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It’s never been more important to talk about mental health. That’s why we wanted it to be one of the earliest episodes on the Human podcast. Mental health affects everyone. During the last few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all experienced this differently: people in comfortable surroundings with family support; people isolated in cramped conditions; key workers and carers; and those anxious about their health.

Recent Accenture research found that 92 percent of workers have been touched by mental health in some way—and that was before COVID-19. What’s more, 6 out of 10 workers don’t say anything about their mental health when they’re at work, especially those under the age of 25.

Organisations have every reason to make this a priority, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. The cost of not addressing mental health has been estimated to reach $16 trillion by 2030.

“When you create environments where people feel good, where people belong, you really do create an environment which is brilliant for people and brilliant for business.”

—Barbara Harvey, Managing Director at Accenture Research

In a new episode of Human, Cengiz Besim is joined by Barbara Harvey. Barbara is Managing Director at Accenture Research, where she leads a global research team of 300 experts examining workplace equality. She’s also the co-founder and executive sponsor of our award-winning mental health program.

To paraphrase Barbara’s comments, when people work in a culture where they can thrive, they can unlock their potential, be at their best, and perform better. And research shows they are more likely to advance in their careers and have an innovation mindset.

Key point: addressing mental health benefits people and the companies they work for.

Barbara shares an excellent analogy, of a glass of water that represents our capacity to handle stress. And as she says to Cengiz, ‘Right now, I think our glasses are already quite full’.

I particularly liked Cengiz’s question at about the 15-minute mark: ‘How do we acknowledge that everybody is under a level of strain, but also shape that future in a way that takes into account an individual’s feelings, experiences, and expectations?’

Barbara’s answer focused on five principles:

  • Empathetic and human leadership. Leaders play a big role in defining and driving an organisation’s working environment. Barbara shares her team’s UK research showing that individuals in supportive environments were 40 percent less likely to say they had a recent mental health challenge. And 88 percent of people in a supportive organisation describe their leaders as open, warm, and human, compared to 5 percent in the least supportive organisations.
  • Empowerment. Barbara talks about the sudden loss of control we’ve all experienced, and how important a sense of control is for good mental health. It’s more important than ever to empower people—what I refer to as aligned autonomy—to make decisions about their work within reasonable boundaries. It also means allowing flexibility in working arrangements, trusting people to work on their terms, and moving away from an attitude of 9-to-5 presenteeism.
  • Knowledge. It’s important to give people the tools they need to learn about and develop skills to foster their own mental health. Barbara highlights a training tool called Thriving Mind, a tool that introduces people to the science behind how their brain responds to stress and shares tools to help them recharge. Accenture worked with Ariana Huffington’s Thrive Organization and Stanford Medical School to develop the tool.
  • Practical support. Accenture has an employee assistance program line that provides advice, as well as a network of more than 4,000 mental health allies who volunteer their time. We’re very fortunate to have these resources; Barbara notes that smaller organisations can direct people to public resources available in health services.
  • Gratitude. Barbara shares wonderfully human examples of how her team members are being flexible and resilient and working in extraordinary situations. I know that my team members are doing the same, and it’s a valuable reminder to me how important it is to regularly appreciate and acknowledge that effort.

Moving ahead, some organisations are returning to a mixture of adapted workplaces and remote working. Some workers may experience sustained anxiety regarding the health, economic, and job security consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s vital that employers and leaders continue to build environments that foster mental health, listen to the concerns of their people, and continue to talk about—and act—on mental health.

Overall, I was really struck by the vulnerability and honesty of Cengiz and Barbara’s conversation. It’s an illuminating listen and one that I hope you’ll take the time to sit with.

To learn more about supporting mental health in your organisation:

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