What Companies Can Do to Help Employees Address Mental Health Issues

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In November, Prince William joined a discussion on working in high-pressure environments at “This Can Happen,” the UK’s largest annual conference on mental health. Drawing on his experience as an air ambulance pilot, he noted that he had “worked several times on very traumatic jobs involving children” and that one in particular “took me over the edge.” His key to dealing with the incident: talking it through with colleagues. He pointed to the important role that leaders can play in supporting mental health by sharing their own stories — and making it safe for those who work in their organization to be open about their mental health challenges.

We at Accenture agree. We believe — and our research conducted on behalf of “This Can Happen” bears it out — that the number of people affected by such challenges is much greater than suspected or previously reported. For example, two-thirds of the UK workers we surveyed said they have experienced or are currently experiencing mental health challenges or have even had suicidal thoughts or feelings. And the vast majority, nine in 10, said they had been touched by mental health challenges in some way — affected either by their own health or by issues faced by a family member, friend, or colleague.

People are increasingly waking up to the magnitude of this issue and its importance in the world of work. It’s especially critical that people feel they can bring the issue out into the open without fear. But we see that change is slow. Just a quarter of workers said that they had seen any positive change in their workplace’s efforts over the past two years to show that mental health is important for everyone.

This matters not only for the individuals who are struggling but also for the organization. When employers create a culture that supports mental health, workers are more than twice as likely to say they love their job. They are also more likely to plan to stay with their employer for at least the next year.

What can companies actually do to take on this challenge? Research points to three keys.

Signal “it matters.” There’s a lot of concern about “opening up” at work. Many fear that doing so could limit their opportunities, get in the way of promotion, and generally be seen as a sign of weakness.

Senior leaders can make significant inroads in changing this perception by starting the conversation — talking about their own experiences and the company’s desire to actively help. In a study we completed earlier in 2018, just 14% of respondents had heard a senior leader talking about the importance of mental health. Just one in 10 had heard a senior leader talk about being personally affected.

Senior leaders can also ensure that employees at all levels are made aware of the services and support the company offers.

Raising awareness through training. It can be very hard, for both the speaker and the listener, to have a conversation about a mental health problem and then to know what to do next. Training in all forms is essential. Tools that the arsenal should contain include online training classes to help employees recognize signs of stress or mental ill health in themselves and in others, and webinars led by senior leaders.

Our own Mental Health Allies program includes both classroom-based and online training. In the UK alone, we have trained more than 1,700 employees — some 15% of Accenture’s UK workforce — to be “allies”:  colleagues others can approach in the knowledge that their discussion will be kept completely confidential. Each ally first took a short online course and then participated in a half-day classroom-based training session to increase his or her understanding of mental health challenges while building the confidence and skills to address common issues through role playing and scenario training. This training also explores the boundaries between the responsibilities of line managers, who must proactively intervene, having a duty of care to their people, and the role of a mental health ally.

Even small steps toward creating a more accepting and receptive culture can have a significant, positive effect. We found that most people who were able to talk to someone at work about the issues they faced were met with a positive reaction (one of empathy, support, kindness) from the first person they told. These individuals reported decreased levels of stress, decreased feelings of isolation, and increased confidence.

Curate and improve online tools. Most people are prepared to turn to online tools and applications for information and advice about mental health. It makes sense: They are available 24/7 and can be used anonymously. At Accenture UK, all employees have access to “Big White Wall,” a confidential, professionally managed chat environment in which they can remain anonymous.

Even companies with scarce resources to dedicate to these kinds of benefits can offer employees a curated list of the most trusted publicly available sources and provide access to those sources where possible. But it is one thing for an individual to seek support; it’s another for a company to shoulder the responsibility for curating (read: implicitly recommending) those resources to employees. More rigorous independent testing of available digital resources is needed; this would better enable companies and individuals to select those that are best suited to their needs.

The recently launched Mental Health at Work site is one exciting new resource that’s particularly valuable to smaller organizations that may not be able to offer a full range of support in-house. In one place, employers can find advice on everything from how to train line managers in mental health awareness to how to structure a full program of support.

One risk to bear in mind is the chance that an employee may over-rely on a tech resource when more direct and professional treatment is warranted. Business leaders need to ensure that they are also moving forward with in-person training and other initiatives that support mental health. And employees should understand what needs can be met online and when it’s important to get help from a medical professional.

Most employees we surveyed already actively manage their mental health and consider it at least as important as their physical health. Such a positive attitude toward managing mental health suggests that employees, and in particular millennials, are likely to welcome and embrace training and initiatives at work that help them thrive and recognize when they need help.

Much remains to be done. As Prince Williams says: “There’s still a stigma about mental health. We are chipping away at it, but that wall needs to be smashed down.”

As the lead for our mental health program in the UK, I love to run the training sessions for our new allies. As we explore the topic, one by one people tell their stories: a manager who has struggled with depression since his teens, an intern whose classmate at school took his own life, a new graduate living with a friend who has acute anxiety. A new joiner who had been caring for his girlfriend who has anorexia nervosa described being able to open up as an “utter relief” and “life changing.”

When I look around, I see how mental health challenges touch us all in some way at some time in our lives. As employers we have the power to help. To make it easier for people to talk, to help them get the support they need in the way that works for them, and to help them be their best selves at home and at work.

The author thanks Agata Dowbor, Dominic King, Dave Light, and Regina Maruca of Accenture Research for their contributions to this article.





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