The role of mental health in evolving business models

How big of a problem are mental health issues?

The figures will perhaps surprise those who haven’t heard them before: approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year; in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week¹; suicide kills three times more people than road traffic accidents². Many stakeholders within the UK are now recognising the scale of the cost to society of mental ill health and are working to tackle stigma and to provide better support. Even those not actively following developments in mental health will likely be aware of celebrity campaigning, including the Royal family’s involvement in Heads Together³, long-time campaigners Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, and more recently participants in the TV show Love Island sharing their own experiences of mental health issues.

It can seem that mental health issues are increasing in prevalence, although research has not indicated any significant increase in the number of adults with mental health issues in recent years¹. Longer term trends are more difficult to comment on as diagnosis and reporting have evolved over time. However, certain aspects of modern western lifestyles have the potential to contribute to and exacerbate mental health issues. These include the impacts of technology and social media, contributing to the pressure of living up to social expectations, as well as increasing the potential for increased loneliness as a result of lower levels of face to face social interaction and physical touch. In a work environment, a constant online connection is blurring the boundaries between work and home life, and pressures from short-term goals can create high levels of stress. Whilst not itself an illness, periods of extreme and long-term stress can cause physical and mental ill health. Combine these with continued economic uncertainty and an accelerating speed of change, there is a clear case as to why it is important now to invest in improving our mental health and wellbeing.

Mental health in the workplace

During the last 5 months, I have had the privilege of working with Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA), with a focus on the services that they offer to workplaces. MHFA’s vision is to normalise society’s attitudes and behaviours toward mental health by developing the skills we need to look after our own and others’ wellbeing. In its engagement with workplaces, MHFA seeks to help create organisational change. It is not enough to simply run awareness and skills training courses, especially not as a tickbox exercise; to achieve substantive or deep change in beliefs, behaviours and attitudes held by those within the organisation, an organisation must invest time and effort. Examples of actions which some have taken include internal storytelling such as the This Is Me appeal; awareness initiatives and discussions particularly during Mental Health Awareness Week and on World Mental Health Day; the creation and empowerment of mental health champions; reviews and better communication of the support offered to individuals with mental ill health, clear expectations and skills training for managers and leaders.

The case for action

As with any change, real change regarding mental health, therefore, requires significant input, but there are strong reasons to invest in this input. Poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, which equates to between £1,205 and £1,560 per employee. The costs to the economy as a whole are estimated to be between £74 billion and £99 billion per year. In addition to the financial costs, most employers understand that a happier employee is more productive. And for businesses competing for the best talent, a culture which values and supports the wellbeing of its staff is a significant draw for potential employees, or indeed a significant push factor where this is lacking.

There is a clear business case, but foremost is an ethical and inherently intuitive case. As human beings, we all have mental as well as physical health, and our health is impacted by our environment, including our workplace where we spend significant amounts of time. We should be aiming for work environments which support our full well-being and potential, and do not contribute to or exacerbate ill health through avoidable poor practices and ignorant attitudes. It is important to recognise and be bold in communicating these human reasons, as studies have shown that motivation based purely on financial incentives can change behaviour to reduce intrinsic values. More pragmatically, employees will be able to tell if the main incentive is to increase profit rather than to look after employees, and this will make itself apparent in talent attraction and retainment and engagement levels.

Root causes and wider links to other societal change

Efforts surrounding mental health in the workplace have largely focused on raising awareness, reducing stigma and improving individual skills to look after oneself and others. This is a great place to start, but we also need to address the root causes of mental ill health. There are tough questions for businesses to face regarding if and how they contribute to mental health issues, for example through long hours cultures, expectations for employees to always be available on their mobiles/email, and placing of profits and results over people. No organisation works in a vacuum, and to address changes in work culture will require a societal shift. But individual organisations can start to make simple changes, such as role modelling by leaders of reasonable working hours, communication of expectations regarding hours and out of office phone use, as well as simple changes in the daily language such as referring to “people” rather than “resources”. More progressive organisations are discussing ideas about creating charters with their suppliers and clients on how they will work together to reduce the unnecessary pressure that they might place upon each other.

These considerations link to a wider evolution in our current economic model towards a more sustainable and longer-term form of capitalism, which takes into account impacts on people and the environment as well as financial performance. Measures of employee well-being are just one measure amongst a wider set being used to provide a more balanced view of a company’s success, rather than only and purely profit-driven measures. Working towards better mental health and overall wellbeing of employees is one component of moving towards viewing organisations as a network of people working within the environment and global community to solve problems, and away from views of an organisation as a narrowly focused mechanism to deliver profit to shareholders and owners. This is not new thinking, and it is not niche — you can find discussions on these ideas from McKinsey¹⁰ and Black Rock¹¹, and evidence of new business models in the thousands of certified B Corps¹². There are many who, like me, want to create better businesses; and a mentally healthy workplace which supports the well-being of all people working there is an important part of creating that vision.


  7. See Michael Sandel:
  8. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
  9. As referenced by Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics: