Mental health – a competitive advantage in a demanding workplace

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We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times. For those in the working world that is compounded by the workplace expecting more from their people – doing more with less; being always on through technology; driving efficiencies through cost cutting; and facing and dealing with a much more demanding customer or consumer.

These times are having a profound effect upon the wellbeing of employees across all sectors. I equate wellbeing to the ‘energy’ of people, which I believe is the most limiting resource in the working world today – not money, people or services and products, but people who are just tired and worn out! This assertion is being played out in the rising incidence of depression and anxiety in the workplace.

The business cost of ill mental health

According to the The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, the total cost of staff mental health problems to UK employers is estimated to be around £26 billion each year, the equivalent to £1,035 for every employee across the UK. Additional costs to UK businesses include:

  • £8.4 billion a year in sickness absence

  • £15.1 billion a year due to reduced productivity at work

  • £2.4 billion a year due to replacing staff who leave their jobs due to mental ill health

Research and case studies focusing upon workplace wellbeing interventions suggest that addressing employee mental health may be the single most effective tool to reduce absenteeism, presenteeism, staff replacement and loss of productivity.

The ‘Mental Health Promotion in the Workplace’ report states that for every 80p spent on workplace health promotion and intervention programmes, £4 can be saved in reduced absenteeism, temporary staff, presenteeism and improved motivation.

The workplace has lost its sense of humanity. It has expected employees to leave their personality and humanness at the door as they walk through it.

Literature and case study reviews by PwC revealed that return on investment in terms of a benefit-cost ratio for wellness programmes to be £4.17 for every £1 spent.

Research from the University of Warwick, involving 700 participants, has demonstrated a link between employee happiness and productivity at work, with happiness resulting in a 12% spike in productivity; conversely, the research found that unhappy staff were, on the whole, 10% less productive.

The importance of employee happiness, employer support and job satisfaction are easily overlooked within workplaces. However, the researchers draw attention to their importance, stating that employee satisfaction at Google rose by 37% following company investment in employee support.

Employees are seeking companies who value wellbeing

Support for employee wellbeing is increasingly becoming a required offering by employers. In fact, the 2016 Nutrition & Health Foundation Survey of nearly 1,000 employees revealed that:

  • 7 in 10 are highly likely to stay with employers interested in their wellbeing 

  • 1 in 2 would consider leaving employers who don’t support their personal wellbeing

  • 35% considered a company’s workplace wellbeing programme as an important factor when choosing a new employer

The recent Farmer Stevenson 2017 report suggests that some of the above figures could be even more - the annual cost to employers is now between £33 and £42 billion and to the governemnet between £24 and £27 billion. The overall cost to the economy is estimated to be between £74 and £99 billion through lost output.

How do organisations – big, medium, small and across all sectors – address this issue, and why would they?

We need to view wellbeing as a key driver of business performance. Organisations with high levels of employee wellbeing have outperformed the market by 2-3% over a 25-year period, according to Professor Alex Edmans, London Business School.

This should not be a surprise, as we all know what it is like to work with people who are highly energised, versus those who have the ability to suck all energy from us.

Energy should be seen as important as skills, knowledge, behaviours and experience in driving the performance of people, and organisations need to find ways to include this as a key component of their performance and development programmes.

Learning to have a development conversation about an employee’s energy level as part of their performance or development plan should become a critical capability of line managers and coaches who all support organisations in the development of their people.

This seems so obvious, so why have we not done this?

This is because the workplace has lost its sense of humanity. It has expected employees to leave their personality and humanness at the door as they walk through it.

You cannot talk about ‘the personal’ at work, yet organisations more and more are creating a perceived expectation of being always on, 24/7, and so encroach on the personal time of employees.

For too long we have invested in the safety and physical health of employees. Now is the time to give as much attention and investment to the mental wellbeing of people in an ever increasing knowledge economy.

The line between personal and work is very blurred during these anxious and demanding times, and by beginning to speak and engage in conversations about the whole person – i.e. their physical, emotional, mental purpose or meaning  – we are starting to bring the humanness back into organisations.

And yes, this has clear benefits to enhancing individual and organisational performance, but more importantly it is just the right thing to be doing at a time when we need a moral compass to drive the behaviour of organisations.

We invest in protecting employees’ safety and physical health. What about mental health?

The stigma surrounding mental wellbeing has also prevented line managers, coaches and mentors to address this aspect of wellbeing. It is therefore more and more important that organisations address the stigma linked to mental health through educating their employees on depression, anxiety and stress: what are the symptoms to look out for? And what is my role as a line manager in supporting someone who may be ill or showing symptoms of depression and anxiety?

For too long we have invested in the safety and physical health of employees. Now is the time to give as much attention and investment to the mental wellbeing of people in an ever increasing knowledge economy.

Leaders have, for years, engaged and advocated for the safety of their employees, they have invested millions to create safe workplaces.

The time has come for leaders to show the same levels of advocacy, engagement and investment in the health of their people, in particular their mental health. In turn, this will enhance the wellbeing of their employees, resulting in higher levels of energy and improved performance.


About Geoff McDonald


“You are indeed the biggest champion and understand what we are doing more than many others in the company. You live it and breath it. To now make the knowledge available to many others, and hopefully create the momentum for biggest change is a very noble cause. Thanks for doing that. Purpose is indeed closely linked to wellness and not many people see this yet. Again you are a pioneer here. You will enjoy the challenges and opportunities and you are well prepared for it. We will see each other still but already thanks for all you have done for this great institution. We will benefit from it for years to come” (Paul Polman, CEO Unilever, June 2014 – on leaving Unilever).

Geoff’s background in teaching, HR, marketing, communications and sustainability is considerable. During his 25 years with Unilever (a global corporation with a turnover of £50 billion, 170,000 employees in 90 countries around the world), his experience has been truly global working across Africa Middle-East and Turkey, Australasia and Asia, Europe and the Americas.

His HR experience has spanned leadership and talent development, organization change, capability development, with particular reference to marketing, and business transformation with purpose at its core. Early in his career he was responsible for graduate recruitment and development, talent, acquisitions and development across Unilever’s emerging markets. Under his leadership he developed Unilever’s global talent and leadership center of expertise. More recently he has devoted his time, energy and effort to leading ground breaking work where the HR function has played a central role in transforming Unilever’s business model with purpose at its core.

Today Geoff is a very much sought after speaker, inspiring and provoking Organizations to put purpose and wellbeing at the center of everything they do. His experience in Unilever, under the pupilage of Paul Polman, allows him to provide very practical insights and speak on how to go about truly embedding PURPOSE and address the taboo associated with wellbeing (particularly mental health) within a large global multi-national Organization. With this experience come some real learning’s on what may or may not work. He recently had the opportunity to engage with Pope Francis on how we create a more sustainable and inclusive economy through his work with the Global Foundation.

He has spoken at Cambridge, Oxford, Bologna, Warwick Universities as well as corporate events across Australia, Europe, Japan, North America, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

Geoff is devoting a significant amount of time consulting to Organizations, helping them define and embed Purpose as a driver of growth and profitability. He was recently appointed as strategic advisor to the Global PR and Communications firm Burson Marsteller in the area of Corporate Purpose and Organization Change. He too consults on how to address the stigma linked to depression and anxiety in the workplace, with a particular emphasis on raising awareness of these issues and providing some practical strategies as to how one might go about addressing this growing modern illness.

Geoff is a very active campaigner for breaking the stigma associated with Mental Health in the Corporate world and has participated in a number of BBC programs and campaigns regards this subject, as well as writing of articles for Huffington Post, FT and HR related journals. He previously convened a meeting with David Cameron and CEOs from Footsie 100 Companies to address their role and agree actions to break stigma in the corporate world. He too provided some support the Royal Foundation (Prince William, Harry and Kate) in their mental health campaign. He was recently appointed as a Trustee of Family Links, a Charity promoting and educating parents and teachers to develop emotionally healthy children and young adults. He is also a trustee of the Global Campaign It’s a Penalty- combatting the exploitation of young children around the world.

Geoff is married with two girls and loves the outdoors, he is a passionate cyclist and swimmer and has completed a number of ultra cycling and swimming events.

Topics that Geoff speaks to and Advises on include:

*Bipolar world of business – profit and purpose

*Leadership for the new normal

*Wellbeing and mental health in Corporates – how to break the stigma and put wellbeing at the centre of how you grow your business, attract and retain talent

*HR’s role in embedding purpose within an organisation the size, scale and complexity of Unilever

*The Unilever story of purpose driving growth and profitability

*The challenge facing educators and young people in preparing pupils/students/themselves to achieve their employment ambitions in a very competitive world - how to meet this challenge



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