HR Analysis: Why your mental health strategy is failing – and how to fix it fast

Mental health ambassador reveals it took a breakdown for him to realise his calling

HR Analysis: Why your mental health strategy is failing – and how to fix it fast

: It wasn’t until he stepped into the conference that Nick Elston had his breakdown.

“I was really struggling – but I didn't tell people that I was struggling,” Nick told HRD.

Today, Elston is a sought-after mental health advisor and inspirational speaker - but it wasn’t always so.

Following his breakdown, which Elston said centred around obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), he took some time away to look after his mental health. He then returned to that very same conference a changed man.

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Elston went into a session room and started speaking. He kept talking and talking, purging himself of everything he’d kept bottled up and masked for so long. And the effect it had on those around him was quite remarkable.

“It was then I saw the power of harnessing the adversities that we all face. By sharing my own experiences, not only did it make me feel better, but also it helped other people to voice their own issues.

“The truth is completely liberating. In life, we all want to be heard and we all want to be understood – but we don't feel that a lot of the time, especially in the corporate world.”

The real power for Elston didn't come from his own words, it was from the people in the room who suddenly started sharing everything with him.

“Whether it was about racism, or abuse, or grief, or loss, or coming out - all these kind of challenges that we all go through that we just don't share - people suddenly felt safe enough to talk because there was somebody else there being vulnerable too.”

It was then that Elston decided to dedicate him time to helping organizations craft effective mental wellbeing strategies.

One in six employees are struggling with their mental health at any given time – with poor mental health costing the economy upwards of $45 billion every single year.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic only adding to these worrying statistics, companies are turning more and more towards professional advisors such as Elston.

From universities to global organizations, schools to prisons, Elston travels across the globe turning archaic initiatives into tangible, meaningful, plans.

“Fun fact – speaking at the school was a lot scarier than the prison. Trying to get 16-year-old boys to talk openly? Not easy.”

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Most recently, Elston was hired by KFC to help get their people more involved with their mental health strategy.

“At KFC, I’m using a video series to help get people talking. I like to interview people and ask them questions - it helps me feel like I’m really part of their team. By brining different elements of fun into the talks, it’s a lot less daunting.”

How to implement a strategy

If you want to introduce an effective mental health strategy, you need to stop approaching it as a box ticking exercise. Instead, Elston offered three starting points for HR leaders.


“Companies need to have passionate ambassadors in place – that’s the first step,” Elston told HRD.

“You need to select some employees from your organization who’ll champion the program - and help make their colleagues feel safe opening up to them.

“Normally, these workers will be people who’ve had experience dealing with mental health issues – they understand what other people may be going through.

Give employees time

“Secondly, give your employees the time to engage in the strategy. Sometimes, organizations make a big deal out of launching a mental wellbeing plan- and then don’t actually give their employees the space to use it.

Get personal

“Finally, HR leaders need to invest in emotional storytelling as a tool. I work with a lot of leaders on how to bring real life experiences into their teaching. For instance, if you’re talking about redundancy – speak a little about a time you lost a job – or you were passed over for a promotion. Make it real – make it authentic – and employees will engage with you.”

How long does it take to launch?

Looking at timelines is essential for securing that senior level buy-in, especially when it comes to mental health.

Companies may baulk at the idea of taking years to implement a strategy – wondering just how long it will take to come to fruition. Days? Weeks? Years?

But, as Elston told us, the answer is much more gratifying.

“Overnight,” he explained.

“Honestly, and I know it sounds unreal, but if a strategy is done well it can be implemented overnight.

“I worked with a financial services company recently, who hadn’t done anything with mental health before. By redesigning their culture to include mental health, really engaging with their people and listening to their individual concerns, it was a roaring success.

Elston uses storytelling and engagement to bring people out of their shells – something which he likes to do as a group activity.

“When I speak to large companies, I always look out for the people at the back. They’re the nervous ones – sat right at the back of the room. But they’re the ones I really need to reach. I always start the talk by walking straight to the back of the room and trying to engage those people.”

Measuring the ROI on mental health

When it comes measuring the return on investment in mental health – there’s no clear-cut formula. Mental health strategies are much more personal, and therefore more difficult to cost. However, there are some metric that can be looked at.

“I understand the reasons why senior management need to look at costings and ROIs on any HR strategy – but I disagree with that money-minded approach,” added Elston.

“For me, true return on investment comes from knowing that you've empowered an effective, productive, and happy workforce – that you’ve really built resilience.”

In the current climate, having a team that’s steady, resilient, and agile is proof that you’re investing just the right amount in mental wellbeing.

Redundancy rates have rocketed thanks to COVID-19, and there’s this idea that employees should be ‘grateful’ for their job.

Not so.

A recent report from Hays found that 49% of employees are currently considering leaving their job – for the most part down management mishandling of the pandemic.

“We cannot control the uncontrollable. Instead, it’s all about having a resilient workforce that understands this.

“I think the core problem is that some people will look at this from an ROI perspective, first and foremost - and then make a decision solely based on that. Specifically, two in five employers have failed to provide measures to support staff wellbeing – consequently people are feeling isolated, lonely, and over-worked.

“We need to look at more peer to peer conversations,” added Elston.

“Obviously, the true ROI comes from looking at the usual performance indicators – such as absenteeism, productivity and morale – but, in these times, employers need to be a bit more human in their approach to mental health.”

Key Takeaways for HR

  • One in six employees are struggling with their mental health at any given time – with poor mental health costing the economy upwards of $45 billion every single year
  • Select passionate ambassadors for your mental health plan – employees who understand or have experience of mental health
  • Give employees time to understand and explore the strategy – invest in emotional storytelling techniques
  • When looking at ROI – don’t focus purely on numbers. Look at engagement, morale and productivity

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