Why CEOs must step up to drive workplace mental health changes

It’s World Mental Health Day[i] on 10 October, which shines a light on mental health issues and what more can be done to offer better support to people suffering from a mental health condition.

Recent research from mental health charity Mind[ii] found that poor mental health affects half of all UK employees, however, only half of those who had experienced stress, anxiety or low mood talked to their employer about it.

According to Cheryl Brennan, Head of Corporate Healthcare Consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection, while more employers are starting to address mental health issues within their wellbeing agenda, there is some way to go and CEOs must be more supportive to ensure programmes are effective.

The latest Employee Wellbeing Research 2018 from Punter Southall Health & Protection in partnership with REBA found that a growing number of companies are prioritising wellbeing, with almost half (45%) of organisations, now having a defined wellbeing strategy in place – up from less than a third (30%) in 2016.

Mental health is also clear priority for some organisations with almost three in five saying this is the area of employee wellbeing their board is most concerned about. However, just 16 per cent of UK employers currently have a defined mental health strategy in place, although 37 per cent plan to introduce one in the next 12 months and a further 26 per cent by 2020.

Yet the research also found few strategies are being driven by the Board, with less than one in ten (8%) saying the Board actively drives the organisation’s wellbeing agenda and one in twenty (5%) saying their Board has little or no interest in employee wellbeing.

Cheryl Brennan, Head of Corporate Healthcare Consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection says,

“Employers not only need to provide access to services such as counselling, mental health first aiders and employee assistance programme but also ensure that CEOs and the board drive workplace mental health programmes.”

“They also need to promote a culture of openness and willingness across the company to ensure mental health isn’t a taboo subject and they may need to look at training and cultural change.”

One of the contributors to the REBA report is Andy Briggs, Chief Executive Officer, UK Insurance at Aviva, who said: “Employee wellbeing is the right thing to do. It’s right to make Aviva a great place for employees to work and to help people to be happy and healthy. From a business perspective, we are convinced that a happy and healthy workforce will serve customers better, enabling us to generate better returns to shareholders and so creating that virtuous circle.”

Joe Thompson, Managing Director at Virgin Holidays said they deliberately chose a functional leader to be their wellbeing champion – to reinforce the message it is an absolute business priority.

According to Thompson,

“Our people agenda is at the forefront of our business objectives. Within our people agenda, our commitment to employee wellbeing is front and centre. In some ways, the obvious choice would have been to have our senior vice president of people in the role of wellbeing champion. But we felt it would communicate a better message to see one of the business leaders, one of the leaders of the functional areas, take that championing responsibility.

“We wanted to send the message that this is a whole business initiative and priority, and not just something that was coming from the people team. We have regular time with the wellbeing team looking at any upcoming initiatives and making sure that we, as a leadership team, are going to drive uptake of those initiatives.”

Cheryl Brennan concludes,

“The majority of boards of directors understand that wellbeing strategies are good for employees in theory. However, there is still reluctance by many to make wellbeing part of a business strategy. The organisations that see most business benefits from wellbeing do have a board director (or more than one) actively driving it.”