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Chief Mental Health Officer?

The Role of the C-Suite in Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

8.29.2018
Mental health has become a topic of increasing importance in the workplace. An issue that many avoided has now stepped into the limelight as companies such as TD Bank, Unilever and Barclays publicly prioritize mental health and wellness programs. High-profile cases of untreated mental illness, such as the tragic deaths of creative talents Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, shocked fans and the business world alike, and reminded us that mental illness draws no distinctions between success or failure, wealth or poverty, race, religion or culture. Anyone, anywhere is susceptible. 

CNN Politics Executive Editor Rachel Smolkin suggests: “Perhaps we are only seeing a modern amplification of an eternal struggle—a sadness that has stretched through centuries, now magnified by the easy flow of information. Or perhaps we are witnessing something more sinister: a particularly ugly moment in time, seeping into us and threatening to pull us under.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental health issues are responsible for five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide. And both depression and anxiety have been linked to chronic workplace stress.

What then is the responsibility of the C-suite?

An argument could be made that if a CEO’s number-one job is to be the steward of a corporation’s growth, says Chief Executive magazine, their number two job should be caring for the mental engines of that growth: the brains of his or her employees.

Break Down Stigma from the Top Down

There are vital roles that an organization’s Chief Human Resources Officer, benefits and employee assistance programs can play in facilitating a mentally healthy culture, Chief Executive magazine continues, but only a CEO—the leader who employees and managers look to for inspiration—can normalize this uncomfortable conversation and break the stigma of discussing the mental health issues that our employees, and many of us, face.

Bell Canada CEO George Cope is dedicated to creating a ‘normal’ dialogue with Bell employees and customers about the reality of mental health. “If your employees don’t feel free to talk about the issues they face, they will not seek treatment. When employees don’t seek treatment, they—and their family members, co-workers and loved ones—are distracted, stressed and unproductive.”

Advocate for Mental Healthcare

How are organizations advocating for mental health? Employee assistance programs —which have been around since the 1970s—are the foundation. The next evolution is for leadership to advocate for and normalize the use of these programs.

TD Bank uses social media to share the powerful stories of employees who have benefitted from the bank’s employee assistance program, supplementing videos and articles with personal notes of appreciation and support from its executives. Unilever trains line managers to recognize signs of mental health distress with three-hour workshops. Barclays launched a “This is Me” campaign to engage its global workforce in the discussion of mental wellbeing and destigmatize mental health problems. RBS provides training and sets clear expectations for managers to handle their team’s mental health.

Another idea gaining traction is to create a formal role within the organization. Just as many firms are dedicating executive talent to diversity and inclusion, businesses may consider making the care and keeping of their most valuable asset—their employees’ psyches—a directive. Integrating mental health into executive leadership positions is a strategic way to ensure that this issue is continuously addressed from the top down.

American Express has a health and wellness leadership team whose mission is to look at physical and emotional health holistically, design a wide spectrum of services, and garner visible support from senior leaders. “The degree to which we embed mental health into the culture of the company is the degree to which mental health will improve,” says Charles Lattarulo, PhD, global director of American Express’ Healthy Minds strategy.

Chief Mental Health Officer, anyone?  

Stress Management

No one is immune to work-inhibiting anxiety, stress and depression. Consider the recent New York Times interview with Elon Musk. The ambitious entrepreneur known for his bravado and a vision of “greater enlightenment” admitted to the world that stress and his workload were impacting his health. Friends, colleagues and members of his board have expressed concern, as they should.

Ariana Huffington responded to the interview with an open letter to Musk: “There’s no way you can connect with your amazing vision and creativity when you don’t give yourself time to reconnect not just with those you love but also with yourself and your wisdom.” Not even Musk is immune from—nor can he ignore—his mental and physical wellbeing.

It is critical that companies take measures to aid their employees in stress-management. Forbes magazine provided these stress-coping strategies:
  • Information and awareness: Provide access to resources that may help employees cope with stress such as a list of therapists, support groups, and other external resources.
  • Collaborative, interactive break rooms: Make break rooms bigger, more open to conversation and collaboration, and more “fun.”
  • Greater sensory stimulation: Art, color and music encourage creative thinking – soft music in the background help employees concentrate and feel less tired, and even certain scents can actively work to relieve stress.
  • Yoga and exercise: Offer more opportunities for employees to exercise before, during, and after the workday – including formal classes, access to gym facilities, or more flexible lunch breaks.
  • Open door policies: Have an open-door policy, where employees can talk to their superiors about anything without being judged, criticized, or reprimanded.
  • Intra-office bonds: Create an environment where employees can support each other. Having coworkers one knows, trusts, and likes can have a huge impact on an employee’s overall satisfaction.

ROI on Mental Wellness

Each year, the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence (COE) recognizes organizations across the country for their commitment to employee psychological well-being and creating a positive working environment. Psychology Today magazine reported that, “since its launch and in almost all cases, winners have reported that their return on investment—reduced turnover and increased productivity—far outweighed the costs.” Unilever commissioned multi-year studies to evaluate the return on investment of its health programs. Their aggregated results showed that for every €1 they spent on health and well-being initiatives, the company saw a return of €2.44 – “indicating that good health really is good for business” the company concludes.

We expect the discussion of mental health to become more mainstream in the workplace as organizations realize the strong ties between profitability and happier, more productive employees. Look for an increased focus on management training, executives who advocate and speak candidly on mental health, and internal communication campaigns to increase the visibility of available programs—all with the aim of normalizing mental healthcare. Employees, at all levels, should feel supported and empowered to seek the help they need.


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