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How to safeguard mental health wellbeing at work

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Recognising the need to address the wellbeing of your employees is all well and good, but do you know how? Geoff McDonald provides a practical framework for breaking down stigma and preventing mental illness in the workplace.

As I board a flight to New York City, I ponder a recent article I wrote on why astute CEOs should address the mental wellbeing of their employees. I think to myself “so maybe they now know why they should address this aspect of wellbeing, but what should they do?” 

While at Unilever, the organisation which gave me a wonderful 25-year career culminating in my role as global vice president for HR, I developed this motto: 

“There is no point helping organisations address the stigma of depression, anxiety, bipolar and other mental illnesses if you don’t advise them what to do; but there is also no point in advising organisations what to do, if there is a stigma linked to mental illness within the organisation.” 

How can we address mental wellbeing at work?

As leaders, we need to give this issue the same level of importance that we have placed on safety over the years. The World Health Organisation predicts that if we do not proactively address wellbeing, mental illness will be the leading cause of disability and absence in the workplace by 2030. We have invested millions over the years in ensuring the safety of our employees; the time has come to do the same regarding the mental health of our people. 

This requires strategic intervention from senior management and members’ full engagement and advocacy. Either the business case, moral case or both need to be made, so senior leaders see the importance of investing in this matter, and of preventing or reducing hidden costs, including the ability to attract, retain and engage talent. 

Introduce a wellbeing framework

Once we have a clear business and moral case, we must develop a framework for implementation, led by senior managers, with the support of key talent at all levels.
1. Train all managers and employees (just as we train employees on codes of business practice and safety) in enhancing workplace wellbeing. This should be obligatory and should: 

• help to dispel the myth that depression, and other common conditions are weaknesses, and illustrate scientific evidence that these are illnesses 

• aid employees in recognising symptoms in themselves and in others 

• provide guidance on how to manage someone in a team who might become ill 

• demonstrate how to reintegrate someone into work after illness – often a key component of their recovery; work is good for us and can be integral to the recovery of someone who has been ill. 

2. Develop campaigns and language, in partnership with your communications function/ communications agency, that ‘sit well’ with your organisation. How we communicate is key to successful implementation of a wellbeing strategy. 

3. Normalise mental illness by encouraging senior and influential people to share stories of their associations with conditions such as depression and anxiety. In my experience, this is the most powerful means of breaking the stigma and generating discussion.
4. Introduce mental hygiene techniques your employees can learn. Just as many employees have a personal coach or trainer in the gym, we should teach and encourage mental hygiene techniques. 

5. Develop an intranet to which employees can turn for resources to help identify how they are feeling and where to get help.

Address your working environment

We should remember that “when the flower does not bloom, there is nothing wrong with the flower but the environment it lives in”. 

Organisations cannot address employee wellbeing without also considering their culture and purpose/meaning. Create an environment where individuals feel their work is meaningful, purposeful and humane. Creating a sense of purpose beyond profit and growth, and creating a more humane environment will go a long way to helping prevent mental illness in the workplace. This must be our first goal: prevention over cure. 

Geoff McDonald

By Geoff McDonald

Geoff is the former global VP HR, Unilever and a global advocate, campaigner and consultant in breaking the stigma linked to mental ill health in the workplace and executive director of Open Minds Health. He is also a senior adviser to Burson Marsteller.

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