Mental wellness: why C-suite should lead the discussion

If leaders talked about it, staff will start opening up as well

Mental wellness: why C-suite should lead the discussion

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. WHO highlighted how the lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing treatment they need to live healthy, productive lives.

Fast forward to 2019 and the topic remains taboo: one in three employees say they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their manager about it.

This is because 26% are worried raising the issue might harm their career progression. One in four employees are concerned with confidentiality, while 14% are not even aware of the support available to them.

But the Hays report, which surveyed people across 100 countries, acknowledged the positive strides made in destigmatising the touchy topic. One in four employees have been given time to speak confidentially with their manager.

As for action taken by employers, almost 20% have been offered some form of counselling or therapy, 15% given time off, while 10% saw an adjustment in their workload and responsibilities. Only 27% who raised the issue said they received zero support from their employer.

We’re moving in the right direction, alright, but what more can we do to truly tackle the issue?

Let’s talk about it
Dr David C Batman, specialist consultant in occupational medicine at Virgin Pulse is a firm believer that leadership should be the first to broach the topic and develop a culture of trust.

“Mental health is not new – it’s always been around,” Dr Batman said. “You can’t have health without mental health.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen [at work] – and everybody has it – is the level of stress. Stress is the level of uncertainty or a lack of trust. There are big stresses in people’s lives, doesn’t matter whether it’s uncertainty in government, finances, business, or in your own manager.

“It’s this constant chronic feeling that ‘I don’t feel well’.”

The trained medical practitioner left general practice in 1988 and retrained in occupational medicine as he became very aware of the relationship between work and health, recognising the important link between patients’ lifestyles and health.

In his years of practice, he shared that he’s seen a shift in mindset which has made all the difference – for one, “good” organisations have started putting mental health on the agenda.

“People are now feeling more comfortable [to talk about it],” he said. “I’ve seen CEOs across the world come out and actually admit [they’ve suffered from it]. There’s almost an acceptance factor, an agreement that it’s alright to talk about it.”

Start from the top
To name a few trailblazers, business mogul Sir Richard Branson has consistently advocated the importance of making employee mental well-being “a priority for any business” – that “no business has any more excuses not take action”.

Even more recently, Prince William spoke openly at the World Economic Forum about the need to overcome the “stiff upper lip approach” led by past generations. He has also been candid about how his experience with mental health issues was the reason behind the launch of the Heads Together initiative in 2017.

Over in Asia, Anthea Indira Ong, a nominated member of parliament in Singapore has urged the government to go beyond physical safety and include employees’ psychological and social welfare as priorities under the nation’s employment law.

Similar to the prince, her path towards advocacy was paved by her own encounter with mental health issues.

Besides her service in parliament, she also helped found the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup, a private sector-driven effort by business and non-business leaders to champion workplace and employee well-being as a leadership priority.

She shared with HRD why more leaders should speak up and create a “safe space” at work.

“Coming out and sharing [your own experiences] really speaks of a different level of leadership,” Ong said. “Because you will help to open up the space of trust for your team members to see that, ‘Hey, I’m in this [leadership] position, but I've also gone through mental health difficulties’. Therefore, if you have mental health difficulties, it doesn’t mean that you’re any less.

“If you are role modelling and really encouraging employees to feel safe, then you have to come forward to say that, ‘It’s okay. I have gone through it and I understand’.

“It just shows a lot of relatability to fellow human beings…If we don’t do that as leaders, we’re so unreachable; we’re so far away.”

Among the things the C-suites discuss at the WorkWell Leaders Workgroup are successful practices that organisations can replicate. Many of the members, Ong said, have advocated the need for openness at work.

One example she shared involved a top leader who led townhall events in conjunction with Mental Health Day last October and encouraged the organisation’s leaders to come out and share their own mental health difficulties.

“I personally have so much admiration for that kind of leadership,” she said. “But the biggest beneficiary, I would have to say to my fellow leaders, is actually ourselves…we grow and develop ourselves further as leaders.”

Dr Batman concurred with Ong’s beliefs, saying the best practice organisations can adopt is to first stop drawing a line between mental and physical health – and simply “talk about health”.

“The best businesses that really make a difference are those where you’ve got somebody at C-Suite level, and hopefully it’s your chairman, who endorses [the movement],” he said.

“Don’t make it an initiative; don’t make it a program. Make it a lifestyle change, so it’s something that becomes part of your culture.

“Resilient businesses need resilient employees. Healthy businesses need healthy employees… Now the differences are not going to be immediate. It’s not like a light switch. You need to persevere and you will see changes.”


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