6 global employers on how to improve workplace mental health

World Economic Forum

25 Jan 2021

Kelly McCain Project Lead, Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum

Aidan Manktelow Insights Lead, Inclusive Business, World Economic Forum

  • Mental health is an urgent priority for businesses in the COVID-19 recovery.
  • 6 leaders from global companies share their views on how to improve workplace mental health.

Mental health has become an urgent priority for companies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The uncertainty and stress created by the pandemic, and increased isolation due to large-scale remote working, have put pressure on workforce mental wellbeing. The global cost of mental-ill health through lost productivity, absences and staff turnover is estimated to be around $2.5 trillion annually. 

Recent research has found that about half of working adults globally say they have experienced increased anxiety around job security (56%), stress due to changes in work routines and organization (55%), feel lonely or isolated working from home (49%) or have difficulty achieving a work-life balance (50%) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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At the same time, the rising awareness of this challenge has created new impetus to tackle an issue that remains a stigma in many organisations. 

In line with The Davos Agenda, we invited six members of our community to share what their organisations are doing to protect their employees’ mental health and what positive changes they foresee for business to tackle the issue of mental health in 2021:

What positive changes do you foresee for the way businesses will tackle the issue of mental health at work in 2021? And what is your best piece of advice on how to make that change happen?

‘Support a more hybrid workforce’

Elaine Arden, Group Chief Human Resources Officer, HSBC

The past 12 months have shown that people can be just as productive and experience better work-life balance when working outside of traditional workplaces. As choice and flexibility become more commonplace, businesses will need to continually evolve and adapt their well-being services to adequately support a more hybrid workforce.

Businesses can make change happen by talking – and listening! Ask your people how they are doing and what they need. At HSBC, our manager and employee surveys provide us with valuable insights that inform our strategy. By relying on robust data and lived-experiences, businesses will get to the heart of what really matters most, develop suitable solutions and measure their impact on the mental health of their people. As business continues to navigate through periods of uncertainty and volatility, the need to collaborate and share best practices with peers and experts has never been more important and should be an essential part of any healthcare response.” 

‘Lead by example’

Sheri B Bronstein, Chief Human Resources Officer, Bank of America

2020 introduced new uncertainty and stress in the daily lives and routines of our team-mates, further emphasizing the need to embrace the importance of physical and emotional wellness; specifically mental health as a top priority. As employers, we have an obligation to provide our team-mates with opportunities to talk openly about their mental health and to secure the support they or their families may need. We must continue to lift the stigma on this critical topic, which in our case has been having a CEO and management team who are vocal advocates.

Bank of America is committed to the health and wellness of its team-mates and the communities that we serve. Like many companies, we expanded programs to help team-mates access enhanced resources and we need to continue to adapt and respond quickly to address the unique mental health needs of diverse workforces. We need to lead by example, participate in employee sessions, and share perspectives on the steps we are taking to support and protect our mental health.

‘Build mental wellbeing into our leadership culture’

Kerry Dryburgh, Chief People Officer, BP

For too long, mental health in the workplace has been viewed as an organisational risk, with a focus on managing individuals and incidents – a fact only exacerbated by COVID-19. The truth is, like physical health, mental health is a constant human reality for every person, every day. In 2021, we can expect more workplaces to recognise this and step-change their action on mental wellbeing, alongside a continued focus on physical health.

How we proactively support mental health in the workplace has a long way to go, but we are not starting from scratch. We can build on our collective decades of experience and expertise in physical health and safety to develop powerful actions and approaches. One of the most impactful choices we have made at BP is to include mental wellbeing questions in our regular employee engagement surveys to understand real-time how our teams are feeling. We have also taken steps to build mental wellbeing into our leadership culture.

At BP, we believe our workplaces can and should be positive environments that support mental health and wellbeing. Getting it right is an ongoing focus, but one that has never been more urgent.

‘Engage, understand and support staff’ 

Saurabh Govil, Chief Human Resources Officer, Wipro Ltd

People around the world went through severe challenges in 2020. Many are still reeling from layoffs in their families, grieving the death of loved ones, are sick themselves, or struggling with remote work, social isolation and mental health issues. The pandemic has not only changed business dynamics, but also the approach towards employee mental health. Compassion and empathy are no longer seen as extra, nice-to-have qualities. They are now essential. Businesses are increasingly focusing on investing in caring for their employees, and amplifying existing people frameworks, policies and support groups to better support employee wellbeing. 

The most important and meaningful change will come from how leaders engage, understand and support staff at a more developmental level. Leaders should focus on the following areas: understanding the difference between urgency and importance and focusing on the latter; being compassionate while driving employees to action by channelling their feelings of frustration or despair. Finally, trust, transparency and openness will need to be the pillars of leadership, and workplace HR policies of the future.

‘Reach out to all of our people across the organization’

Toby Switzer, Chief Human Capital Officer, Agility

Wellbeing and mental health have always been important considerations for the people of Agility before the pandemic, but maybe not as highly prioritized. Now, with the significant work and life disruptions created by the crisis, these aspects were brought to a whole new life … and light … on how important they are for us. 

We need to understand better the concerns, be proactive with ideas and programs, and reach out to all of our people across the organization, including our families and our communities so that they are aware that we care and that we will help. Having a focus on this makes us all better for both our short and long-term personal and professional life and health.

‘Take a broad view of what you class as mental health support’

Miranda WolpertDirector, Mental Health, Wellcome 

COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of our lives including changing, for many, where and how we work. This impact is likely to accelerate the pre-COVID-19 trend of businesses prioritising and seeking ways to support the mental health of their employees.

My advice to employers is two-fold. Take a broad view of what you class as mental health support and then be led by the evidence. A broad view incorporates mindfulness and mental health first aid all the way through to flexible working policies and financial wellbeing. Being led by the evidence means actively looking to understand which approaches work for who, in what context and why – and if that evidence doesn’t yet exist, perhaps it’s your business that will generate it so that others can learn from you.

What’s the Forum doing on mental health?

The World Economic Forum’s platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare is convening efforts by our partners on workplace mental health to support evidence-based action on workplace mental health, in collaboration with the platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society’s Chief Human Resources Officer community. The CHRO community includes more than 100 CHROs of leading multinational companies. Supporting workforce mental health has been a consistent theme of its discussions since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. 

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

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More broadly, the Forum’s Mental Health in the Workplace initiative co-ordinates global efforts toward workplaces that are healthier mentally across industries, regions and sectors. The vision is a world where all workplace leaders recognize and commit – with the right tools in place – to taking tangible and evidence-based action on mental health and wellbeing, enabling their workforces to thrive.

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