4 ways to invest in employee mental health

Supporting your greatest resource in response to COVID-19 can help unlock competitive advantage.
4 ways to invest in employee mental health

COVID-19 has disrupted every facet of our lives, and our collective mental health is no exception.

It’s normal for people to feel distressed during a global disaster, but this pandemic has an added dimension of isolation that makes maintaining mental wellbeing especially difficult.

During a time when many companies are being forced to slash costs, it can be difficult to consider making investments, but experts argue that employee mental health is one investment that’s worth it.

“In the world we’re in today, building a culture that’s both resilient and agile is an obvious source of competitive advantage,” said Mike Fenlon, chief people officer at PwC. “There’s absolutely no question that investing in a culture that supports mental and emotional wellbeing will enable people to perform at higher levels and fulfil their potential.”

A study by Virgin Pulse titled The Business of Healthy Employees 2019 shows that many executives agree. Among the HR and C-suite executives surveyed, 81% invested in employee wellbeing because they believed it increased employee engagement, 58% did it to increase employee productivity, and over half thought investing in employee wellness thought it would help attract top talent.

Fenlon also pointed to a recent study PwC conducted in partnership with the University of Southern California that linked workplace wellbeing agendas with team performance. According to Fenlon, the teams in the study that adopted inclusive leadership and established formal agendas around promoting mental wellbeing reported higher levels of performance, higher levels of client satisfaction, and more highly motivated team members than the teams that didn’t have wellbeing agendas.

“We've seen this translate into bottom-line results,” he said. “And it shouldn’t be surprising.”

This pandemic is arguably the perfect time for CFOs across industries to invest in employee mental health, which is essential for getting a return on investment in your workforce, according to Fenlon.

“This is also an opportunity to make mental health the strategic imperative it should be and for leaders to show a bit of openness and connect with their teams on a more human level,” according to Carin-Isabel Knoop, executive director of the Case Research and Writing Group at Harvard Business School and co-author of Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace.

“However, it remains extremely difficult to admit to anyone, starting with yourself, that you are struggling and may need help,” Knoop said. “And at this juncture, I think a lot of us are in that space and need to learn to manage differently. The challenge is to balance vulnerability with confidence so that they don’t come across as weakness or as divorced from reality.”

There are many ways for CFOs to support employee mental health, from conducting a portfolio review of benefits to removing the stigma of using those benefits. Here is some advice from experts on how to create a company culture that supports mental health during these unprecedented times:

Innovate mental health benefits and resources. For CFOs conducting a portfolio review of benefits, this is the time to innovate and understand that these benefits can have a strong return, according to Fenlon. Technology has made virtual mental health support a very real and obtainable benefit offering for many companies.

PwC was offering mental health benefits to employees before COVID-19 but has expanded its offerings in response to the pandemic. The company offers employees 24/7 independent mental health counselling via text message, which can evolve into a video call, and then a referral to a local mental health provider, if warranted.

Companies should also consider extending childcare benefits for backup emergency childcare, offering e-coaching services, and stressing the importance of flexibility with regard to remote working and expectations around productivity levels.

In addition to expanding and innovating mental health benefits, Knoop pointed out that leaders should clarify what’s available and how to access those benefits.

“Clarify the steps to access mental health assistance,” Knoop said. “Because it’s one thing to say, ‘We have all these things available,’ but how would you actually go about it?”

Create a virtual support system. Companies can create a virtual support system to alleviate feelings of isolation for employees working from home for the first time. A sense of community is a large component of mental and emotional wellbeing, and there are several ways leaders can help reinforce belonging among their teams.

If you haven’t done so already, Knoop recommends communicating to employees that you are sympathetic to the stresses they are under and committed to their wellbeing in this time of extreme crisis.

Leaders can also create online forums where co-workers can connect and share tips for how they’re coping with remote work and balancing childcare with everything else.

“The idea is people are sharing their experience but also their ideas and insights on what’s helping,” he said. “It’s not a professional therapist, but it’s creating a sense of community that we’re in this together.”

Remove stigma from the conversation. One of the greatest obstacles to addressing mental health is the stigma attached to mental illness.

Leaders can help mitigate that stigma by displaying a bit of transparency, using mental health resources themselves, and sharing their stories with team members.

“I think this is the time where leaders can show some vulnerability, and by vulnerability, I mean the understanding that they too are under enormous stress,” Knoop said.

One way leaders can address that stigma is through storytelling, by sharing personal examples of how they’ve been using mental health resources and telemedicine. According to Fenlon, leaders at PwC have incorporated sharing personal wellness struggles and tips into their standing agenda at their weekly virtual town halls.

“Far from being something to be embarrassed about, these are issues that all of us are experiencing,” Fenlon said. “Anxiety, uncertainty, feelings of depression or loss, for some, isolation — there’s a real gamut here of emotional reactions.”

Scale wellness programmes across the company. Mental wellness benefits and initiatives have to be done at scale in order to unlock competitive advantage, according to Fenlon.

These programmes must be available beyond one or two teams within the company. Leaders need to create a culture of wellness and agility across all departments and levels.

As with any major initiative, mental health programmes need to start at the top, while incorporating feedback from people at all levels.

“We’ve learned a lot by listening to our people,” Fenlon said. “We didn’t get everything right at first — far from it — but as we’ve listened to our people carefully, we’ve deepened our understanding around what resources and benefits they need and what will make the biggest difference.”

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, contributed to this article. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at