When it comes to mental health strategy in the workplace, I genuinely believe that it all comes back to a simple question that we need to ask in the beginning of its inception.

What is the problem we are trying to solve, and who is this going to help?

As covered in my last article, we began to understand how to build a mental health workplace strategy by using the complete model of mental health. That is, to understand that there are four key quadrants that your employees can be sitting within at any point in time, and that your employees will shift and move between these quadrants throughout their employee life cycle.

When you begin thinking about mental health in the workplace, you might begin by thinking straight away about some ideas of initiatives that you’ve seen another company do, and that you can begin delivering in your own workplace. This is what I call the photocopy approach. We see what other companies are doing, and we take a photocopy of that, and roll out the exact copy in our organisations — not paying attention to what that initiative is going to achieve and who it is going to impact. What this creates for mental health workplace strategies are approaches that are inauthentic and lack strategic direction.

Typically, when we think about mental health initiatives, the first things that comes to mind are wellness initiatives, EAP (employee assistance program), and more commonly in recent times, mental health first aiders. We simply go “OK, company X is doing that, so we will do the same.”

But, in this process, what we fail to acknowledge is that A) our workplaces could be entirely different, B) the bigger problem — nobody has stopped to think who are these initiatives actually helping, and if they are so useful, then why are they so underutilised in our workplaces? Why is that we have such a low uptake of EAP, or that nobody actually ever calls one of our expensively trained mental health first aiders?

Because we did not ask the right questions.

What is the problem we are trying to solve, and who is this going to help?

The Four Quadrants

If we think about the complete model of mental health, as we’ve mentioned, there are four quadrants of where any one employee could sit…

1) Those without a mental illness with have good mental health

2) Those without a mental illness who have poor mental health

3) Those with a mental illness who have good mental health

4) Those with a mental illness with have poor mental health

By considering each initiative and how it may support (or hinder) a person in each different quadrant, it is possible to broaden our thinking a little to consider whether a program will have a real impact, and if so, what is the impact is it having. By asking this question, repetitively and consistently throughout the process of strategy and program formulation, it can help you to avoid falling down the route of running a workplace program that simply ticks a box; and, instead, can help you understand where in the continuum that the program of work that you’re developing is going to be addressing.

Let’s think of an example.

Let’s say you are thinking of delivering mental health first aider training to X number of employees or leaders, it will cost the business Y number of dollars, and from a pricing perspective, it will be the main investment of the business due to a high cost of training. To understand the initiative and the cost to value perspective, you can begin to ask questions, such as,

  1. What problem are we trying to solve by training our employees to be mental health first aiders?
  2. Which quadrants will gain a benefit from having mental health first aiders? What is that benefit?
  3. What are the barriers that exist for a targeted employee to access mental health first aiders?
  4. And, if they were to access them, what will be the outcomes be in reaching out to a mental health first aider? I.e. Looping back to what problems have we solved and what does success look like?

When we think about an initiative like mental health first aiders, we get excited by the idea of putting people through training, showcasing them on our internal intranet, that we really fail to acknowledge the questions that need to be asked to understand if it will work. In this example, where many companies fall down is failing to acknowledge the barriers that exist between a person actually struggling and that of reaching out to a mental health first aider. As someone who has experienced mental health conditions my whole life, if I am being completely honest, the last person I’d called if I was unwell at work, would be a stranger’s name that I’ve picked off on a list of names that sits on the portal or above a printer at the office.

What we do by asking these questions above, it challenges us to really think about what we are trying to achieve in a different way, so that we can develop strategies that are specific to our workforce. In turn, this will help us figure out where the resources and efforts need to go, based on the greatest needs, and whether the initiatives are delivered in a way that will work together in creating an impact for the person in each quadrant of mental health.

This means that your strategy can be formulated in a way that is still focusing on a wellbeing lens, aiming to ensure that your “flourishing” employees remain flourishing, but also addressing those who are not doing so well. The key benefit of working from the complete model of mental health is that we can make real, tangible, and genuine efforts in addressing mental health in the workplace that drives action and an impact to those that need it the most, by asking the simplest of questions…

What is the problem we are trying to solve, and who is this going to help?

Follow to stay tuned for the next article in The Hard Truth newsletter as we cover all things mental health and the workplace.

Camille Wilson is the founder of Grow Together Now. Camille speaks at conferences and workplaces to change the way we see mental health. Sign up for additional content here.