How to advocate for mental health at work

Jo Hooper

One of the things I’ve heard a lot, sadly, since starting on this mad and sad journey is that a business ‘isn’t ready’ to start talking about mental health yet (I was even told this about an entire industry – one for another day!).

Often, the person saying it IS ready and wants to be an advocate for mental health in their workplace. Many times it’s the senior leadership team who are the ones who aren’t ready, who are stopping the comms, HR or wellbeing team from taking action.

So, as Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, I thought I would share some advice on getting buy in at a senior level to help you continue the conversation around mental health at work.

My mad and sad tips to advocate for mental health at work…

  • Consider motivation: if you work in a commercial organisation, understandably the bottom line of the business is likely to be top of the priority list for your senior leadership team
  • Show the commercial benefit: if this is the case, there is a lot shocking research that highlight the commercial impact of poor mental health at work – including this from the World Health Organisation, which found that depression and anxiety can have a $1 trillion impact on the global economy; along with stats on the positive impact of doing something about it – the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health found that better mental health support in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year
  • Find an ally: if you’re able to, chat to several senior leaders about your hopes/plans to do more around mental health at work, consider who was most receptive – this may not be your boss. That’s OK, build allies and use them to start the conversation around the leadership table
  • Talk about the carrot: once you’ve got an ally, talk to them about the opportunity for them to raise their profile by leading on the mental health agenda at work. Rob Stephenson has done some fantastic work creating the Inside Out leaderboard. This is a group of more than 40 senior leaders across industries and sectors, who have been open about their mental health in the workplace and started to use this to shift culture. Could you encourage this in your workplace?
  • Use the stick: look at the composition of your Board and do your research – do you have a Board member who is affiliated with any health charities or organisations? If so, that’s a good way to start a conversation with the leadership team – “I’ve been considering our plans around mental health at work and thought we could present these ideas to X (Board member)…”
  • Tell a compelling story: you know this is the right thing to do, but that isn’t always all that’s needed to convince others. Put together an engaging outline of what you want to do, why and what you expect the benefits to be. Don’t make it all about stats – include human stories from other organisations if you need to, to showcase what a difference mental health support in the workplace can have
  • Get help: while it’s annoying, sometimes it helps to have an external person come into your organisation and reinforce your argument. They are seen as objective specialists. If this is something you think would benefit your organisation, book a call with me and we can talk about whether I can help you

Tackling mental health at work – a sidenote on the commercial benefits…

You’ll notice that I don’t talk about this at all on my website. That was a conscious decision – I know that the numbers around the potential commercial impact of poor employee mental health are compelling, but it just doesn’t feel me to focus on this.

I want to work with people and organisations who want to do the right thing – I’m more than happy to help individuals lobby for buy in within their company and use the research and stats to do that, but I don’t want to sell my services based on the commercial impact of doing something about mental health at work.

An insight from the inside of a successful commercial business, that also takes the mental health of its’ staff seriously could help you when lobbying internally…

It’s about making the business case to leadership as they in turn will have to justify investment to their colleagues. Angle the conversation around what they want to hear rather than what you want to communicate: could this investment result in improved employee engagement or talent attraction? Could the organisation’s position and work in this area further align it with more desirable customers or suppliers with shared values? Or is it getting to the point that license to operate is threatened: - without a concerted effort, leadership risks alienating key stakeholders? It might feel disingenuous molding the argument to fit an audience’s commercial agenda rather than your own – i.e. it’s the right thing to do - but until mental fitness is mainstream in corporate culture, making a watertight business case is imperative to break the norm of where budget is prioritised today.

Nicky Young, Group MD, MullenLowe Salt

If you want help to put mental health on the agenda in your organisation, book a call with me to talk about if I can help. 

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