Content warning: This article discusses suicide.

Jack(*) was a nice, reserved and quiet person. He was doing his job conscientiously and did not seem to be overwhelmed by the workload. Always on time and with a friendly smile on his face, Jack was a long-term and dutiful employee in the company, where I was head of HR back then. Only a few colleagues vaguely knew Jack was having some family issues, but he did not talk about them. One day, we learned that Jack died of suicide.

He jumped from a high bridge in a deserted area. Everybody in the company was shocked. Blaming himself for not having recognised red flags in Jack’s behaviour, his manager required special psychological support. At Jack’s funeral mess, we tearfully listened to Jack’s suicide letter, and only then did we learn how much he suffered in silence, the problems and dilemmas he went through and the tragic decision he took to quit his life. It was too late to do anything.

Much time has passed since then. Lives and careers have changed. I transitioned into psychology and counselling, leaving the jungles of the corporate world behind. What has not changed is the way our societies deal with the everlasting stigma surrounding mental health.

Mental health and distress

Mental health issues have always been a problem, which many people struggle with, often alone and in silence like Jack. According to the latest Swiss Job-Stress-Index report, the situation is worsening. Three out of ten employees are experiencing stress they cannot cope with, and one-third of the working population is emotionally exhausted.

One of the most widespread stress-related issues for the working population is an occupational phenomenon of burnout, which is often of a complex nature. Frontline health care professionals are particularly exposed to distress: according to a study by InCrowd, almost 80% of primary care physicians are burned out. For physicians, the term of moral injury rather than burnout is increasingly and pointedly used.

Physicians have to be always available, handle ever-increasing administrative work, deal with a lack of time for patient care, and be continuously exposed to the situations on the brink of life and death. They are also constantly exposed to the dilemma of being squeezed between the systemic push for profit and patient care. As Dr Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, said, medicine is a calling, not a business. It has to be focused on treating people instead of saving money.

Mental health issues are too sensitive to talk over with colleagues or managers. Moreover, many people are afraid to do so fearing that admitting a problem and talking about their mental health may lead to being fired. The evidence supports this: 30% of the participants of the US Paychex study reported about that. This is just an example from the US. Many more people suffer from such fears worldwide, where cultural attitudes towards mental health strongly vary. Not recognising or ignoring mental distress could have fatal consequences, as Jack’s story and the evidence provided by the INSEAD Professor Kets de Vries show.

Talking the language of money and productivity, mental health issues like depression cost companies around USD 44 billion in lost productivity annually. This kind of language impresses but also deceives: it is a dead-end to regard mental health purely as another investment or saving because humans and their health are not a commodity. In fact, the compulsion of productivity is believed to be one of the main threats to mental health.

The second wave and the long-wave

The pandemic has led to a significant increase in these problems. According to a report of the American Psychological Association, adverse mental health effects of the coronavirus will be severe and long-lasting. Moreover, the pandemic crisis represents the greatest threat to mental health since WWII, as said Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK.

A study of the British Office for National Statistics further reveals that one in five adults have been experiencing depression during the pandemic, which is twice as high as before. One in eight adults has moderate to severe depressive symptoms as a result of the pandemic.

In the US Paychex study, more than half of the respondents reported worsening of their mental health during the pandemic. Further latest reports like those by Korn Ferry and The Guardian indicate the second waves coming: the wave of burnouts and the wave of long Covid with the symptoms of chronic fatigue, sleep abnormalities, concentration problems, and dizziness.

Along with the pandemic related personal and professional overload, health, economic and job-related fears overwhelm and contribute to the development of burnouts.

What to do and what to mind: mind the pitfall of corporate wellness

Mental health issues cannot be countered by work-sponsored social activities and wellness initiatives that became fashionable during the last decade. Mindfulness, resilience, and wellbeing training are booming within corporations being sold by the trillion-dollar wellness industry representatives often without any education in a mental health profession.

Drained of its Buddhist origins, corporate McMindfulness, the term coined by Professor Purser, aims to calm down employees, their critical thinking and impose positivity rather than addressing mental health issues, encouraging a change of the system and root causes. Besides, mindfulness is not a panacea for all mental health issues and can have serious adverse effects like increased anxiety, depression or psychosis.

Another widespread practice of engaging mental health ambassadors, first aiders or coaches without any profound training in psychology, counselling and psychotherapy is missing the mark. A new hype of 'manifestation' or constructing one's reality through controlling thoughts, feelings and imposed positivity, reinforces the illusion of neoliberal postulate to bear the whole blame for one's health.

Instead, organisations should rely on qualified, trusted mental health professionals in dealing with their employees' mental health issues, who could use them confidentially and for free. Providing employees with qualified and confidential mental health support would significantly enhance their employees’ wellbeing, their experience and thus engagement with the company, which would take its social responsibility seriously. Besides, it could prevent or decrease absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace.

The fish rots from the head or fix the system first

However, mental health issues can seldom be solved just on the individual level. It is crucial to address the system they develop in: as Alexander Den Heijer said, if the flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.

Leadership directly affects organisational culture, and the way employees' mental health is dealt with. Leadership behaviours have to be critically assessed. Do your leaders openly speak about their mental health and show empathy and understanding towards others?

Do they frequently work late hours, send emails late at night, and work on weekends, promoting workaholic behaviours? Do they micromanage discouraging creativity and experimentation? Do they hardly tolerate any mistake, tend to yell and bully encouraging similar behaviour and spreading around fear and dread? Are your leaders obsessed with short-term profit and shareholder value and would stop at nothing to achieve it?

Such leaders may demonstrate narcissistic, Machiavellian or psychopathic behaviours, the so-called Dark Triad of personality. Such personality traits are more often represented in influential top management roles than in the general population.

This is unsurprising, as such leaders may appear incredibly charismatic, determined and assertive, able to deceive many people initially and get what they want at any price. Suppose that is the case in your organisation. In that case, it will be almost inevitable to fire these leaders, as people with such personality traits seldom admit having a problem and wanting to change.

Leaving things (and leaders) unchanged would encourage similar behaviour across the organisation, endanger its future, impair financial results, and further deteriorate employees’ mental health, which no wellness initiative or breathing exercise will fix.

Consider mental health issues a normality, not an exception

Actively addressing mental health issues contributes to the decrease of stigma and biases still surrounding these topics. According to the WHO, these issues are much more common than it may seem: one in four people worldwide is affected by mental health issues during their lives.

Unfortunately, stigmatisation and dividing people into 'normal' and “sick” is still prevailing, whereas normality is a highly controversial notion. Stigma manifests itself already in the language: the conventional expression “commit suicide” implies a crime. It starts with the language that matters as it both affects and reflects attitudes. As a result of stigmatisation, people feel uncomfortable to talk about their mental health problems at work: more than half of all respondents of the Paychex survey admitted that.

Be mindful, not McMindful

If we leave the situation unchanged, corporations will keep on celebrating world mental health day, mental health awareness week and alike for promotional purposes. People will continue keeping a stiff upper lip, hiding behind positivity and trying harder to cope as Jack did.

Sadly, it is still associated with being professional. An employee who does not fit into a box is often labelled as unprofessional. We have to break this vicious circle and walk the talk of humanity and compassion. We need to take time for each other, offer real help and be mindful of each other, not McMindful. Only then will we prevent others from following Jack’s fate and change the status quo.

(*) The name was changed for privacy purposes.

Natalia Braun, MSc, CCISM