Happy team at work

Barbara Harvey, mental health executive sponsor at Accenture, explains why employees’ mental health is a key issue for every business, and describes how to create and roll out a successful programme to foster and support it.

Until just a few years ago, mental health was the elephant in the room in workplaces and society in general. Nobody mentioned it, and people suffered in silence rather than seeking help. Put simply, it was always “someone else’s problem”.

No longer. Today mental health is everybody’s problem: in any given year, one person in four is likely experience an episode of mental ill health –  and the OECD estimates that one in two will do so in a lifetime.

This means every single person is impacted by it, because every sufferer is someone’s friend, parent, child or sibling. So it’s not something you might come across in business or at home. You will come across it. And it’s not a question of whether companies should get involved, because they already are.

Overcoming a culture of fear

But if mental health issues are so pervasive, why are they never talked about? One reason: fear. In a recent Business in the Community study, 49% of employees said they wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing a mental health concern with their line manager – and 35% of those experiencing a problem said they didn’t tell anyone the last time it happened. Another report, produced by Unum for the Mental Health Foundation, said the main reasons for not opening up were fear of being discriminated against or harassed by colleagues (46%) and feeling ashamed (41%).

People’s reluctance to speak up has serious implications for them and the businesses they work for. The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential…and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” A lack of these abilities is highly debilitating: mental health issues rank as one of the world’s main causes of disability, preventing people from getting on with their lives and being productive at work. To avoid these outcomes, what’s needed is a new culture that replace fear with openness and proactive support.

Our experience of creating a programme to make a difference

How can a business achieve this? At Accenture, we recognised several years ago that we face the same mental health challenges as any other company. So we’ve put in place a holistic health and wellbeing programme that incorporates both physical and mental health and emphasises awareness and prevention. It includes a free confidential counselling service available 24/7, direct access to accredited counsellors, and a professionally-monitored, anonymous online community called the “Big White Wall” forum.

In building this programme we’ve worked closely with organisations like the Business Disability Forum, the Mental Health Foundation and Mind. And in the past three years we’ve stepped up the programme’s reach and impact dramatically through our Mental Health Allies initiative. This truly transformational programme has seen us train 1,300 workplace volunteers – more than 10% of our UK workforce – to understand and engage with mental health issues.

Every one of these employees has gone through a half-day classroom-based training session, raising their understanding and capability in addressing mental health challenges through role-plays and scenarios. Then continuous learning helps our Allies stay engaged and educated about different mental health conditions and situations. Our target is to have 20% of our workforce trained as Allies and the other 80% mental health aware through education sessions.

Three steps to an effective programme

While our programme is working – with more and more of our people talking about mental health, and a positive impact on employee engagement – we know we have much more to do. But our experience has highlighted three practical steps for creating an effective mental health programme.

  • First, get senior leadership involved. From the perspective of a new joiner or junior employee, senior people’s home and work lives often look perfect. They aren’t. Knowing this will encourage junior people to speak up about any problems.
  • Second, ensure that when you launch the programme you have the infrastructure and processes already in place to handle the response from the workforce. This is often the hardest part. Bigger companies can offer their own helplines and other support, but a company with fewer resources might focus on linking its people to freely available NHS resources. Either way, technology can really help.
  • Third, tap into the power of your people’s passion. Mental health is an issue that touches everyone – and I’ve found our people’s desire to help has exceeded my every expectation. Far from having to drum up interest, it’s a case of managing demand in terms of the number of employees across our business who put themselves forward to become Mental Health Allies.

The message is clear. For any responsible employer, supporting the mental health of employees is not an option but an imperative. And if you haven’t set up a programme yet, it’s high time you did. Because your people’s mental health enables them to live fulfilling, productive lives. Which is better for them – and makes for a thriving and successful business.

Barbara Harvey

Managing director in Accenture's research team and executive sponsor for its mental health programme



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