Wellbeing Capital: The Imperative for Businesses to Invest in Mental Health

Last month, on the front page of The Times, new statistics about sickness claims showed that they were worsening nationwide, with the most significant proportional increases occurring in commuter and rural areas that usually had a lower dependence on benefits.

Mental health problems are increasing nationwide, and the cost of associated benefits is projected to rise from £66 billion last year to £91 billion by the end of the decade. A week after these numbers were published, Sunak claimed that Britain was suffering from a ‘sick note culture’ and ‘over-medicalising’ normal worries as mental health conditions.

There is no doubt that we are living in a mental health epidemic affecting both businesses and productivity. Poor mental health manifests as absenteeism, diminished productivity, presenteeism, fractious interpersonal relationships, high staff turnover, and ill health. Recently, Deloitte estimated that poor employee mental health costs UK employers £42 billion each year. This consists of an absence cost of £7 billion, turnover loss of £9 billion, and presenteeism accounting for an enormous £29 billion.

When you look at these figures, it’s clear that employees' mental health is a key asset in any organisation and should be viewed as something tangible, essentially 'wellbeing capital', that needs nurturing and protecting.

Poppy Jarman, CEO of MindForward Alliance, says: “When you create an environment of psychological safety and well-being, you create wellbeing capital, which boosts performance in healthy ways and enhances your bottom line.”

There are two important aspects to consider when creating wellbeing capital: the individual and the working environment. Businesses should support individuals with mental health issues and encourage activities that support mental fitness. But they also need to employ a systemic approach to creating a mentally healthy environment to work in, to prevent work itself from causing mental health issues. In doing so, a business acknowledges that mental health problems don’t just rest with the individual, but that the business itself must be responsible for creating the best possible environment for individuals and teams to thrive.

The systemic approach is where most work is needed. An estimated nine out of ten organisations in the world offer some kind of wellbeing programme. However, if the purpose of a wellness programme is to alleviate symptoms rather than address the causes of employees' mental health issues, then a closer look is needed at the organisation’s approach.

HR and payroll company MHR reported that 70% of employees experienced symptoms of burnout in the last 12 months, yet nearly half of respondents identified a lack of support from employers as the leading cause of burnout. In my own practice, I regularly have clients suffering from anxiety who don’t feel they can tell their employer how they feel for fear of being branded as underperforming or unable to cope. Without seeking help, the knock-on effect is the internalisation of anxiety symptoms and a downward spiral, which can manifest as trouble sleeping, lack of confidence, and a loss of interest in usual activities.

So, what are the causes of burnout in the workplace? If you work in an environment where you are constantly in a ‘react’ state rather than a ‘respond’ state, then you can begin to feel out of control. Our days are full of micro-stressors, last-minute requests, and a barrage of communications, which can prevent us from getting the job done. Employees who feel constantly on call feel overwhelmed, unable to stop checking their phones at night. Other demotivating factors include being treated unfairly, having an unreasonable workload, toxic workplace behaviour, lack of control over job design or workload, long, unsocial, or inflexible hours, underuse of skills, or being underskilled, under- or over-promoted, authoritarian supervision, discrimination and exclusion, and a lack of social support.

McKinsey’s employee mental health survey, 2022, found that those experiencing toxic workplace behaviour were eight times more likely to experience burnout, and therefore six times more likely to leave their employer within the next three to six months. It’s a startling statistic driving what McKinsey dubs the Great Attrition in business today. The cost of replacing employees is huge, and the costs associated with burnout, sick leave, and absenteeism lead to a downward spiral in individual and organisational performance.

So, what does a healthier systemic approach look like in an organisation? Organisations need to address the tricky matter of toxic behaviour and ensure that work is inclusive, sustainable, and supportive of individual learning and growth by rethinking organisational processes, redesigning work, job expectations, and team environments. Statistics show that if you manage the systemic approach but don’t address toxic behaviour, burnout symptoms are unlikely to improve.

What's helpful when creating a preventative systemic approach to mental health in the workplace? Employee mental health needs to be treated as a strategic priority, toxic behaviours in the workplace must be addressed, the work environment needs to be inclusive, individuals need to be supported to grow, work needs to be sustainable – predictable, flexible, led with compassion and empathy, leaders must be accountable, mental health stigma tackled, and the correct resources for support available.

As businesses face escalating costs due to mental health-related issues each year, the imperative is clear: wellbeing programmes must evolve to address both individual needs and systemic factors. By prioritising mental health strategies and cultivating supportive, inclusive environments, organisations can safeguard their 'Wellbeing Capital' – a crucial component of sustained success and overall organisational health.