Engagement Increasing But Impact of Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategies Needs to be Proven to Secure Budgets

The results are in for Mad World’s first annual “Engagement, Workplace Culture & Wellbeing 2019” survey. They make for an interesting read.

Thank you to everyone who took part. We had a fantastic range of responses from the private, public and voluntary sectors – from large, small and medium sized organisations.

As is often the case with surveys, it’s by digging into the open-ended responses that the really rich insights are unearthed. I also love to read between the lines and look for the links that perhaps reveal a new truth.

Assessing the landscape

Before getting into the nitty gritty, we wanted to get a feel for the lay of the land. We asked four key questions.

The first question: “Does your organisation currently assess employee engagement?” The majority (65%) answered “yes”, with 24% responding “no” and the remaining 9% responding “not at the moment but we are planning to in the future”. Having determined that a majority are assessing employee engagement, we dug deeper.

We wanted to get a sense for whether employee engagement and wellbeing are linked, but also an idea of how organisations are measuring the effectiveness of their mental health and wellbeing strategies. While just over 42% are using employee engagement surveys to inform and assess the effectiveness of mental health and wellbeing strategies, more than 57% are either not doing this at all, or are not doing this at the moment but are planning to in the future.

The next question revealed that of those, that are using employee engagement surveys to assess the effectiveness of their mental health and wellbeing strategies, the highest proportion do this as part of a general annual survey.

A few (11%) have an annual survey dedicated to understanding mental health and wellbeing needs, while 22% use regular pulse surveys to give quick insight into the health of employee engagement.

A third of respondents indicated that they use “other” means to assess the effectiveness of their mental health and wellbeing strategy. I was intrigued to find out more.

Looking at the responses these ranged in complexity from the straight forward: “through wellbeing focus groups”, “in appraisals” and “with a happiness at work score of 1-10”, to the more complex: “thymometrics (which helps employers to continually understand employee mood and engagement) and “occupational health and take up of wellbeing initiatives, combined with self-assessment and feedback from line managers and mental health first aiders”.

Several respondents indicated that mental health and wellbeing is assessed in their organisation through an engagement survey only once every three years.

Finally, we asked whether engagement with the topic of mental health and wellbeing is increasing across respondents’ organisations. An encouraging 70% answered yes, it was.

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Effective engagement strategies

Having got a sense of how engagement is assessed generally and how engagement surveys relate to mental health and wellbeing initiatives, we wanted to understand more about how employers are encouraging engagement in mental health and wellbeing, right across the organisation.

We asked respondents to outline the three most effective strategies they have deployed. We received a huge range of responses.

These will be collated and included in this year’s Mad World Summit show guide as an A-Z of strategies employers are using to engage employees with mental health and wellbeing. The list is not exhaustive but it does demonstrate how willing employers are to collaborate and exchange experiences.

Suggested strategies are eclectic. Some are simple and well known, others are innovative and far ranging. Some of the tips that stand out include:

  • A “wellbeing pot” – which enables employees to apply for up to £400 a year tax-free to spend on any activity or therapy that is aimed at improving mental or physical health and wellbeing
  • A buddy system
  • Compassionate, BOLD and adaptive leadership
  • Dedicated Sharepoint site and Yammer streams for mental health, linked into internal communications plans
  • Empowering more colleagues to increase awareness
  • Engaging the Learning and Development team and Investors in People with ongoing effort to improve employee wellbeing
  • Facilitators at all staff awaydays on motivation, happiness, success and resilience
  • Flexible benefits with self-selected options that also cover mental health
  • Incorporating “how are you feeling” and “3 things to be thankful for” into team meetings
  • Keeping the focus on health and wellbeing regularly from the MD
  • Linking with learning initiatives
  • Mental health awareness induction check-list
  • Monthly 1-1 meetings with line managers with standard agendas that also cover welfare, stress etc.
  • Open support for employee wellbeing from the CEO down
  • People sharing their stories
  • Raising awareness of everyone’s individual responsibility
  • Safe, inclusive culture and open communication
  • Taking a transversal approach (encompassing different hierarchies, departments and functions)
  • Updated sickness form to include a mental health box
  • Wellbeing action plans and KPIs

Obstacles to overcome

Next, we wanted to understand what is getting in the way when it comes to engaging employees with mental health and wellbeing. Around 7% of respondents are confident that nothing is standing in their way. Comments from this group included “No obstacles, it has been met with huge interest and enthusiasm” and “We’re finding it fairly straight forward. People can over complicate”.

However, even though more than 70% of respondents enthusiastically indicated that engagement with mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is increasing, 60% of them identified obstacles that are preventing widespread engagement.

The key obstacles can be grouped as follows:

  • Where to start? – some see this as a minefield they need to navigate to find the right solutions at the right price that will deliver ROI. Another point that was raised is fear of opening the floodgates. One respondent answered “we are aware that lots of people are coping at various levels”.
  • Communication – Despite regular communication through different channels, for some employers, staff are still not aware of the offerings available to them. It was pointed out that it is difficult to achieve consistency in communications and that these can only ever be as effective as the least engaged line-managers. The difficulty of engaging and observing remote workers and staff spread over many sites was also referenced by several respondents. Despite regular communication through different channels, people are not aware of the offerings.
  • Managers – here comments were varied, with obstacles identified ranging from “lack of understanding of the impact of management style on mental health” to “lack of empathy amongst managers”, from “managers not having the confidence to address these issues” to “line managers with other priorities” and from “sometimes employees want to overshare and it becomes difficult for the manager to detach” to “managers do not know how to spot signs early and then do not know how to react and handle issues around mental health”
  • Budget and resources – These were mentioned time and again; “budget is standing in the way of all that we want to do”; “low on the business priority list. No budget”; “scaleability and resource are the main obstacle”
  • Entrenched attitudes – For many respondents, the main challenge they are faced with is overcoming entrenched attitudes. Comments included: “men are very hard to engage with this topic” to “staff want to protect the status quo – they see work stress as part of life” and “mental health engagement is on the up but we are struggling to break the taboo of other areas of wellbeing such as healthy eating and exercise” as well as “older people don’t like to open up as much as younger”, “not good to show weakness”, “over use of the word ‘stress’, which has come to mean nothing in recent years” and “culture that you have to be tough”.
  • Time – This was mentioned by many respondents who emphasised both the fact that time, pressure and workload mean staff are reluctant to use work time for wellbeing sessions. In a time-pressured environment many find it difficult to get staff to engage in training as they tend to say they are too busy, or see it as someone else’s job. One respondent pointed out: “We’ve had to ask people to spend 2 hours a week looking after their mental health, and log it” and another pointed out: “Employees are really engaged with this topic, our biggest obstacle is making the time in diaries for our more senior managers to engage with this”.
  • The Board – Striking comments included: “The employees want more engagement with mental health and wellbeing – the business wants to concentrate on business as usual” and “senior management buy in is there but no real formal support or backing by the look of it”.
  • Stigma and fear of speaking out – Whilst engagement is increasing, enduring stigma was the most commonly obstacle referenced. Employees are afraid to open up in case they are judged harshly for showing weakness. It was also mentioned that there is still concern about anonymity and the impact of opening up on career progression. Another respondent added “stigma stops people from coming forward early enough”.
  • Early identification – linked to stigma, several respondents pointed out the challenge of identifying cases early on. This was summed up by the comment: “People act late – probably being concerned about potential consequences”. Another respondent suggested: “Employees are reactive to their mental health instead of proactive – which leads to long term absence”.
  • Personal accountability – This was also mentioned as an obstacle by several respondents with comments including: “We have to remember people are adults” and “lack of personal responsibility”

Many of these obstacles are connected.

Creating lasting change in workplace culture

Having gained a sense of the key obstacles that organisations are encountering when it comes to engaging employees with mental health and wellbeing, we wanted to see how this compared to the obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve lasting culture change.

Responses were again far ranging but came back time and again to:

  • Lack of resource and funding and lack of senior leadership buy-in
  • Lack of time, the pace of business, workload demands and resistance to change in an ever-changing work environment
  • Lack of staff buy-in, scepticism, people being unprepared to be open, existing entrenched unhealthy cultures, and the need to embed mental health and wellbeing into policy

Stand out comments included: “Too many sub cultures in a matrix organisation”, “We’re getting there. It’s a continual drip feed in amongst so many other messages”, “Creating future corporate optimism”, “Urgent vs. important, long term planning vs. myopic daily, weekly, monthly lip service” and “Getting beyond mental health awareness being transactional to a way of engaging with and caring for people”.

Making the link back to employee engagement

Finally, we asked respondents what would make the biggest difference to them and to their organisation in terms of the link between employee engagement, workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing.

Responses were again incredibly varied but focused mainly around 3 key points:

  • The need for both financial and staff resources to be made available
  • Linked to this, the need to be able to measure the impact of strategies and the ROI of investing in employee mental health. Access to statistics / empirical and meaningful data that can be shared with senior management to demonstrate impact was requested. There was also a call for research that clearly shows the link between wellbeing, productivity and how mental health support has benefited employees and business results, or a business case modeler supporting the implementation of health and wellbeing tools.
  • A desire to share best practice, learn from and benchmark against other organisations, with data-driven analysis of helpful dos and don’ts and suggested action plans for the short, medium and long term that will deliver positive impact at reasonable cost

Making the more distinct link back to employee engagement it was suggested that it would be useful to be able to track how specific activities influence employee engagement. It was also mentioned that the key is to link the needs of individuals to the needs of an organisation. “Having a system in place that provides metrics on the benefits of employee engagement as a preventative measure” was also raised as was “Making engagement and wellbeing a cultural value in companies”, with engagement and wellbeing metrics published on the company website.

Responses to this question were gathered to feedback, anonymously, to the Engage for Success Wellbeing Thought and Action Group. This has recently been launched to help employers find approaches that have a positive impact on individual wellbeing and on organisational performance.

In response to survey findings Natasha Wallace from Engage for Success’ Wellbeing Thought and Action Group said: “It’s clear to see that employers are looking for the evidence to show the link between engagement and wellbeing as well a way to measure ROI. The survey has provided us with some very useful feedback which we’ll use to inform our work on the Engage for Success Wellbeing Thought and Action Group. Over the coming twelve months, we hope to be able to provide employers with what they need not only to improve wellbeing in their organisations but to demonstrate senior leaders that the investment is worth it”.

Next steps

While engagement with mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is increasing, there are still many obstacles when it comes to engaging employees right across the workforce and creating lasting cultural change.

The diverse response to the survey illustrates the hunger for concrete examples of best practice from across industries and geographies. There is also a clear call for data that can be used to make the business case needed to achieve essential senior management buy-in and budget.

We are grateful to all of the respondents for sharing their thoughts and suggestions.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times


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