In a society that has seen one of the biggest and longest health crises in decades, mental health awareness has risen at almost the same pace as the increase in mental health problems.
We are still trying to adapt to a crisis
I feel that 2021 was a worse year for mental health than 2020. Seeing how the prevalence of anxiety and depression disorders has doubled shouldn’t come as a shock. We first became isolated and frightened, then remotely connected, then found some hope that things would return to normal, then we entered the next wave and started to be frightened, and again in an apparently endless loop. All the time we had to keep up with our lives, some of us with more challenges, others more or less the same.
In this context, companies have started to see decreases in wellbeing reports from their employees. This along with the day-to-day challenges that are more visible to the naked eye: tiredness, burnout, worry sometimes even anger & sadness. So, the urge to have better policies and invest more in mental health problems has started to become a priority for companies all over the world.
First, I applaud the focus on making mental health a priority of many companies. Second, as a mental health startup-founder, I wonder if an ‘invest’ mentality helps or hinders efforts to improve the well-being of employees. “Invest” is a concept that has a very concrete ROI associated and in mental health, this might not be the right strategy.
We work on a value-based approach
We are living in an enlightened era where what we call “work” has changed a lot. People are no longer driven by solely material motivation when it comes to choosing a profession or a company to work in. Roles are changing and evolving constantly. Knowledge is more available than ever and people are wanted not for what they know, but mostly for how they can innovate, rethink and adapt.
Companies are now the places that people choose to join not (only) for the classic package benefits, but more for the opportunities to grow that they are offering. We work on a value-based approach: how much value can I bring to the company and how much can I develop inside this company.
This trend is also visible in the approach of companies. Focus on learning and development, culture change, growth, and empowerment are all values that companies are trying to live by. It’s not easy and it’s not perfect, but the trend is there.
The wrong reason: implementing wellbeing as a productivity enhancer
But culture and values are hard to quantify. And people in companies are used to working with numbers, so when they want to implement a program they will crunch the numbers. So we end up trying to quantify mental health in productivity, efficiency, wellbeing, engagement and so on.
While all these are connected to mental health, they are not solely connected to that. Think about well-being – what is good or beneficial for a person – will not be dependent only on what happens at work. It will always have to do with the health crisis, my personal life, politics, my hormonal cycle, my sleep, my tasks, my ability to navigate all of these.
Having an ‘invest’ mentality on mental health puts a lot of strain on delivering something that is quite hard to quantify.
Focus on a culture where mental health is a first-grade citizen
Creating a culture that fosters mental health is more beneficial in the long term. Companies shouldn’t implement mental health programs because they may increase their numbers on well-being polls, but because this is what they value in the organisation.
Secondly, people smell productivity-enhancing programs from miles away. I could argue that this constant rush for productivity is what put us all in the situation where more than 52% of employees say that pressure of too many things to do & targets have had a negative impact on their mental health. I doubt that implementing a program that would further emphasise productivity is what would take the edge off.
A focus on productivity is what makes these strategies so hard to implement – ‘another tool to work harder! Great! Just what I need!’ is the answer of most employees when presented with mental health programs.
I believe that people have an intrinsic need to be productive. Just look at 3-year-olds – they don’t know anything about KPIs and such, but they have the urge to do things, to get better, to learn all on their own. As long as they feel encouraged, nurtured, accepted, and feel that they have the space to not be productive sometimes.
When you create a culture that fosters mental health as a basic human right when you invest in mental health 1st Aid training and work even with yourself (yes, I am looking at you, team lead!) to get better at talking about mental health, then the story changes and you have a real shot at creating a team and culture that really plays the 21st-century game.
Not investing more in mental health is not the problem. The problem is failing to acknowledge that we all have mental health. We live & work with it. Being a company whose culture calls out emotional distress, learns how to deal with mental health, and enables people to be the best versions of themselves is the only sane way to approach this subject.