The rise of the mental health officer: Positive change or quick fix?

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Recent research has shown the percentage of stress-related absence in the workplace has doubled in the past year, rising from 5% in 2017 to 10% in 2018.

In addition, a survey of over 22,000 people in 100 countries highlighted that more than half the global workforce (53%) believe they are closer to burnout than they were five years ago. In response to statistics such as these, and no doubt visible cases within their own companies, organisations are increasingly employing a mental health officer (MHO) to deal with such issues in the workplace.

However, could this be a knee-jerk reaction and does it really address the source of employee stress? In response to an ever-changing working environment and increasing demands, businesses may in fact be inadvertently placing increased pressure on the workforce, which could already be close to breaking under stress.

One possible reason for the rise of the MHO might be that leadership styles have failed to keep pace with the fast-changing environment which challenges businesses today. The phrase ‘well-washing’ has emerged in criticism of companies that have implemented wellbeing policies while operating an ‘always on’ culture and management practices that undermine health.

There is nothing inherently wrong with introducing practices such as mindfulness and meditation at work for example. However, outcome-driven wellbeing strategies unfairly transfer the burden and responsibility to the individual employee, if they have to adopt them in order to cope with excessive work stress. Perhaps it would be better, instead of placing additional demands on an already stressed workforce, that senior leaders scrutinise the real reasons behind the perceived need for more MHOs.

‘I never thought it would happen to me’, is a phrase that must run through the mind of every executive who experiences the state of vital exhaustion that is burnout. There are many examples of senior leaders who, only after a period of forced rest and recovery, respond by changing their ways of working.

In a very candid account, Lloyd’s Banking Group CEO Anthonio Horta-Osorio described how restoring the bank’s operations almost shattered his mental health, following which he instituted a 12-month leadership resilience programme for 200 of the bank’s top executives.

It is the unconscious yet pernicious belief that we are bulletproof, which inhibits the evolution of leadership behaviours and business cultures that sustain good health rather than try to ‘fix’ broken people. Indeed, is it possible that a parallel process is operating in organisations today? That what is going on for individual leaders is also going on within their workforces?

Our advice to leaders is to take a bold step and tackle this issue at source – to debate, explore and develop the style of leadership required to align behaviours and skills to a VUCA world. It can feel like a big shift to make, so where does one start? Well, maybe it’s as accessible and even as attractive as starting by stopping.

There is, though, a skill to intervening in our natural, automatic-pilot reactions to stimulus and unconscious response. Indeed courage is required to lighten the control we assert that stops us ‘feeling the feeling’ that would be inconvenient, or too uncomfortable to feel. The alternative seems a lot more manageable: adopt a procedure, introduce a wellbeing programme – attendance on which merely adds to the pressure on time or sense of personal responsibility – or create a mental health officer. If leaders were open to learning the skill of stopping – properly stopping and confronting –then what comes next would be very different.

Having mental health expertise within a business is without a doubt entirely positive. But what strikes us, is that the vast majority of observations and literature on the topic have consciously or unconsciously avoided surfacing the angles we have discussed here.

This article appears in The HR Magazine.