What is the role of the C-Suite in addressing mental health in the workplace?

25 October 2019

With the spotlight increasingly fixed on the role of inclusive environments, considerable progress has been made in the business landscape to create cultures in which employees are able to reach their potential and contribute effectively. It may account for 12.7 of sickness absences in the UK each year, but mental health is often left out of the productivity equation, an after-thought rather than a key element in the puzzle.

Despite awareness days, social media campaigns and increasing focus on mindfulness at work, stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace continues to act as one of the biggest barrier to employee wellbeing.  Both an ethical priority and a business imperative, removing the stigma is a matter of urgency, but momentum must come from the top.

Where C-Suite executives have not historically played such a hands on role in addressing mental health in their organisations, the need for front-facing leadership that inspires radical change by example is becoming too great to ignore.

Understanding the stigma surrounding mental health

If workers feel as though they cannot open up about the issues they are facing, it isn’t without good reason: although one in four people suffer from a mental health condition in the UK, an average of 300,000 people will lose their jobs each year due to a long-term mental health problem.

What’s more, according to Andrew Berrie of the Time to Change campaign, nine in 10 people who experience mental health problems report facing stigma and discrimination. More than half say they experience that stigma the most at work, so do not feel they can discuss it openly with their manager.

As accepting as the public may be on the medical nature of mental health conditions, certain workplace cultures still treat illnesses of this type as a declaration of weakness and a reason to rule someone out of the running for a promotion. Social stigma is reinforced by self-perceived stigma, whereby the person suffering feels ashamed of their condition and as though it were something to keep hidden.

Unlike other medical conditions, this vicious cycle is less easy to identify in employees than a physical disability – particularly in competitive environments that demand a consistent 100 per cent from employees. So as long as they aren’t visibly unwell or suffering from a recent trauma, employees are deemed by many firms as fit to work – it’s no wonder that  95 per cent of employees who call in sick with stress give a different reason.

The role of the C-Suite

Employers have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for workers, and part of this should include addressing any issues such as workload, pressure, bullying or harassment that may be contributing to mental health problems. In light of the unparalleled uncertainty in the market, executives should recognise more than ever the ripple effect that inadequate support can have on worker wellbeing and company performance.

While C-Level executives may have traditionally left the task of cultural shift and employee engagement to management staff, mental health is an issue that requires senior leadership buy-in if well-meaning initiatives are to succeed in tackling stigma. The problem, in many instances, is a lack of leadership from the top – as informed as they may be on the importance of worker wellbeing, initiatives are launched with little to no involvement from the C-Suite.

Inspiring organisational change

Stigma on mental health typically exists as an extension of the business cultures we foster; the pressurised environments and high expectations leave no room for sickness, let alone long-term mental health conditions. As progressive as most leaders would wish their organisations to appear, it’s clear that attitudes towards mental health have not shifted as much as we would like to imagine.

As the key decision makers of an organisation, the strategic role of C-Suite executives uniquely places them to take a strong stance on mental health and set a precedent across the workforce. Rewriting the rules of an organisational culture requires senior leaders to prioritise worker well-being as a critical component in their growth strategy – mental health support should not an afterthought but rather an essential resource that the C-Suite treat as foundational to maximising the potential of talented employees. 

Only when the fear of discrimination is lifted can employees can feel comfortable discussing mental health problems with managers, safe in the knowledge that opening up won’t cost them their career.

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