As well as COVID reaching deep into our daily lives and communities, there is another virus infecting parts of UK life. It is proving prevalent in many big organisations, sweeping through corporate entities from boardrooms to shop floors.
We are experiencing a spate of box-ticking mental health initiative-itis.
In mitigation, let me firstly say that any genuine efforts to support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, and any real attempts to help people achieve a healthy and sustainable work-life balance, is to be welcomed. There are lots of leaders and managers who are trying their best to shift organisational cultures to be more focused on people’s health and happiness, whilst continuing to (rightly) try to maximise the performance and success of their business, education provider, charity, government body or other organisation. They should be thanked and applauded and I see positive, well-intentioned work on this front every day.
But there is also a world of horse has bolted; papering over the cracks of unhealthy culture and business models; mental health band wagon joiners. They have spotted a trend and don’t want to be left behind. They have seen where their followers are heading and they are rushing to lead them.
These leaders and managers need help, not handshakes and back slaps.
This box ticking work is characterised often by its focus on lists of stuff, announcements after announcements, suites of measures, ‘our people are our top priority’ cliches, and the comfort that is taken in the rolling out of mental health first aid, awareness-raising sessions, town hall meetings, reverse mentoring and the like. None of these initiatives are intrinsically bad but too often they are used as reactive measures to treat symptoms of mental ill health at work and work-life balance issues and not the causes. Putting a plaster over a cut knee of a child who has fallen off their bike isn’t itself a bad thing to do, but surely it would better to help the child learnt to ride the bike more safely in the first place.
For the avoidance of doubt, I strongly support the provision of reactive services in organisations to help those who are struggling and need support. These services are often a lifeline – sometimes a life saver – but they are necessary, not sufficient. They should be the exception and not the rule. The main focus of organisations who want to support their employees should be on helping them say healthy, well and happy in the first place, not just get them back on their feet – and back to work (which is often their primary goal).
The pandemic has forced many organisations – through both necessity and public expectation – to prioritise mental health at work but sadly this has focused on the easy to tackle, easy to see and easy to measure stuff. It is the bandaid to the knee. The sticking plaster. The challenge as I see it for organisations of all shapes and sizes is to be a place that moves from helping people to manage when things go wrong, or to help anticipate challenges that are coming down the road (home schooling, more forced home working, isolation from colleagues etc), to one that ensures that the culture of the organisation supports healthy work all the time – not just during a crisis like COVID. A culture that values employees switching off at the end of the day; taking proper breaks; not days crammed full of endless, back to back meetings, often that squeeze out anything approaching a lunch break; discouraging emailing outside of the normal working day; respects holidays without interruption; and rewards behaviours that treat everyone in the workplace with dignity, respect and kindness.
My own lived experience following my breakdown, which was at least in part influenced by my working life, and my experience of working with individuals and organisations since my breakdown, suggests that the unspoken, unwritten parts of organisational culture are the things that will make a difference in the long run and will be sustainable. It is business models, reward processes and leadership behaviours and recognition (explicitly and implicitly) that are built on pressure and value speed, responsiveness, going the extra mile and being a “can do person” that will sadly drive much of the mental health issues related to the workplace, regardless of all the support and advice that is offered. Regardless of how many mental health first aiders your organisation has on standby to leap into action.
Wellbeing at work is on trend at the moment and long may that continue. But I want to see organisations genuinely tackling the root causes or contributory causes of mental health challenges, unhealthy stress, crippling anxiety and other conditions that are – at least in part – driven by corporate cultures that mouth the words of wellbeing but are built on the premise of squeezing ever little bit of productivity – every bit of life – out of their employees.
I saw it, experienced it, lived it myself. It nearly ruined my life. And I still see it happening every day.
When I see an organisation reeling off its list of latest initiatives I am immediately suspicious. Are they really helping their employees or just trying to tick a box to help themselves? You can spot them a mile off.