Mental health in the workplace, named by some as the ‘silent pandemic’, continues to be a hot topic, one that rose rapidly to the top of the agenda during the global COVID-19 pandemic. As we collectively adjusted to new ways of working, and navigated extreme uncertainty, employees began to report negative impacts on their mental health. Fifty percent of those surveyed by Westfield Health for example, said that their mental health had been negatively impacted by their changed working conditions, and 29% said that they wanted more mental health support at work. And, it seems, that employers have risen to the challenge – 84% of those who responded to CIPD’s 2021 health and wellbeing at work survey, reported that they have a greater focus on looking after employees’ mental health in response to COVID-19.
However, mental health issues in the workplace were a concern, long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, it was an issue that organisations were already grappling with. In January 2020, months before pandemic-related restrictions began in the UK, Deloitte estimated that poor mental health in the workforce costs UK employers £42–45 billion a year, a rise of 16% from Deloitte’s estimated £33 – £42 billion in 2016. It was clear, that despite increased investment by organisations in workplace mental health initiatives, organisations were failing to significantly ‘shift the needle’, and in fact, the situation was actually getting worse.
This is because, mental health strategies or programs alone are simply not enough. We are not saying these types of programs are not valuable – mental health interventions show an enviable return on investment – estimated by Deloitte to be a £5 return for every £1 spent on mental health interventions in the form of reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover. These programs also play an important role in helping to reduce the stigma around discussing mental health issues in the workplace. The more prevalent they are, and the more take up there is, the easier it becomes to have difficult conversations about mental health at work.
However, this type of ‘siloed’ approach remains disconnected from management-led and management-focused solutions and puts the onus on employees to “improve” their mental health, rather than addressing the myriad of workplace issues that can adversely impact on mental health at work. It is critical that leaders understand the mental health risks that may be inadvertently created because of certain management practices, toxic workplace behaviours, language and attitudes that have become embedded in organisational culture.
One example is workplace cultures that ‘praise’ employees for their dedication when they work without breaks, work after hours or work when they are on leave. Rates of ‘leaveism’ – when employees work when on annual leave or outside contracted working hours are soaring. Seventy-three percent of respondents to a CIPD survey reported that they had observed leaveism in their workplace over the previous 12 months. The fact is, that employees who participate in these practices are less likely to be productive than their counterparts who work ‘standardised’ hours, more prone to burning out, and to develop issues such as impaired sleep, impaired memory and impaired cognition – which poses a significant financial and productivity burden for organisations. Understanding what drives these practices is critical to eliminating them.
The key is balance – while it is important that mental health outcomes are considered a part of any workplace wellbeing strategy, we need to step back and first look at every aspect of our organisation’s – culture, management, job roles, and structures and identify each point where action can be taken to mitigate negative mental health impacts and create the conditions where employees are motivated and high-performing at work.
 Westfield Health, “Covid Divided Together,” (2020).
 CIPD, “Health and Wellbeing at Work: Survey Report April 2021,” (CIPD, 2020).
 Deloitte, “Poor Mental Health Costs Uk Employers up to £45 Billion a Year,” news release, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press-releases/articles/poor-mental-health-costs-uk-employers-up-to-pound-45-billion-a-year.html
 Sarah Green Carmichael to Harvard Business Review, 16 August, 2016, https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-research-is-clear-long-hours-backfire-for-people-and-for-companies.
CIPD. “Health and Wellbeing at Work: Survey Report April 2021.” CIPD, 2020.
Deloitte. “Poor Mental Health Costs Uk Employers up to £45 Billion a Year.” news release, 2020, https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/press-releases/articles/poor-mental-health-costs-uk-employers-up-to-pound-45-billion-a-year.html
Green Carmichael, Sarah. “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfir for People and for Companies.” In Harvard Business Review, 2016.
Westfield Health. “Covid Divided Together.” 2020.