As the pandemic largely fades out of the spotlight, leaves new realities in its wake for employers struggling to stem the tide of employee burnout. Prioritizing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace offers a provocative framework for a revised business strategy anchored in compassion and support.
Poppy Jaman, mental health advocate and policy advisor, who is the global executive director of the MindForward Alliance and former CEO of UK City Mental Health Alliance, places mental health at the center of a global business movement. She highlights how it can be reflected in board agendas; in environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies; in the risk register; in new business frameworks; and in workplace designs, among other places. In a follow-up to her discussion with McKinsey Senior Partner Ramesh Srinivasan about managing mental health in all aspects of personal and professional life, Poppy sat down with McKinsey’s Martin Dewhurst, Senior Partner and Co-Head of McKinsey Health. Institute (MHI). . The following is an edited version of her conversation.
Martin Dewhurst: Why is mental health in the workplace such an important issue?
Poppy age: Mental health in the workplace is an incredibly timely and important topic. Before the pandemic, we already had a dire need for a greater focus on mental health beyond the context of our health systems. The pandemic, with increased mental health problems globally (especially among young people), reduced access to mental health services and much more, as well as a return to work, has exacerbated the challenges.
As a result of these cumulative factors, many people, particularly women
— are leaving the workforce, which could affect productivity. Our focus must be on creating workplaces where humans can thrive. If we are not taking care of people, then what are we doing?
Our focus must be on creating workplaces where humans can thrive. If we are not taking care of people, then what are we doing?
Martin Dewhurst: Do you think that mental health is becoming a strategic imperative for companies?
Poppy age: For the past decade, leaders around the world have wondered how to make mental health a business objective and put it on the boardroom agenda. But few have had the courage to launch a strategy that would last beyond their term. Mental health is not a topic that will end within their careers, so the current climate of “short-termism” has been a real barrier. Now, the pandemic has amplified the need, but also enhanced the courage of leaders to lean on this agenda, in part because everyone was asking, “How are you?” and listening
Martin Dewhurst: Where does mental health fit into the ESG agenda?
Poppy age: Companies are taking ESG very seriously. The “E” and “G” are well understood and established. We are now working on the “S”, which has generally dealt with issues such as social mobility and human rights within the supply chain. We say “S” is also for stakeholders, including employees. Social impact encompasses what happens within an organization and includes putting workplace mental health on boardroom agendas and risk registers. For example, we have seen an increase in resources allocated to hiring mental health directors and wellness leaders. We are nowhere near the end of this journey; we are at the beginning But many possibilities are coming together to make this a global business movement.
Martin Dewhurst: You’ve talked about the powerful concept of “wellness capital”. What is it and where does it fit into the ESG agenda?
Poppy age: We are introducing welfare capital as a business framework. When you create an environment of safety and psychological well-being, you create well-being capital, which increases performance in a healthy way and improves your results. We are starting to see data being collected to validate the welfare capital model. We also promote the mental health movement outside of the realm of health and safety, which was established in the 1970s to prevent accidents and the like. Wellness capital is a business product.
Martin Dewhurst: That aligns well with our findings at MHI. Additionally, we have identified the importance of establishing a common language and using data and standards to provide the consistency and backbone we need to have these conversations in a structured way. Furthermore, even well-intentioned employers have often focused on providing mental health support and resources after the fact. Instead, we believe that companies must move to create workplaces that are inclusive, equitable, and supportive to minimize acute mental health needs among employees.
How can leadership skills and strategies evolve to promote a focus on building wellness and health capital?
Poppy age: We need the same qualities and skills in leaders that they exhibited during the pandemic, including vulnerability, calm, kindness, and compassion. If you’re not leading with compassion, you risk losing talent because that’s what the next generation expects.
Leaders will also need to change work designs because young people are not willing to work in the same way that previous generations have. The people who left their jobs as part of the “mass resignation” are burned out; cumulative stressors pushed them to the point where they decided, “Something has to give, and that’s this job.”
Also, don’t underestimate the power of mental health awareness and mental health campaigns. While high-level strategic and structural changes are important, we must also constantly educate the workforce so that people can recognize their own stressors and take action.
Finally, it is important that leaders address the idea of languishing. Many people may not feel hopeless, depressed, or exhausted enough to quit, but they lack motivation and are just scraping through the day. They are not in bad health, but they are not well either.
Martin Dewhurst: As one leader described it to me, the group that languishes is the underside of the iceberg. If leaders intervene early to create purpose, energy, inclusion, and direction, then they can prevent the languishing group from becoming seriously ill.
As you reflect on your career, what is one thing you could do differently based on what you have learned?
Poppy age: I’m a British Bengali, and I’m clearly a dark-haired woman. I wish I had done more to speak out against the sexism, misogyny, and racism I have seen and experienced in my workplaces. I didn’t do it as often as I wanted because of the emotional work required and for self-preservation. I witnessed people who spoke up about race and gender being pigeonholed as difficult people, then not invited back to the table. I didn’t want to be left out, so sometimes I kept my mouth shut tight. Other times it was just too exhausting, so it was easier to ignore what was going on. But there are very few Bengali women in leadership settings, and especially during the pandemic, I needed to be a voice for my family community, my ethnic community, and my gender community.
Martin Dewhurst: What are your thoughts on the concept of alliance?
Poppy age: The alliance needs to be articulated, fostered and developed in each business. There is no shortage of people who want to lean on each other and do the right thing, but sometimes they don’t know how to do it. It is an incredible privilege to remove barriers that you have not personally experienced. This is another opportunity for courageous leaders to initiate strategies that will outlive their tenure.
I am currently learning about gender diversity and gender non-conforming people so I can help find ways to remove barriers for them. This is how the alliance works. Educate yourself, understand your privilege, and then find ways to support each other.
Martin Dewhurst: What is something you wish we could change about our understanding of mental health?
Poppy age: It would take the shame out of the mental health narrative. If we all work within ourselves and our communities, workplaces, and families to eliminate feelings of shame about mental health, we could change everything overnight.