The Importance of Taking a Holistic Approach to Well-being at Work

Now is the time for businesses to take a net impact approach to mental health.

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Business leaders from around continue to gather this week in Glasgow to learn, and – more cynically – to be seen. While there is, of course, much skepticism around many of the private sector pledges being made around COP26, it is important to acknowledge the progress many businesses are making. 

The United Nations have addressed the need for business engagement by appointing two “high-level champions” to be responsible for engaging companies and other nonstate actors in climate action. This past week businesses like Natwest have committed to using climate targets as part of their remuneration strategy, the leading British TV organisations have made a pledge to increase and improve their climate change storytelling, and Lego shared a powerful message from the world’s children to call for expedited action. 

The most positive shift has been the noticeable move towards collective climate action, opposed to the disjointed, siloed activities that we have often seen since the greenwashing movement began in the 1980s. Most companies now understand they can no longer continue without a holistic approach to sustainability and climate action. And, if they don’t, they are called out for it. The mental health movement has much to learn from this progress that is being made on climate action.

Paul Polman and Andrew S. Winston’s recent book, Net Positive, takes this movement even further. They powerfully make the case that simply reducing your footprint isn’t enough. Now more than ever a holistic approach that creates a net positive impact is not only important to address climate action, but also a strong business case. While there is no doubt a long way to go when it comes to climate action, this argument of holistic, net positive action is decades ahead of the conversation when it comes to the private sector’s approach to mental health.

Whilst internal action including the provision of EAP’s, wellbeing support and stress counselling are gradually becoming an expected rather than exceptional part of a job description, this is often where the action ends. Workplace wellbeing is an important and productive place to start for core business operations, but if businesses are to have a positive impact on the global mental health crisis they need to go further.

Why is a holistic approach important when it comes to mental health? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s good for business. Studies have shown that on average, mentally healthy companies receive a $5 return for every $1 invested on mental health of their workforce. And, it’s more than financial, with knock on effects on recruitment, retaining talent, and the immeasurable impact on individual lives and teams.

Secondly, consumer demand is increasing for mentally healthy products, as is the demand for authenticity. Research has shown that 51% of Gen Zers will always research a company to check it aligns with their values before purchasing; they want to support businesses that authentically showcase their values. And, they have little to no patience or tolerance for performative actions, and, as we have seen time and time again, will hold businesses to account. We have yet to see significant threat of Gen Z action on the mental health equivalent of greenwashing, ‘well-being washing’, but so long as companies continue to take a siloed approach to mental health there is a clear threat of this happening in the future. 

Furthermore, investor interest is growing; with investment in mental health technology skyrocketing in 2020 and 2021, and projected to continue in the years to come. 

Finally, there is also a clear and urgent moral case. The vast majority of people in our world have no access to any mental health support, and while government financing and action is essential for systemic change it is not enough. Further, the recent WHO Mental Health Atlas showed that on average government spending on mental health continues to remain around a measly 2%, nowhere near the levels required to provide mental health for all. Weak and already historically underfunded mental health services were severely affected during the pandemic – at a time when they were more vital than ever; businesses have the opportunity to make a major contribution in a range of ways – through their workforce, products, philanthropy and advocacy.

Leaders around the world are increasingly focusing on the mental health of their teams, which is absolutely critical. Now, to truly address the mental health crisis businesses need to go further, and I am excited to see which businesses will lead this revolution, working from the inside out.

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