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Building the business case for action on mental health

Employers cannot afford to turn a blind eye to mental ill-health. So here is our guide to building the business case and persuading senior leaders

Over the past few years a growing number of UK companies have introduced mental health and wellbeing initiatives with impressive results. However, there are still some companies out there that have yet to embark on this journey – largely because senior management see it as an additional cost burden: a nice to have, rather than a need to have.

So how can HRDs who work in these businesses convince management that they can no longer afford to ignore this problem?

Set out a clear business case

According to data published in 2010 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, time taken off for mental ill-health represents the single biggest cost to UK employers. The estimated cost to the UK economy is £102 billion, although some mental health experts reckon this is likely to be a fraction of the total cost – because many employees lie about the fact they have taken time off as a result of mental health issues due to the stigma attached.

Another major issue is presenteeism, which can have a devastating effect on productivity. The former is easier to measure and monitor than the latter, but both can be articulated as part of a persuasive business case, says writer and campaigner Natasha Devon, who is also founder of a campaign that aims to change the law so there is a requirement for employers to provide mental health first aiders.

HR must demonstrate that wellbeing is good for a businesses’ bottom line, says Kelly Feehan, service director at CABA. “Healthier employees are more productive, and therefore generate a better output and return on investment,” says Feehan. “Working in a supportive environment engages employees, which in turn has a beneficial impact on a business’s reputation, as more people will want to work for a supportive, caring employer.”

Collect your own data

Although there are plenty of numbers and research out there that underline the detrimental impact that poor mental health can have on businesses and the wider UK economy, HRDs need to approach senior management with their own “evidence”, says AXA PPP healthcare’s director of psychological services, Mark Winwood. “Look at the data you already have and collect that can help you to promote the need to look after the wellbeing of your people,” he advises.

Data has played a key role in Deloitte’s mental health workplace strategy. The firm helped to develop the Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index, and has taken part in it for the past three years as a means of building the business case around wellbeing. Tim Ackroyd, Deloitte’s employee experience and wellbeing lead, believes it is critical that businesses use objective tools to measure and benchmark performance against others.

“Employee surveys are a good way to understand sentiment and where your employees feel you should focus, but you can really find that objectivity through a benchmark like the Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index, which has been a great way for us to focus on the right metrics and to improve each year,” says Ackroyd.

He says the index has already helped the business push through significant changes, citing the example of data from a couple of years ago that showed Deloitte employees had lower confidence in leaders spotting the signs of
poor mental health than at other organisations.

“We were able to benchmark that against other businesses, share that with our senior leadership and then use it as a metric to improve on,” says Ackroyd. “Since then we’ve trained one in four of our partners and directors in basic mental health first-aid skills.”

Focus on ‘value’ and not just ROI

It’s not just the hard commercial gains that businesses can derive by putting the right mental health infrastructure in place.

“The question should be ‘If I invest this – and it could be time, money or a training investment – what value am I going to get from it?’,” says Winwood. “It might not be a monetary value. It might be an increase in staff retention, it might be a decrease in presenteeism so your productivity goes up; it might be an increase in team morale, or it might be an increase
in engagement.

“There are all sorts of factors that you might look at in terms of their value rather than just hard returns.”

Highlight free resources

Many senior managers may be deterred from pursuing a mental health strategy because they think
it is going to cost them a lot of money. But there are plenty of charities and organisations that provide mental health information and resources for employers, and much of this is free.

“There is such a plethora of great materials out there,” says Winwood. “Mind has created a special series of resources for managers and business leaders to promote good mental health in the workplace.”

Another organisation worth speaking to, according to Natasha Devon, is Mental Health First Aid England, which organises courses ranging from half a day to two days.

“They teach delegates what to say – and what not to say – to a colleague who is struggling with their mental health and what is appropriate to recommend in terms of further support and advice,” says Devon. “Delegates are given a manual with lists of organisations that provide safe, evidence-based support.”

Speak to other businesses to find out what they have done

Many businesses that have already successfully implemented a mental health strategy are keen to share their story so that others can follow suit, according to Jonny Jacobs, director of strategy and transformation at pladis.

“We’ve worked with Mind to create one of first case studies on mental health in the workplace, which gives a great insight into what we’ve done,” says Jacobs. “If you’re trying to convince a CEO [of the merits of investing in mental health], sometimes they will look at the hard facts and building a tangible business case for mental health can be tough. That’s why sharing stories is so important. Everyone has a story and it’s a good way of getting buy-in.”

Develop something bespoke

The worst thing an HRD could do is pitch management a one-size-fits-all mental health strategy, because what might work for one organisation will not work for another. Winwood says you need to drill down into your own data and identify the problems that need addressing in your organisation.

“The most important thing is don’t be an ‘also ran and jumped on the bandwagon’,” he warns. “Identify what problems are specific to your organisation and then get guidance on what products and services best meet these needs. There isn’t a one size fits all because organisations are very different.”

Ideally this strategic approach should be aligned with a firm’s core values and team culture, says Mica Rose, registry and admissions manager at CU London. You should also try to “align with local and regional priorities; for example, CU London is an anchor institution supporting Barking and Dagenham Borough Council’s ‘borough manifesto’ – a framework for creating a place where people are proud to live, work, study and stay,” advises Rose.

Get buy-in across the company, not just from senior managers

Heineken’s UK HR director Jane Brydon points out that although she believes bosses have a crucial role to play and need to lead from the top (as the company’s own managing director David Forde has done), successfully implementing a mental health strategy isn’t just dependent on senior buy-in.

“It’s also about educating and encouraging a culture of support throughout our business,” says Brydon. “I would recommend that companies support their managers to talk about mental health with their teams. We are really focused on the concept of ‘present leadership’, ensuring that people managers are having good one-to-ones – which are very focused on the individual and a rounded conversation to create an environment which encourages the colleague to talk. In this day of pace and digitalisation, this is challenging but necessary.”

The crucial thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong approach to this. As pladis’s Jacobs explains: “We will all make mistakes on this journey and every organisation is slightly different. What you want to do is tailor your approach to your organisation. That’s what will make it successful.”

This piece featured in our Beyond awareness: taking action on employee mental health ebook in partnership with Perkbox. Read the full supplement, including extra box-outs, here