Mental Health Awareness Week: where is your focus now, and after the week is over?

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To mark Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May) we asked some industry thought leaders for their views on the biggest issues in employee wellbeing today, and their vision for the future of mental health at work. 

Given the furore around Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride’s controversial comments that “mental health culture” has gone “too far at work”, we wondered whether there was any evidence of a pulling back on this focus from employers.

The answer was a resounding “no” from Wellbeing Strategist and Consultant Amy McKeown, who said she has “never been busier with client and consulting work around mental health”. 

Back to basics

However, she did identify a pulling back of sorts, in that she has witnessed some organisations, focusing their attention on “going back to basics” and doing “strategic” rather than tactical work, because what they were doing wasn’t working, says McKeown.

Sadie Restorick, Co-Founder of Wellity Global, backs up McKeown’s argument that employers are going “back to basics” saying she’s also seeing clients “stripping things back and reestablishing where their key responsibilities are, and where lies the largest opportunity for making a tangible impact on people”.

Individual to system focus

She also echoes McKeown’s words in terms of the shift she’s seeing from employers focusing on the individual, to the workplace system: “To date, so many strategies have explored so many facets of being a human being but neglected to truly dig into the workplace itself.”

This is changing, she says, and employers now want to focus on longer cultural change programmes, manager training and team training, understanding work dynamics and the fundamental components of a healthy team and work environment.

Dr Elaine Smith, Wellbeing Consultant and Clinical Psychologist, is also advocating for this shift from individual to institution, agreeing that employers need to be now looking more at “systemic interventions rather than individual mental health and wellbeing interventions”.

“Research highlights the importance of this,” she says. “We know that addressing the organisational and cultural difficulties has the greatest impact and ROI.”

Danger of a damaging media narrative

This is all well and good, but some experts believe there is a real danger that a dominant current media narrative on mental health – that it’s “gone too far” or is “too woke” – will have a detrimental effect on the ability to engage employees and effect cultural change. They worry it will particularly affect managers’ willingness to engage with some of the training around wellbeing and mental health.

As Marteka Swaby, Founder of Benevolent Health, says: 

“The political agenda currently is to demonise support for mental health, belonging & culture as ‘wokeness’ or going too far.  I wonder how managers or people leaders will remain curious in this climate?”

Rise of AI

She predicts that those employers which do successfully engage lie managers, and leaders, in this type of training will be best placed for the future of work, especially given the rise of AI:

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“As we move into a more digitalised work environment, with hybrid or remote working, I believe the emotional and cultural intelligence of the organisation, especially your line manger will really impact your experience of work, including mental health.”

But for Restorick,  the “most profound shift” we’re seeing in the wellbeing landscape is that companies are looking more closely at legislative requirements, data, duty of care and psychosocial risk management, as opposed to more reactive measures. 

Psychosocial health and safety – a priority

As evidence of this shift, she points to the fact that the webinar so far this year which has garnered by far the most interest, is one she ran on “Psychological health & safety, budgets, and leadership buy-in”. 

Mental health speaker, trainer and consultant Tom Oxley confirms that this is a global trend, with “managing psychosocial risk” being the most searched for theme at the World Congress Safety and Health conference in Sydney recently, where he was moderating.

So, rather than mental health culture “going too far” in 2024, it would seem our experts agree that – systemically – it actually needs to go further, be more strategic and less tactical and really get to the core of a corporate culture; and that is exactly where progressive employers are headed.

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, run by the Mental Health Foundation, this year is “Movement: Moving more for our mental health”; for more on this topic see here

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