Many employers are trying to reframe the skills involved in managing mental-health issues as positive attributes, thereby removing stigma © Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I joined the workforce some 30 years ago, mental health issues were not something workers casually brought up in the office. While most managers were generally supportive, you never knew when you would run into someone who still saw depression and anxiety as moral failings and would hold them against you.

How times have changed. These days, mindfulness apps and mental health workshops are par for the course in many workplaces. Top law firms Hogan Lovells and Linklaters, and investment banks JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs even offer free therapy sessions — either online or on-site. Not only is this convenient, but the benefit is designed to signal to staff that the companies see psychological care as part and parcel of getting the most from their workers.

Other employers are also trying to get practical assistance to their employees — by designating workers as “mental health first responders” and encouraging people to attend workshops on “mental fitness”. The aim is to reframe the skills involved in managing such issues as positive attributes, thereby removing stigma.

“If people are coming to the workplace with mental health issues, a progressive organisation will recognise that it will affect performance, and there’s a self-interest to support them,” says John Ryan, chief executive of Healthy Place to Work, a data analytics company that focuses on workplace health. “The biggest driver of sustainable productivity is the health of your organisation.”

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Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that 12bn working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety — at a cost of $1tn to global productivity.

The message seems to be getting through. In the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer Survey of 13 countries, 72 per cent of respondents said they trusted their employer to do what is right on health-related concerns. And nearly 8 in 10 people expected their company’s chief executive to set an example on healthy behaviour — for example, by respecting work/life boundaries — and to talk about the importance of mental health. 

Some commentators have argued that the shifting attitudes are due to generational change, as young people who are used to sharing on social media begin to replace older employees who are more reticent. But the Edelman survey found that the figures were only marginally higher for those aged 34 and under than they were for the general workforce.  

“People want the same things; Gen Z and millennials are more vocal about it,” says Cydney Roach, global chair for employee experience at Edelman. “Employees have this unprecedentedly high trust in their employers, but with that trust comes high expectations.”

“The employer is now expected to solve things that other institutions could not,” she adds.

However, that is where future problems could lie. 

Given how much productive time has, historically, been lost to stress and other mental health issues, it is good news that employers are trying to make it easier to access treatment. But the more employers insert themselves into the whole area of supporting mental health, the more they open themselves up to claims that they are falling short.

Work remains a significant source of stress and unhappiness for many people — and training programmes and mindfulness apps are not enough to help someone who is stressed because of a toxic manager or an unmanageable workload. “If the problem is the workplace, then a mental health first responder [programme] is a joke,” Ryan warns. “Organisations need to get down and dirty with what is going on.”

A new poll of more than 2,500 US workers by recruitment consultants Robert Walters found that 60 per cent said they were suffering workplace stress, and nearly half said concerns about job stability were the biggest trigger. Despite a big increase in corporate spending on wellness initiatives since the start of the pandemic, 62 per cent still told pollsters that their employers were not doing enough to combat stress.

And separate research by Wellable, which works with companies on their wellness offerings, suggests that companies are only willing to go so far to deal with mental health issues. While more than half of companies said they were spending more on employee assistance hotlines and digital health tools in 2023, less than 15 per cent planned to offer their staff extra time off. 

This tension is only going to get worse if the economy contracts. Although some workplaces invested significantly in health programmes during and after the pandemic, it is not clear that these commitments will survive. Many employers are already moving to reverse the promises made on hybrid working in the face of what they see as a drag on productivity. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, despite their generous therapy offers, are on the leading edge of companies pushing for a return to five days in the office.

If companies respond to falling revenues by cutting both staff and spending on mental health, the double blow of increased workloads and reduced support could seriously undermine the progress made to date.

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