Most organisations have ramped up their mental health and wellbeing support since the pandemic hit, but are their actions actually making a difference? Dr Chris Golby discusses why some employers are missing the mark and how data-led strategies are the way forward.
The all-too-common ‘tick box’ approach to managing workplace mental health isn’t working.
Helping to establish good employee mental health and wellbeing is about more than simply training a few managers or offering subscriptions to mindfulness apps. It starts with culture change – listening to your employees and embedding the right practices and procedures throughout your organisation to help them perform at their best.
Poor workplace mental health is estimated to cost UK businesses a staggering £45bn each year, according to Deloitte: £7bn in absences, £27bn in presenteeism costs and £9bn in costs of team turnover.
Data from my organisation, Lumien, shows how poor wellbeing in general is impacting employees 27% of the time. Companies are losing 17% productivity on average due to poor employee wellbeing, which equates to an annual cost of £5,318.45 per employee (based on the 2021 median UK salary of £31,285).
And loss of productivity isn’t the only cost: the US-based National Institute of Mental Health found that half of millennials and 75% of Gen-Z have left jobs for mental health reasons.
The ‘tick box trap’
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, most organisations are now taking additional measures to support employee health and wellbeing, most commonly focused around mental health and supporting remote workers.
For many, this involves training managers in mental health first aid, offering employee assistance programmes or providing subscriptions to mindfulness apps.
These actions are often reactive – in response to an issue arising or an employee facing a mental health crisis – which can sometimes result in a ‘tick box’ mentality, where certain activities are carried out, or levels of support offered, based on criteria laid out by certain mental health certifications or bodies.
When this approach is taken, employers can fall into the ‘tick box trap’ – where they are investing heavily into mental health support that is not necessarily what their employees need or want, and there’s often no measures in place to check whether their initiatives are actually working.
Taking a proactive approach
Taking a more proactive approach is challenging, and companies need to collect data from their teams to understand what’s right for them. It’s a bigger task, but it’s much more effective and progressive.
In 2021, the CIPD released a report highlighting how the proportion of employees viewing their organisations’ approach to mental health as reactive has fallen to 27% from 41% the previous year. However, the number of employers with a formal wellbeing strategy only increased by a modest percentage – from 44% to 50%.
Many employee wellbeing issues go unnoticed for long periods of time. Deloitte finds that one in four employees fear negative consequences for making mental health issues formal, and Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index highlights how just 52% of employees experiencing mental health issues at work disclose these to their employer.
Without a proactive approach employees’ mental health will likely worsen, leading to reduced engagement and productivity, absences and attrition. The reactive approach does not give businesses the insight they need to devise wellbeing strategies that support staff effectively.
Without a proactive approach employees’ mental health will likely worsen, leading to reduced engagement and productivity, absences and attrition.”
Deloitte’s analysis of wellbeing interventions found that on average, investing in organisational-wide culture change and mental health awareness can offer a ROI of £6 for every £1. Whereas, reactive support, such as offering treatment or therapy once an employee is facing a mental health crisis – although crucial in an organisation’s suite of interventions – offers on average return of only £3 for every £1.
A culture-focused approach to wellbeing is about looking at organisational design and listening to what employees have to say – not just changing things for one employee once their mental health has deteriorated.
This approach isn’t about matching employees to your defined values, it’s also about working to shape the organisation itself around your employees. It’s about being flexible and supportive of your employees’ individual needs, so they are able to thrive and live your organisation’s values.
Employers need data to develop an evidenced-based strategy to tackle workplace wellbeing. This gives real insight into the wants and needs of employees, highlights areas for improvement, and helps HR understand the impact of different working practices on mental health.
On average, companies taking up a data-led approach to wellbeing, such as the surveys provided by Lumien, will see a 4% improvement to their overall workplace wellbeing scores in the first three months.
When taking a data-led approach, it’s also important to ensure you’re driving user engagement in wellbeing surveys to frequently deliver an organisational snapshot to inform management decisions.
A data-led wellbeing strategy is one that shows employees that they’re listened to, which will help your organisation support staff to feel happy and healthy. Don’t fall into the tick-box trap.