Discussion Five ways businesses can think differently about mental health

by Andrew Naughtie _______10th June 2019

Mental health in the workplace has gone from a fringe idea to being mainstream and top of the agenda in the last few years. Work can be a source of support, meaning and positive mental health for many of us, but it can also cause us stress, burnout, and lead to mental ill health.

Our latest research and innovation work looks at mental health in the workplace, and aims to support organisations to consider mental health in a different way: as part of their business strategy, day-to-day management, and as something that can be hugely beneficial when done well. In today’s blog we’re highlighting some of the best books, videos and ideas that think are contributing to our research.


Jeffrey Pfeffer pulls no punches in his book Dying for a Paycheck, an excoriating account of what happens when companies don’t look after their employees. Stressed and exhausted, a worrying number of people are drinking, overeating and taking drugs to cope. Depression and other psychological conditions are on the rise. But even as employers wake up to the risks, many of them are missing the main problems and chasing the wrong solutions:

Employer efforts to build more enticing workplaces often focus on the wrong things – “trinkets” and perks that can be quickly implemented, rather than important dimensions of the workplace itself that are more challenging, but more important, to change.

Pfeffer discussed Dying for a Paycheck on the podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat. The episode is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, player.fm, and other platforms.


We’ve all heard of “burnout”, and many of us know all too well what it feels like. So how can we eradicate it? Dr Cristina Maslach literally wrote the book on burnout (in fact, she’s written several), and we’ve been digging into her work as we explore what employers can do about it. While there are a lot of colloquial definitions of burnout – it’s not the same as a “nervous breakdown” – Maslach has a tight one that employers and employees can use to recognise it when they see it:

A psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The point Maslach makes is that stress isn’t just about the individual – it happens in a social context, and it’s shaped by how we see ourselves and others as well as the organisation where we work.

Click here to watch her TED Talk, in which she explains how employers can identify burnout and what they can do to eliminate it.


Beyond preventing burnout, there are other helpful wellbeing measures that employers can take to safeguard their workers’ wellbeing. In an article for People Management Nicky Pattimore, group director of employee experience at City & Guilds Group, calls on British businesses to transform the way they support their employees’ mental health. She points out the well-known positive implications for productivity, but she also stresses that we shouldn’t just try to “financialise” the problem. Businesses have a duty to make their workplaces “psychologically safe” – and to do that, they have to make it clear to everyone whose job it is:

The first step employers need to take in prioritising mental health is simply to work out who in their business is accountable for handling any issues or risks. Whether it be HR, line managers or senior management – or a combination of all three – having clearly defined responsibilities will demonstrate that there is a strategy in place, and that mental health is an issue that matters to the business.”



Pointing to a badly dated 1999 article by the founder of Wired magazine titled “The Roaring Zeros“, Dan Lyons writes that the future of work has not turned out as hoped. We once expected to live in a semi-utopian world, one where all educated workers had fulfilling jobs that paid well with grand stretches of leisure time. Instead, many workers are unhappier than ever.

This isn’t just workload. As technologies and economies transform beyond recognition, some employers are unwittingly embracing practices and ideologies that don’t help workers’ mental health. When they notice that their people aren’t doing well, some of them make small, often cosmetic changes – changing an office layout, say – that can unintentionally create new psychological risks.

There’s a term for this: “unpredictable chronic mild stress”, which is caused by small but noticeable changes in our everyday environments. “It turns out that change itself really, really overwhelms people’s brains,” says Lyons, “and it does really bad things to people.” This is one of the key things we’ll explore in our work: when it comes to mental health, what kind of changes make a workplace psychologically safer instead of just disrupting it?

To learn more, click here to watch a video of Lyons’ recent talk at the RSA, or read his book, Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Makes People Miserable.


A lot has been done to erode stigma around mental illness – but sadly, we’re not there yet, and not everyone who takes a stand on mental health can count on their employer to back them all the way.

Robert Kazandjian, a teacher, recently wrote a piece in The Independent in which he described the mental health problems he’d faced and how they affected his work life. While he received an outpouring of support from readers, his school also told him he should remove the piece from social media and ask The Independent to take it down.

Kazandjian makes it clear he was able to get the help he needed, and that his school didn’t sack him. But his story is just another example from one extreme of the spectrum, where speaking out is discouraged because of the potential consequences for employers:

While mental health issues are common amongst education professionals, it’s clearly a taboo to approach our employers in seek of help. Are we afraid of negative judgement, being deemed weak and having our ability to do our job questioned? Do we worry that our employers will see it as a poor reflection of the school? Had I approached my employer and disclosed my issues before choosing to write about them, would they have given me a cuddle but told me to keep it quiet?

This is exactly the sort of thing that needs to change. If organisations can prove that they’re listening to their workers’ mental health concerns and doing all they can to make their workplaces psychologically safe, they’ll feel more comfortable when people speak out – and they’ll probably be comfortable taking ambitious actions where they’re needed.

Read more here: I wrote about my mental health and it cost me my job, Robert Kazandjian, The Independent