The ESG opportunity for mental health

ESG environment social governance investment business concept. Women use a computer to analyze ESG, surrounded by ESG icons .close to the computer screen in business investment strategy concept.

New research shows that leaders want more attention paid to employee wellbeing as part of the S
in ESG strategy. This might present an ideal opportunity for joined-up thinking; with strategy not
only informed by competitors but also by employees, suggests Suzanne Clarkson, Associate at
business management consultant HarknessKennett.

When it comes to employee mental health and wellbeing, the current S in ESG strategy in many
organisations arguably only reflects part of the picture. And probably isn’t considered ‘mental
health and wellbeing’ at all, considering recent calls for ‘health’ to be the fourth pillar of ESG.

Why over-complicate? Instead of continuing to label everything separately – health, wellbeing,
diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), health and safety (H&S) – wouldn’t it be so much easier
and arguably more effective to consider what everything has in common instead? In other words, mental wellbeing. And position this as the foundation for everything else in S in ESG strategy.

Bearing in mind evidence of disjoints between employers and employees when it comes to how
well organisations are doing on wellbeing, maybe it’s time to rethink how all of this is informed;
less focus on the external (industry benchmarks – the competitors) and more focus on the
internal (employees – the target audience).

Evidence of disjointed thinking is increasingly coming to light. For example, 6 in 10 leaders want
more attention paid to employee wellbeing as part of S in ESG strategy over the coming year,
according to new research. However, only 4 in 10 say culture, purpose and employee
experience – important contributors to wellbeing – form part of the S in their current ESG

This supports growing understanding that, when it comes to employee wellbeing, organisations
need to level up “fixing work” (culture, belonging, employee experience) with the current,
primary, focus on “fixing the individual” (mindfulness, resilience training, wellbeing apps).**

Why link up ESG and mental health / wellbeing?

There’s no health without mental health, as the saying goes. This arguably applies as much to
business health as it does people health. After all, a toxic workplace isn’t going to last long
before it’s called out and sent scurrying off into the shadows to quietly rebuild and reconnect
with its people.

ESG is all about reputation. But reputation is no longer all about fancy external marketing,
advertising and PR campaigns. It’s about genuinely walking the talk on vital contributors to
business success. In other words, putting the mental health and wellbeing of employees first.

People want to hear from people about whether it’s a decent place to work. Whether it’s worth
the effort. Whether it’s likely to provide a sense of purpose and self-worth (contributing positively
to mental health). Or whether it’s more likely to sap every ounce of energy and leave you

Similarly, ESG commitments are driving consumer purchasing and investor decision making.

Balancing employee insights with industry benchmarks

But getting this right largely rests on removing the kind of disjoints mentioned earlier. Mental
health and wellbeing is subjective, so employee insights are crucial.

While the majority of leaders say they use employee insights to help inform ESG strategy, it
turns out that the purpose of those insights is mainly ‘a channel to raise workforce concerns’
(59%); well ahead of ‘contribution and challenge to board level decision making’ (42%).* Both are important, but the latter is arguably the real gold when it comes to informing strategy.

Meanwhile, when asked how employee insights are obtained, the top ways were employee
engagement and satisfaction surveys. Surveys provide useful indicators, but they don’t provide
genuine insights. The real nuggets come from face-to-face interactions; the informal (everyday
conversations) and the formal, in terms of focus groups and interviews with employees across
various levels and departments. For this to be really effective, it needs to be ongoing, as part of
a listening culture.

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This is about speaking with employees about their experience of work and the work
environment, to help figure out what needs to be replicated, evolved or changed. And without
focusing specifically on DEI, H&S or any other of the many workplace acronyms…this only
serves to perpetuate the siloes. When, in fact, everything is interrelated and grounded in the
lived experience of people.

*Opinium research, commissioned by Coach House Communications, in collaboration with HarknessKennett, based on a representative sample of 403 UK-based senior decision makers in companies with 1,000+ employees, field dates 5-12 May 2023
**NICE, Mental wellbeing at work, March 2022,
University of Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, Estimating effects of individual-level workplace mental wellbeing interventions:
Cross-sectional evidence from the UK, April 2023
Business in the Community (BITC), Prioritise people: unlock the value of a thriving workforce, April 2023,

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