Creating a Supportive Mental Health Culture

Young African American woman feeling depressed at home.

Consider this workplace scenario. After working at a mid-sized urban company for about three years, Joanne received the best performance review of her professional life. When meeting with her boss, the conversation was all about how the young mother could position herself for a promotion. “Everybody loves Joanne,” her supervisor declared. But Joanne’s work declined in the months that followed. In addition to being less engaged, she sidestepped ambitious projects that would have helped her move up. As a result, Joanne’s boss was no longer focused on discussing advancement opportunities at her latest job review. Instead, her supervisor bluntly noted that the company’s former shining employee might no longer be “a good fit” thanks to the deterioration in performance.

What happened? Depression happened. After the death of her father, Joanne—whose cautionary tale is real (though her name has been changed for publication)—was diagnosed as clinically depressed and started therapy. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it with anyone at work—least of all her boss, or anyone in HR. Looking back, she now realizes that there were probably some workplace resources that could have helped, but she didn’t even try to benefit from them because nobody at her work talked about mental illness or health.

Simply put, Joanne thought raising her health issue with the company would be seen as “a weak excuse” for declining performance. She’s not alone. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, people with higher rates of reported mental illness are entering the workforce after graduating “from colleges and high schools where they received accommodations, such as extra time to take tests or complete assignments—in some cases from elementary school onward. They are confronting a world of work that operates under different legal standards and less-flexible pressures and deadlines.” And as a result, a complex issue has become even more difficult because many people struggling with mental health challenges in today’s workplace feel like Joanne and conclude that they have to hide what’s going on from their employers.

“A complex issue has become even more difficult because many people struggling with mental health challenges in today’s workplace feel like Joanne and conclude that they have to hide what’s going on from their employers.”

Consider some findings from a recent Accenture study of 3,884 workers in the United Kingdom (including individuals who work for non-profits, for-profits, and the public sector). Nearly half of the younger participants (ages 18–30) reported that they have experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings. They are twice as likely than older workers to be experiencing a mental health challenge right now. Yet they are also more hesitant than their older peers to tell employers what’s going on. The youngest, ages 18–25, are the least likely to open up to someone at work. And many have never received any information or advice about mental health before entering the workforce.

The lesson here is clear. Employers shouldn’t underestimate the difference they can make, even by making a fairly modest (and low- or no-cost) effort to create a more supportive workplace. In our study, we identified “less supportive” and “more supportive” mental health cultures by measuring the extent of workers’ agreement with the following series of statements around their employers’ attitudes and approach to mental health:

  • Where I work, people have a work–life balance that supports good mental health.
  • Where I work, people who are going through a challenging time with their mental health are supported.
  • People feel safe to raise concerns about their mental health in my organization.
  • People at my work feel they have to hide any mental health challenges.
  • Where I work, mental health challenges would be considered a weakness.
  • Where I work, disclosing mental health challenges would impact my career/stop me from getting a promotion.

Approximately 10 per cent of respondents said their working environments were positive in all aspects; we call these “more supportive.” And approximately 10 per cent said their working environments were negative in all aspects; we call these “less supportive.” The research found that 84 per cent of young workers said they’re able to cope with any mental health challenges they might have in more supportive workplaces. But in less supportive environments that number dropped to 39 per cent. In organizations with more supportive cultures, we also found that workers of all ages are almost four times more likely to say that work has a positive influence on their mental health.

Numerous specific characteristics differentiate more supportive cultures from their opposite. But three stand out as being particularly significant—and they aren’t difficult to replicate.

First, in more supportive cultures, 53 per cent of all workers note that senior leaders visibly support mental health at work. (In less supportive cultures, just two per cent of workers say that senior leaders are visibly supportive of those with mental health challenges.) What does senior support look like? It could be publishing an internal blog on the subject or speaking openly about a challenge they’ve faced in a company meeting called for the purpose. It could also be leading an initiative in support of mental health. At Accenture, we have a growing mental health allies program that is tailored to align with needs and culture in various locations. We have conducted in-person training with more than 2,000 allies to help them recognize the signs of mental health challenges in themselves and others and get the help they need. Global online training is available to everyone.

Second, in more supportive cultures, 87 per cent of workers can identify a senior leader they could approach for help with a mental health challenge. (In less supportive organizations, that figure drops to 17 per cent of workers.) In more supportive cultures, employees are confident that this senior leader would listen to them seriously, refer them to a specialist, as needed, and help them plan and think through the next steps. So, in an organization just beginning to support mental health explicitly, this individual might be among the first to pursue training (perhaps in concert with the HR leads); they might then formally let others know about their experience. In organizations that have more fully developed mental health support programming, including training for all managers, ideally any senior leader could let direct reports and others know they are a willing resource.

Third, it’s important that workers know about the supports that are already in place. Among our study participants overall, fewer than half could say with certainty that their organization offers any formal support around mental health. We also found that higher-level employees overall knew more about such resources than the rest. To ensure that your employees know what’s available, ask: “What does our organization do to publicize the resources it offers employees regarding mental health?” If these resources are listed on an internal company portal, can an employee looking for help spot them right away, or does that person have to click through several layers of information first? Make it easy. Doing so also sends the signal that seeking help is acceptable and encouraged. Also consider conducting an anonymous employee survey to better understand employee mental health challenges; survey findings can also serve as a starting point to measure progress.

After hearing that she might no longer “fit,” Joanne resigned from a company that once wanted to groom her for promotion, never letting on that her performance issue at work might have had an addressable cause. But she has a new employer now.

Joanne is now on meds, in therapy, working hard, and doing well. Her new boss knows about her illness; in fact, many people at work do. Joanne is part of a mental health awareness group at work, and in addition to her regular duties, she runs a training class for new employees that includes a segment on the topic. “What an incredible difference the culture here makes,” she told us. “I am so happy here. And I have confidence that if people saw a significant change in me, they would reach out. I would do that for others. But I have to wonder: ‘How many people out there aren’t able to give their all because their employer still goes dark when it comes to workers’ mental wellbeing?’”

About the Author

Barbara Harvey is a managing director at Accenture Research, where she focuses on mental health and equality in the workplace.

About the Author

Regina Maruca is a senior editor with Accenture Research and a mental health ally with the company.

One response on “Creating a Supportive Mental Health Culture

  1. Karen Wright

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue and offering suggestions to companies regarding how to make culture more receptive to open discussion. Everything you offer has great value, however I find one issue consistently missing from everything I’m reading these days about mental health in the workplace. In my view, and based on the senior level conversations I’m having daily, the biggest unaddressed – and emerging – issue is mental health at the top. Your study places responsibility for a supportive culture in the hands of the leaders, and while I agree that they set the tone, it implies that the leaders are providing support rather than being equally (or possibly more) vulnerable. The most senior leaders are shouldering massive loads – the business issues and related complex decisions plus the performance as well as the well-being of their teams AND the care and concern for their families (physical, mental and financial). I’d love to know whether any of your research opens up the conversation about the mental well-being of the executive level leader.

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