What does mental health have to do with companies?

Anna Triponel

October 7, 2022

Monday (October 10th) is World Mental Health Day. This is a day – initiated by the World Federation for Mental Health back in 1992 – to “raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health” (according to the World Health Organisation).

In short, this is a time to talk about mental health – so let’s talk about it. 

We have seen the topic of mental health come firmly to the fore in our work with companies as well as our conversations with peers. In our safe spaces with colleagues from around the world, we have seen mental health in the workplace become a salient human rights issue for a vast number of companies—from their own workforces, to their contractors and vendors, to workers in the supply chain. The workload is ever present, and increasing; resilience is low following the COVID pandemic; and stressors are high – costs of living, inflation etc. 

We also see a lot of confusion about mental health, and how this topic connects back to companies. The types of questions that we have been asked include: Where employees are facing their own personal mental health challenges, how can this be related to employers? Isn’t mental health going beyond the list of human rights topics that companies are asked to respect? What does mental health have to do with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?

Here, we describe some of the elements that have helped us in these discussions, to help you if these questions are coming up for you as well. 

Mental health is included in the bucket of rights that companies are expected to respect. Mental health is a component of the right to health, alongside physical health. Since companies are expected to respect the right to health throughout their business operations (according to the soft law captured in the UNGPs – and increasingly a number of national laws), they are also expected to respect the right to mental health of their own employees, and consider how it can be impacted in their value chains. 

  • ‘The right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’ was first articulated in the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO preamble defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This ‘right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’ (right to health) became international law in 1966 in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
  • In March 2016, 73 States issued a joint statement to highlight the centrality of mental health for the full realization of the right to health. We have seen this holistic approach to health – bringing mental and physical health together – solidify over the past few years. The way of thinking about it is that (1) there is no health without mental health; and (2) good mental health means much more than the absence of a mental impairment. For instance, a 2019 report by D. Pūras, former Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health, stated that good mental health and well-being cannot be defined by the absence of a mental health condition, but must be defined instead by the social, psychosocial, political, economic and physical environment that enables individuals and populations to live a life of dignity, with full enjoyment of their rights and in the equitable pursuit of their potential.

The conversation is rapidly evolving, from focusing solely on pre-existing mental health conditions, to recognising the effect work can have on everyone’s mental health. This in turn is resulting in meaningful conversations about the workplace factors that may be contributing to poor mental health in the workplace. 

  • There are a number of workplace factors that can impact on mental health of employees. 
  • According to the World Health Organisation, in its recently launched Guidelines on Mental Health at Work, there are ten categories of risk factors for poor mental health: (1) content and design of work tasks; (2) workload and work pace; (3) work schedule; (4) control over workload and decision-making; (5) working environment and adequate equipment; (6) organisational culture and function; (7) nature of interpersonal relationships are work; (8) an individual’s role in the organisation; (9) career development; and (10) work-life balance. 
  • A recent survey by Mind Share Partners (based on responses from 1,500 U.S. adults in full-time jobs) found four workplace factors that impacted mental health the most significantly: (1) emotionally draining (e.g., stressful, overwhelming, boring, monotonous) work (37%); (2) challenges with work-life balance (32%); (3) lack of recognition for the work they did (25%); and (4) poor communication practices (24%). 

When it comes to actions to take, the name of the game is to lean in to tackle these workplace factors, rather than designing quick fixes that don’t go to the heart of the problem. 

In our safe space conversations, people share with us their frustration when their employers speak about ‘wellbeing’ and ‘work-life balance’, all while increasing the list of to-dos, creating shorter and shorter deadlines, crafting leaner and leaner teams, and designing strict performance indicators. Measures such as yoga memberships, or counselling apps, or even flexi-work, can only go so far, if companies are not meaningfully considering the working environment, the work culture, and the way the business operates – and how these impact mental health. Meaningful discussions we’ve been part of on this topic include discussions related to empowering professionals; creating safe spaces for workers to raise issues on an ongoing basis without fear of retaliation; paying a living wage; reducing workload and work pressures; increasing autonomy and flexibility; and fully embracing diversity, equality and inclusion. 

Here at Human Level, we have our own responsibility as an employer of a growing team. 

As a boutique advisory services firm, specialised in areas which by their very nature are challenging to work on – human rights and climate – we have identified mental health as our highest priority salient human rights issue. Our Code of Conduct delves into mental health and wellbeing, alongside other areas of respect for human rights; respect for planet; and diversity, equity and inclusion. We recognise in our code that we work on challenging topics, sometime with tight timeframes, and that our approach is that employees should always come first. We delve into working hours, working structure and deep work time, and we acknowledge that we can extend deadlines for client deliverables, take time off work and re-prioritise projects. Today, as I write this, we closed our office to acknowledge and celebrate World Mental Health Day, and make space for joyful activities that replenish and rejuvenate us. With an estimated 15% of working-age adults having a mental disorder at any point in time (WHO), and the number of workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety increasing by the year (HSE), we don’t have any other choice than to acknowledge and face this topic head on.

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