Making the boardroom case for mental health at work

November 11, 2020

There’s no shortage of HR professionals eager to promote better wellbeing, and better mental health at work. But all too often, it can feel like making the case to the boardroom – especially from a financial perspective – is the hardest part.

At Mad World 2020, I had the pleasure of speaking to Jonny Jacobs, an award-winning finance professional who feels passionately about the role of mental fitness in the workplace

Prior to his current appointment as Finance Director at Starbucks, Jonny drove the Employee Mental Health & Wellbeing initiative, which led to the national “Let’s Talk” partnership between McVitie’s and Mind. So you can imagine how eager I was to ask for his advice on how HR can make the boardroom case for mental health initiatives in the workplace.

Top tips on getting your case heard by the board

Jonny has been the man to lead the charge with many mental fitness initiatives in the past. And there’s a reason I’m calling it mental fitness, which I’ll explain a little later. But needless to say that if you’re trying to get your case heard by the board, Jonny’s advice is well worth paying attention to.

1. Don’t assume the board knows what you know

One of the first lessons Jonny learned about making the case to the board, was to never assume that they have the same level of understanding as you.

“I used to assume that everybody knew what I knew,” he told me. “I thought everybody knew that mental health was a problem that needed solving. But they don’t. You have to start by learning what they already know – get their experience, and their context, and from there you can work out your route in.”

You see, while mental health awareness is certainly on the rise, not everybody realises how serious a topic it is. And not everybody realises that we all have a part to play.

2. Don’t reach for the calculator straight away

You’d be forgiven for thinking that just because you’re making a case to your finance director, you need to immediately start presenting your projected ROI. Sure, it’s a conversation that you probably want to have at some point – but it certainly shouldn’t be your opening gambit.

“I don’t like to reach straight for the calculator as my first and only focus” said Jonny. “What I’d rather do first, is win the moral argument.”

There is plenty of time to talk about the financial side of things once your stakeholders understand the importance of encouraging positive mental health at work. 

3. Talk about the problems you’re trying to solve

Just because you don’t start talking money straight away, it doesn’t mean you can’t use facts, figures and evidence as part of your argument. In fact, you absolutely should.

“Talk in detail about the problems you’re hoping to solve” advised Jonny. “If you look at something like your pulse survey results, or your net promoter scores, and you can link that to mental fitness, then that’s likely to hit the boardroom with some impact.”

And if you’re not pushing out pulse surveys yet, then maybe you should be. Further reading: What is the point of pulse surveys?

4. Use positive language

The very phrase “mental health” can have a challenging stigma attached to it, which people may struggle to associate with anything other than negativity. Jonny told me that he tries to overcome this by changing some of his language for more positive alternatives.

For example, instead of talking about the importance of “mental health”, he likes to promote the idea of “mental fitness” – he says it’s a term people seem to get to grips with a little easier.

“One individual I spoke to was really into sport,” he told me. “Boxing, football, you name it. They couldn’t quite grip the idea of everybody having ‘mental health’ – it was a phrase associated too strongly with mental illness. But when I started talking about it in terms of, for example, having the right positive mindset before a game or a match, we suddenly connected.”

5. Find your hooks and anchors

When you do eventually start talking about numbers, you should be aware that people in the boardroom might not necessarily connect mental health with certain areas of business that have a big impact on the company’s bottom line. 

Jonny says you should look for areas of the business where this connection can be made.

“There are plenty of hooks and anchors you can use” he explained. “Presenteeism, productivity, engagement… imagine if you could get your boardroom thinking about the difference a 3% increase in productivity might make, when applied across your entire payroll. 3% is a small improvement to make on an individual level, but can have a massive financial impact on the business as a whole.”

Jonny says that it is all part of connecting the micro to the macro. It’s all too easy to look at the impact of poor mental health at a micro individual level, while looking at business performance at a macro company-wide level. Connecting the two is important if you want to encourage buy-in for your mental health and wellbeing initiatives.

Using a three-step strategy to plan your timeline

Mental ill-health is a real, pressing concern that exists right now – it doesn’t hang around until we can schedule our next quarterly review, or embark on a drawn-out journey of paperwork and bureaucracy. But Jonny is quick to add that while we all want to get it done as quickly as possible, it can take years to shift a culture – so expecting instant results might be counter-productive. 

Instead, Jonny recommends focusing on this easy three-step strategy to help manage your timeline:

  1. Assess your situation. Ask yourself where you are at right now, and who are the key stakeholders who will enable to you make change.
  2. Find your hook. You need a way to get it onto the agenda – use the tips listed above, but realise that there is not a one-glove-fits-all solution.
  3. Plan your initiatives. Only after you understand what you’re dealing with, and you’ve found your best route in, should you start planning your initiatives that will help you promote better mental health at work.

To see what else I learned at Mad World 2020, you might want to read my previous article: HR’s continued role in mental health and wellbeing.

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