What HR is thinking about Mental Health today

Findings from an evening of dinner and conversation among HR leaders. 

The Minds@Work Movement is not alone in thinking that much can be done to enshrine mental health in the working world; defining best practice, getting it on the corporate agenda, pushing for change. That’s certainly what we found in June when we spent an evening with a range of leading HR executives — CHROs, directors, VPs and heads of talent — hosted by global executive search and leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart.

The aim of the evening was to better understand the concerns shared by the HR community and senior leaders across a range of sectors, including banking and finance, retail, education, legal, media and logistics. And it was a productive, stimulating and energising evening.

While there is still a mountain to climb relating to mental health in the workplace there is also cause for optimism. We heard how the Board of a major FTSE100 had invested significant time and energy discussing the mental health, workload and work-life balance of its internal CEO candidates during a succession planning exercise. We also gained a clear sense that this topic is “the next big thing” and that there are is “a potential tsunami of mental health issues” in corporate life. We also acknowledged that while the UK, Canada and Australia are making progress, the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health remains and many corporates are “in the dark ages”.

What follows is a summary of the key themes, anecdotes and points of interest that emerged over the course of an inspiring evening:

Reporting of mental health issues is problematic

The stigma around speaking out about mental health issues in the workplace is deep. Companies offer mental health support, yet few people use it. Employee engagement surveys fail to ask about mental health or wellbeing. Employees are often sophisticated in hiding their difficulties, or may simply be blind to them. Breakdowns can happen with no apparent warning.

HR can often be the last to know when an employee is suffering. Those organisations that are making progress in this area have done so when a leader discussed mental health directly with the organisation and started a “big conversation”. Several anecdotes regarding internal blogs and intranet activity going “off the charts” when mental health was addressed made it clear that when the topic is raised many people feel they have “permission” to discuss it openly.

Reporting also works upwards — but we heard that there is no accepted best practice for executives to feed back to their ExCo or Board about employee mental health issues. Well-rounded executives may understand well the problems posed by such reporting, but delivering the information upwards can be challenging.

This led the group to identify a degree of “stress-reporting paralysis”. When problems arise with a direct report, peer or colleague, many executives are not equipped to deal with the potential impact. People often worry deeply about legal ramifications of “saying the wrong thing”. A gap in many executives’ skills is that of active listening and reassurance. Education and progress in this area is needed.

Stress has been normalised

It was widely agreed that companies everywhere now expect staff to do more with less — working longer hours and often weekends to the detriment of work-life balance. This naturally hinders wellbeing, yet, as one senior leader remarked candidly, “our business couldn’t survive with people only working nine to five”.

Leaders themselves may nurture resilience— asking, are you OK? How are you feeling? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you taking your weekends off? Yet the same leaders may not always be able (or willing) to lead by example. The group recognised that the current generation of executives are the first that cannot escape the “always on” culture. The proliferation of mobile devices, global connectivity, social media and expectations of immediate responses is deeply impactful. Many were concerned that our current way of working is unsustainable and unbalanced, making “wellness” an aspiration rather than a way of life.

We also heard that in some cultures “reputation is a big part of how success is achieved”. Hence aspiring leaders often do not speak out about their own or others’ mental health issues for fear of being stigmatised. Many feel that they are not able to lead by example, even if they wish to.

Thus a tension exists between wishing to do good for the wider corporate ecosystem and safeguarding one’s own path; a tension that can be extrapolated to business at large: seeking to be profitable while also caring for employees.

A key question is whether we can break away from legacy behaviours. Doing so may require a short-term hit. It seems that change can either be driven top-down from the leadership, or may be pushed for bottom-up by employees — millennials in particular — opting out of corporate practices that prevent good mental health and happiness. This requires a consensus in large organisations that something has to change, joining hands to make the move together but recognizing that there is always a risk for the first mover.

Burning out millennials

Graduate burn rate

We discussed that some businesses still hire bright graduates and work them to the bone. Inevitably some will burn out — we heard that some companies view that as a natural filter, sieving out those who will not survive. This is an unpleasant way of doing business that everyone present felt has no place in today’s society.

The paradox of millennials

Burdened with debt and pressured to start earning, millennials fear not getting ahead and building a career, yet at the same time are assertive with big demands regarding work-life balance and high expectations as employees. Social media has helped millennials to be comfortable talking about their emotions, yet the demands of that same social media also cause them anxiety.

How then to deal with those who are the future of the workforce? One leader said she worried that millennials who have “fallen down” will not get up again — and often they gave no sign at all of suffering on the path to breakdown.

None of us felt we had the answer to the challenges and opportunities at hand with millennials. But we all agreed that what had worked for previous generations would not work now and that we must listen hard and shrug off some of our own prejudices. The stereotypical millennial outlook that executives’ lives, weighed down with stress and anxiety and hence not worth aspiring to, received some sympathy around our tables. But there was also a level of concern that we may be losing some of the brightest and best future leaders before their careers are underway.

Moving towards solutions

Starting a big conversation

Those businesses that have begun to discuss mental health openly, thoughtfully and positively found that simply by beginning a big conversation new issues came to light, colleagues felt more comfortable sharing their challenges and a sense of progress was created.


It’s clear that most executives feel poorly equipped to have a direct conversation about mental health. In a conversation that requires real humanity many leaders are frightened of potential legal ramifications, “getting it wrong” or uncomfortable with the intimacy of discussing such a sensitive topic. Learning how to discuss mental health — without having to euphemise the topic to “efficiency” or “resilience” — is crucially important.


Getting enough sleep is critical to mental hygiene. Everyone agrees on this and the science supports it. But what is often missed is the idea of recovery — taking time out during the day for regular breaks and a mental refresh.

A diverse approach

Many of those present agreed that a policy on mental health interventions, support and care must be holistic and sustained. Best practice is still yet to emerge. But there is clearly a desire to share our progress and our challenges and move forward collectively.


There was plenty of debate around this topic, including the idea of a corporate mental health index. Predictive analytics may be getting better at supporting interventions, but at present the data points with which to talk about mental health are limited. While making the “business case” for mental health support is necessary in some corporate cultures, most agreed that “doing the right thing” takes precedent over return on investment.

This conversation shed much light on where contemporary leading HR practice intersects with mental health in the workplace. But it is only a starting point. With Spencer Stuart we are committed to accelerating positive change, by joining the dots and disseminating a wealth of thought, expertise and vision where it counts.