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Reframing Organisational Mental Health

Will Cleare, Managing Director, The HR Agency

Given the events of the last year or so, the need to have a Health or Wellbeing strategy is more important than ever. At Allen Associates' recent HR Hub at which I was a guest speaker with Jonathan Hook of CHX Performance, we conducted a poll, asking delegates to tell us when they had last reviewed their Health or Wellbeing strategy. Encouragingly 41% had done so within the past three months while 19% said their organisation did not have a strategy at all. This blog discusses the issues and offers practical advice and guidance on how to develop and implement an effective plan.

When working with employers, I have found an effective way to approach a Health or Wellbeing strategy is to focus through three lenses:

  1. Financial health lens
  2. Physical health lens
  3. Mental health lens

“Manager burnout was on the rise during the pandemic – seeing an increase of 78% by the final quarter of the year in comparison to Q1 of 2020.”

There is compelling evidence to suggest the last of these three areas, mental health, needs urgent attention. Deloitte’s Mental Health and Employers report updated for 2020 suggests the return on investment in mental health interventions is significant, with every £1 spent returning £5 in reduced absence, presenteeism and employee turnover.  The survey went on to say that there is clear evidence this return increases to as much as £11 for every £1 invested when other cost benefits are factored in and the intervention is company-wide and focused on prevention.

“For every £1 spent on mental health intervention, employers get back £5 in reduced absence, presenteeism and employee turnover” 

Deloitte Mental Health and Employers Report

We work in partnership with CHX Performance and the work that they do, creates clear, unequivocal insight to help us reframe our understanding of, and approach to, mental health.  Here is some of that insight from the CHX Performance programme – Reframing Organisational Mental Health.

What is reframing organisational mental health?

There are three elements to reframing organisational mental health.  The first of these is helping leaders to lead as much by how they make people feel as what they say and do. Next, giving everyone a shared knowledge and language of mental health, increases their confidence in having discussions about mental health, which in turn helps to normalise such discussions. Finally, moving mental health from being seen as ‘mental illness’ to being an aspiration for good mental health.

“25% of people will experience a mental health problem each year.”

With so many employees reporting mental health problems it is vital we move our thinking on the subject.  Afterall, we refer to physical health very differently to how we talk about mental health.  When people mention physical health, they do so by considering things like energy, ease of movement, efficient metabolism and effective immunity.  However, when the subject of mental health comes up, a significant proportion of initial comments will be about high levels of stress, anxiety, depression or burnout. These thoughts are based on mental illness though, not mental health.  We need to think in aspirational terms, in a similar way we do with physical health, using terms such as motivation, clarity of mind and appropriate emotional responses to describe mental health.

So, what are we aspiring to?

Using the mental health continuum, we can see how all of us can be anywhere on this continuum, and that’s normal. If you are on the left, it’s a bit like having a cold for physical health, you are sub-par, but you can still operate. But the aspirational state is on the right-hand side, this is where we aspire to be, to be at our best and most able.  However, for the vast majority - we will spend most of our professional lives in moderate mental health, and if you think about it, similar is true for physical health.

This is what an aspirational mental health programme is about: how to help you to know where you are on the continuum and to move yourself to the right. And, as a leader to help move your team too.

Environments & Mental Health

Our mental health is sustained or depleted by three environments – biological, physical and social - which are deeply interwoven. This is where we approach things differently - our mental health and therefore performance is not something that occurs in silos - sleep, nutrition, activity are all related.

Take our biological environment, everything that’s going on inside us.  We need to achieve a biological balance for positive mental health, what is referred to as homeostasis.  In order to stand a chance of achieving peak performance, we must pay close attention to our homeostatic processes.

However, many causes of mental ill health lie outside the body and our biological environment.  Our physical environment plays a massive part in creating positive mental health and include examples such as movement and daylight or an absence of physical resources such as sleep and nutrition.

Lastly, and perhaps the least understood, is our social environment.  This is arguably the most important in the context of helping your organisation reframe mental health.  We need social resources for good mental health and will come on to why shortly.

The Brain

We can create more context by looking at an (over) simplified view of the brain that has been in common usage for several decades.  Sitting at the core of our brains is what is referred to as our ‘Lizard Brain’, which in evolutionary terms is 500 million years old. This Lizard Brain is responsible for our survival by providing us with instincts and vigilance.  We then have the limbic system or our ‘Mammal Brain’ which is a couple of hundred million years old.  Our Mammal Brain provides our emotions, social bonding and empathy.  So you can see that these two parts of the brain only communicate by feelings.  The third part of our brain, the Executive Brain is much less mature, possibly immature, and is responsible for thought, language and inhibition.  So, the relationship between our ancient and unconscious brain systems and the more recent and conscious brain is a tough one and at the heart of why it’s so hard to do the right things for good health and thus at the root of the many mental health challenges.

Organisations & Mental Health

We can therefore see the critical role of social environments in mental health.  Poor social environments can ensure that poor mental health becomes the norm.  Feelings are often unrecognised or ignored and therefore implicitly reinforced by the culture which becomes a place where it is difficult to help yourself resolve dysregulated feelings, let alone attend to other’s needs.

Often in organisations, high achievers are seen to have an invincibility complex.  Many of your top performing employees may feel themselves, they are immune to poor mental health, having years of untroubled mental health. However, what we are seeing over the last year or so is these feelings of certainty and invincibility have been shaken and finely balanced lives can quickly become vulnerable ones.  Many of the factors that promote ambition and success are linked to mental illnesses such as depression, OCD, status and/or social anxiety and lead to frustration and hostility.

How can we reduce the risks of poor mental health?

World Health Organisation data suggests that 80% of mental health disorders stem from dysregulated mood and emotion – also known as – feelings.  As mentioned previously, one of the things CHX does in its work with clients, is to help leaders lead by how they make people feel.  Mood and emotion are core to the work they do with organisations in reframing the way in which they perceive mental health.  
Take mood for instance.  Mood is widely misunderstood, yet it is critical information about how we are doing.  We either ignore or simply don’t understand the information our mood is providing us.

Moods - signals for self from inside

Take the analogy of a car dashboard.  When the car is operating well, there are no warning lights on the dashboard. However as soon as a fault is detected, a warning light comes on and you know you have to do something to fix the fault.  Likewise with mood, it indicates when there is something that needs our attention, doing something with the signal is key and our personal responsibility to enable us to move along the continuum to the right.  A depressed mood signals we have low resources – we’re fatigued or approaching burnout.  An angry mood signals a perceived inability to restore resources – we’re hungry or tired.

Emotions - signals to self from external environments

Homeostasis is all about our physical survival signalled by mood; emotions are signals for our social survival.  Emotional depression can be a signal of a lost resource such as a bereavement or a loss of status.  Emotional anger can signal that something has come between us and a resource we require.

Good mental health means sometimes feeling bad

Think back to the continuum and how we can move along it. In fact, negative moods and emotions tell us that something needs to change. A negative mood is a normal and predictable response to a changed or pathological environment.  Provided we make that change then the signal is downgraded and we can move back along to the right of the continuum.

Moods & Emotions are signals to other people

Thinking about our social environment and our need for social resources to be in good health, the social resources we need are communicated through mood & emotion.  If we are experiencing negative mood then this sends a message that our biological resources are low.  Negative emotions indicate to us that our social survival is threatened.

So, it is vitally important to organisational mental health that employees at all levels are able to recognise the signals of low mood and emotion in themselves.  We need to understand the message of our mood and emotions.  Once we understand these messages we can act to resolve and/or regulate them.


And, of course this is where empathy comes in.  Empathy starts with ourselves.  The more self-aware we are, the more we are able to be aware of others.  Empathy, therefore is a critical leadership tool and critical also in organisational mental health.  Now more than ever, organisations are realising and valuing the importance of human-centric leadership and at the core of this is empathy and empathic leaders.

The better you are understanding your moods and emotions and how to resolve them, the better you are at improving your mental health and the mental health of others.

Altruism & Mental Health

Two of the most powerful mechanisms for regulating good mental health both for yourself and for others are empathy and altruism.  Empathy and altruism lie at the core of what it means to be human.  Altruism is a behavioural extension of empathy and is a pro-social response to another’s feelings.  Darwinian theory uses the term ‘survival of the fittest’, yet modern-day evolutionary anthropologists now refer to human evolution as more ‘survival of the friendliest’.  Humans have survived and thrived by being the most pro-social species.  We are hard-wired and rewarded for it.  Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins and cannabinoids are all activated to reward survival behaviour such as getting food or mating.The same pathways are also activated for rewarding pro-social behaviours.

Altruism isn’t about the big gestures – that’s called universal altruism.  No, it’s about the small and immediate things - more instinctive.  As an employee if my resources are low, my mood and emotions send a signal that I need help.  Small acts of kindness, such as giving resources like time will help restore balance.  Or perhaps not saying something, if it could have a negative impact on an individual’s mood, can thus support their emotional homeostasis.

5% strategy, 95% humanity

So, you can see how reframing organisational mental health is 5% strategy and 95% humanity.  It requires effort, practise and work from everyone in your organisation and begins with you. This is your responsibility in helping reframe mental health, leading through how you make others feel and making mental health an aspiration.

Expert advice and support

The HR Agency was founded with the objective of enabling business to evolve as a force for good for their people, their local communities and our planet.  This is achieved by partnering with exceptional talent in areas both within and outside HR who get it when it comes to supporting business and being driven by a shared purpose.

Partnering with CHX Performance exemplifies this approach perfectly.

Please contact us if you would like to find out more about creating your employee wellbeing strategy or want to explore how your organisation can reframe organisational mental health, putting it at the core of what you do.

Will Cleare, Managing Director

Jonathan Hook, Director of Learning and Programmes 

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