Woman with face mask serving coffee through window, shop open after lockdown.

After a particularly stressful year, organisations seeking to transform themselves should first ensure that employees’ mental health are able to endure further upheavals. But how best to do this?

Five years ago, Deepak Shukla became so depressed that he called the Samaritans for his own protection. Some 250 hours of therapy later, the founder of marketing agency Pearl Lemon is acutely aware that many people around him are in a fragile state of mental health, not least because it’s having a detrimental effect on his organisation.

“The business is far more inconsistent than it was. We’re performing, but not up to the standard I want us to be at,” he admits. “People are struggling a lot more, which is difficult to know for someone who’s been through it himself.”

Shukla’s observation will undoubtedly resonate with many business leaders. Employees are surviving rather than thriving, as more than a year of being disconnected from their workplaces takes its toll.

In December 2020, 65% of respondents to a YouGov survey reported that their mental health had worsened over the year. Almost a third (30%) said that they had experienced disorders such as depression and anxiety. More than half (56%) of the UK enterprises surveyed for Koa Health’s recent Wellbeing at Work research report said that they had seen an increase in employee demand for support in this area, yet 43% admitted that looking after their people’s mental health was still not a cultural priority for them.

Shukla believes that poor mental health has cost his business between £25,000 and £40,000 in lost contracts, plus a further £200,000 in potential new business. But he knows that there are no easy answers.

“When people aren’t well, it feels like constant anxiety and nihilism,” he says. “All I can do is help my staff, talk to them about mental health and offer them the tools they need.”

Richard Latham, the co-founder and CEO of Wellmind Health, argues that the problem requires a stronger intervention than “simply creating a few mental health first-aiders [employees who’ve had some training on the subject]. That’s the last thing that employers need to be pushing on those with real mental health issues.”

But poor mental health is not only about diagnosed disorders, according to Dr Nick Earley, head of psychology at wellbeing company Happence. Many people have experienced a feeling of “languishing rather than flourishing”, he says. This “listless state” should not be underestimated.

“When our threat response is heightened all the time, our ability to make complex decisions is markedly impaired. That’s how transformations risk being derailed,” Earley explains. “Right now, the problem is being magnified because the once-thought temporary nature of remote working is turning into a permanent reality for many people.”

Lucie Mills, head of business transformation at private equity house NorthEdge, agrees. “My sense is that most people are experiencing milder issues of disengagement rather than clinical depression,” she says.

Her firm has made the mental health of employees in its investment targets “a top priority, even to the extent of analysing their business plans from the perspective of how these would tackle mental health problems to meet performance promises. We’ve also started distributing wellbeing guides to all the firms we invest in and take a strong stance, measuring their net promoter scores and doing regular ‘temperature checks’.”

But is this level of intervention enough? Latham argues that people with poor mental health need to be offered “proper therapies – cognitive behavioural mindfulness, for instance – in clinical settings”.

Despite this, many employers believe that the help they offer should stay away from the psychologist’s couch. They prefer to focus on softer methods, such as leading by example when it comes to ensuring that their employees have a healthy work/life balance.

“The link between good mental health and business transformation is undeniable if you’re hoping for change, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give people demanding jobs,” says Jason Fowler, vice-president and HR director at Fujitsu in the UK. “It simply means that we need to equip them better, because each person’s experience of mental health is different.”

The important thing, Fowler argues, is that mental health is made part of the company’s daily discourse and not something that feels awkward for employees to talk about.

Achieving that kind of cultural openness requires strong leadership, notes Jeremy Blain, founder and CEO of Performance Works International. “Leaders need to change first if they want to drive change. They need to understand – and demonstrate – that they know that poor mental health leaks transformation out of a business,” he says.

The evidence suggests that organisations can turn things around if they “create interventions allowing their people to realise that they have choices about their ways of thinking and what their responses to events should be”. So says Jodie Rogers, a mental health consultant and the author of a new book called The Hidden Edge: why mental fitness is the only advantage that matters in business.

“The more we realise that companies’ most important assets are the minds of their people, the better. Companies don’t have to be responsible for their employees’ mental health; they just need to help them be the best they can be,” Rogers argues. “We know that organisations are significantly more likely to be successful in transformation if they put a bit of effort into people’s mindsets, allowing them to create new neuro-psychological responses to everyday issues.”

At a time when the issue is becoming ever more pressing, those businesses that at least recognise its seriousness and are prepared to address it will be the ones to bring their employees along with them on a successful transformation.

The original version of this article was first published on Raconteur, by Peter Crush.

Click here to download our free Good Mental Health Hygiene booklet.