trying to deal with employee mental health issues yourself.

Caveats out of the way, everywhere you look well-being and mental health dominate the modern workplace. Depending on which data you read, anywhere from between a quarter and 60% of people in the workforce suffer from or have experienced a mental health challenge in their career. With such large numbers of people affected, it is without hyperbole to say that in one way or another all employees are impacted by mental health. It also means that managers are failing their staff if they imagine that well-being can be quarantined from, or is only a bolt on to, day to day operations.

While the overall numbers of people affected by mental health issues is a cause for concern, perhaps as alarming are the number of firms or individual managers who engage in well-being washing:

The research, conducted by Claro Wellbeing, found seven in 10 (71 per cent) workplaces celebrated mental health awareness days, but only a third (36 per cent) of organisations’ mental health support was deemed good or outstanding by their employees.

The survey of 1,000 employees, found that more than a third (35 per cent) of businesses recognised mental health on social media and through events, but just 30 per cent saw their employer as “considerate” of their mental health.

Cholteeva (2022)

To be fair, managers I speak with are not consciously trying to ‘spin’ the situation. That is, look like they are attending to their employees well-being while actually not caring. As evidence, managers will point to the numerous initiatives they have undertaken from ‘R U OK‘ days (replete with food carts and yoga classes), to workshops on mindfulness, gym memberships, and paid mental health days. Yet whether it is deliberate well-being washing or simply well meaning managers who are missing the mark, the result is that employees continue to feel overwhelmed by life.

Talking with clinicians, it seems this is because while many people have good intentions, many wellness programs are treating the superficial or symptomatic elements of mental health, not the underlying causes. As with all areas of life, there is meaningful action and then there is merely paying lip service. For organisations the need is clear, invest in clinically proven interventions or expect more of the same.

The money, for the purely fiscally minded, is well spent. Knowing that a team member is resistant to returning to the office because of agoraphobia or illness anxiety disorder that has crept in during the COVID lockdowns, and not because of laziness, can make the difference between a successful transformation strategy or a failed one.

Net Present Wellness (NPW)

Given it is beyond any one article to provide a comprehensive set of treatment solutions for mental health challenges, not to mention that it is not my field, for those seeking a five word of less solution the answer is ‘see a clinical psychologist’. For those who are engaging clinicians, where does your role as a manger fit in to the overall treatment plan?

As a starting point, the WHO lists some of key factors that are known to affect employee mental health of which all managers should be aware:

  • under-use of skills or being under-skilled for work;
  • excessive workloads or work pace, understaffing;
  • long, unsocial or inflexible hours;
  • lack of control over job design or workload;
  • unsafe or poor physical working conditions;
  • organizational culture that enables negative behaviours;
  • limited support from colleagues or authoritarian supervision;
  • violence, harassment or bullying;
  • discrimination and exclusion;
  • unclear job role;
  • under- or over-promotion;
  • job insecurity, inadequate pay, or poor investment in career development; and
  • conflicting home/work demands.

To put the outcomes of these challenges into a macro perspective:

Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

WHO (2022)

At an organisational level, surveys show that employees who face mental health challenges are four times more likely to leave their role or organisation. Research is also showing that for employees with mental health issues who remain with an organisation, discrimination abounds and ‘making promotion after a burnout Is like boiling the ocean‘:

A burnout history specifically reduced candidates’ promotion propensity scores by no less than 34.4 per cent compared to others without interruptions in their employment record.

Sterkens et al. (2021, p. 13).

The good news is that while no organisation seems to have ‘solved’ for the challenge of employee mental health, there is a roadmap that can be used to begin the journey toward a more inclusive environment that actively promotes improved employee mental health.

The first milestone is to understand if there is underlying stigma toward mental health and then to work on remediating the stigma. If people feel afraid to be honest and open, or unwilling to accept and work with people with mental health issues, initiatives are unlikely to succeed. Education plays a vital role in this part of the process, and organisations are best served by bringing in clinical experts to talk mental health with their teams.

Having established an environment of trust, the second milestone is to know your organisation. This enables managers to focus resources to where they are needed most and to monitor the key results of the initiatives. Organisation specific survey data is essential in this respect, because academic studies or surveys by other corporations will speak to their cohort, not yours. Until you know your people, it will be a guessing game to work out if more workplace flexibility is needed, or if employees are lacking the knowledge or tools for improved physical or mental activity, or if universal basic access to clinical therapy services is the ticket.

The third milestone is to embody mental health resourcing and networking within the organisation. Unless your organisation is possessed of prodigious funds, it is unlikely you will be able to employ full time clinical psychologists. This puts staff on the front line and means that in addition to first aid officers who are the first responders in the event of an accident, mental health first aid officers can be on the spot to role model behaviours and approaches to mental health. This provides a visible point of contact for people who need to be passed on to more highly skilled mental health professionals.


The journey for an individual who is on their path to mental health wellness can take years and even decades. This means that organisations intent on going beyond well-being washing need to take a long term view. Much as any senior leadership team (SLT) worth its weight in remuneration will have a long term organisational strategy, so too does any SLT that wants to improve mental health within the organisation need a long term mental health strategy.

Individual managers below the SLT level play, as with any initiative, a pivotal role. Take the time during a WIP to ask about non-work topics, including well-being. While you are unlikely to be able to solve for non-work problems, establishing a trust relationship is essential to tackling any challenge. And, as stressed repeatedly in this article, if you think a serious mental-health issue is surfacing, ensure you reach out to HR and engage a clinical psychologist rather than trying to counsel the employee yourself. Organisations that have taken these active steps consistently rank in surveys as the best places to work.

But what can you do today? I can offer no better advice than to suggest you ask the eight targeted questions offered by the McKinsey Health Institute. These act as a good barometer for how your organisation is tracking in its employee well-being improvement journey and have the potential to help organisations achieve meaningful change in the mental health space:

  • Do we treat employee mental health and well-being as a strategic priority?
  • Do we effectively address toxic behaviors?
  • Do we create inclusive work environments?
  • Do we enable individual growth?
  • Do we promote sustainable work?
  • Are we holding leaders accountable?
  • Are we effectively tackling stigma?
  • Do our resources serve employee needs?

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

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