We know that GenZ is vociferous about mental health needs in the workplace, Millennials are likelier to have done them on their own time and out-of-pocket to benefit their performance, and then GenX has very different ideas.

Quite often, mental health looks like yet another initiative to check off the tickbox for HR purposes or an Away Day, because that’s what we all do now. And the truth is, sometimes there are benefits that are sustained.

More often than not, they aren’t sustained because we flame out, are a bad fit, or our brains and cultures aren’t ready for that yet. So it becomes yet another thing clogging the burgeoning obese To Do list. And we haven’t even gotten started on the things we need to do in our personal lives yet.

With these reasons in mind, it is hard for some GenX leaders to come on board.

And instead of pointing fingers at each other, perhaps we could all have the conversation differently. If we want our senior leaders and organisations to be receptive to mental health, then we need to be responsible about how we talk about it.

We need to practise real mental health.

1. We don’t blame and shame

We don’t call previous generations backwards just because they don’t get why we need more mental health initiatives, or even worse, how they may call future generations ‘snowflakes’. Name-calling gets us all nowhere.

And, every generation always sees the younger ones as more fragile anyway.

Consider the post-war generation having to rough it out in much less forgiving work cultures, often in an organisation for life, without our current options to move around. When we are used to tolerating and suffering through long hours of work and multiple rounds of burnout, it is hard to have empathy for those who can’t, and who instead waltz in demanding ‘better work conditions’.

For our senior leaders, it’s protective not to see the lack of mental health safeguards as a problem. Because what does it mean for them to acknowledge it? That they’ve been suffering unnecessarily? That they should suddenly look to heal their personal issues?

So unless a senior leader has had personal experience where life forced them to confront mental health interventions– whether personally or via a loved one’s distress– it is easier for them to ignore the problem, or say it’s not even a problem. . because it’s what everyone is going through anyway.

Empathy both ways can bring us closer to having an open discussion.

2. There’s plenty of talk about mental health that makes mental health care sound like a liability

Sometimes mental health is weaponised as an OB marker– i.e. there are people who hijack it, knowing that the absence of response to a mental health issue marks these non-responders as insensitive, unwoke, or politically incorrect.

At other times, if an hour-long mental health workshop only leads to short-lived– or worse still, zero– change, then it feels like a waste of time and money. We’re busy enough already. We’re spending too much already. Or, both.

And many of these workshops center around stress, anxiety and depression; someone preaching at you about the symptoms and the same ol’ same ol’ of ‘get social support’, ‘meditate and relax’, ‘seek help’, ‘talk about it’.. . without practical consideration of how it fits into one’s goals, lifestyle and personality. And much as promoting awareness is useful, too much talk around the same topics gets boring.

Mental health simply looks like the band aid towards the inevitable stressors of life, and if someone can drink, shop or work to numb the pain, sometimes they’d rather do that. (Note: These are real words uttered by real people).

Or, The Mental Health YoYo. This is not dissimilar to The Weight Loss YoYo. Here, you burn out, get a bit better, find better coping mechanisms, live in fear looking out for the next burnout, burnout again, ad infinitum.

What gives mental health an even worse name is. .

  • Entitlement: Shorthand for, ‘I’m an introvert/empath/[insert personality type], so I’m acting like an [asshole]’.
  • Whiny: Making it everyone else’s responsibility. Yes, cultures can be set up differently; we also have to play our part.
  • Sensationalised and fake news: Nod your head if you’ve been exposed to an onslaught of things like (1) You’ll have to suffer through and at best manage panic/trauma/anxiety forever (2) It only gets worse.

And if the above three are what’s getting traction in media and on social media, then who would want to sign up for mental health? I wouldn’t.

3. What’s so bad about talking about the bottomline?

When I was training to be a clinical psychologist in London, the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) scheme had just been rolled out. In the White Paper was the compelling case on how this had big economic payoffs.

There was some backlash on how this was only being done because it made sense from a numbers perspective– that it was cold and utilitarian.

But let’s not deny reality. We live in a world where we have no peace of mind if we don’t have financial fitness. Organisations– especially complex ones– see a lot of money coming in and out. Money talks.

And if money is what gets us started on helping us all to get mentally fit? Then I’m all for it.

We’ve all heard of absenteeism being a problem– meaning, your employees don’t come to work. Now, what costs you up to ten times more money is presenteeism, them showing up to work and not performing properly. In HK, BUPA estimates it to be HK$30m, and in Singapore Duke-NUS to be $12.1b. The Lancet estimates that this will cost $16tr globally by 2030; an estimated 12bn working days are lost due to mental illness every year.

Contrastingly, a 2020 report by Deloitte found that for every £1 you spend on mental health initiatives, you get £5 back, in the forms of less absence, less presenteeism and lower turnover. And, that preemptive measures trump reactive ones.

4. Let’s talk about mental health as an asset

Mental health is great for business.

Let’s think about it as a spectrum, from excellent mental fitness to being ‘okay’ to feeling ‘meh’ and then at levels where we cannot function.

This way, we can take the pulse of the team or organisation, and see where we’d like to go, and which gaps to bridge.

Let’s see mental health as something preemptive. Just as physical fitness protects against illness and decline, so does the mental counterpart. So instead of just reacting in a panic to depression or anxiety, we keep our levels of fitness high for as many days as we can every year; and we recover faster when needed.

Let’s create a culture where individuals are more inspired and feel safe to take care of their own mental health, because our personal issues– past, present and what we fear will happen in the future– bleed into our professional lives. Taking care of the professional supports the personal, and vice-versa. It helps the team, and the organisation. It promotes a culture where people are responsible too; and where people also take care of each other with boundaries. It’s a win-win-win.

5. Mental health- the cogs and wheels of culture

When you go into your home and tell Alexa to turn on the light, aircon and music, it can feel like magic. Except that there is an intricate network of invisible systems beneath your walls, ceilings and floor that are working, from wires to signals to pipes.

Here’s the same with an organisation.

Of course we care about bottomline, so we have jobs and can pay our bills, invest in our future, and have a little fun. We care about making shareholders happy. We want to be a worthy competitor (or even better, top tier).

And what drives that is people. Your main resource that ChatGPT and other forms of clever AI cannot replace, no matter their level of ‘sentience’.

And the invisible wires, signals and pipes. . that’s mental health.

In financial planning, sales teams have been moving away from just having salesy conversations, pushing any kind of closing, towards partnering with their clients to make the best aligned decisions. This requires asking better questions, developing EQ within themselves and for others, and more importantly, getting their headspace optimum.

Mental health is really about pushing for mental fitness beyond the old ways of doing things; these old ways work during good times but not during crises.

Because when we grow psychological capital– resilience, hope, optimism, self-efficacy– that’s where we all go further together, with longevity.

And so instead of seeing mental health as a liability, as something to be done out of fear, let’s respect it.

Let’s change the conversation.

Keen to build a real mental fitness culture in your organisation or team? Get in touch here.