Transforming culture for mental health

In the first two articles we published on company culture, we discussed how company culture and a mental health-friendly workplace are inextricably connected and offered suggestions for policies and practices you can adopt to foster a stronger culture. 

Experts define company culture as the expression of a system of shared values, social norms and symbols, and attitudes that influence how participants within an organization make decisions, act, and feel. Culture manifests in both basic assumptions—i.e., patterns of orientation and behavior, values, norms, and standards of conduct—as well as in certain artifacts, practices, or symbols. 

There are numerous models for dissecting and understanding culture and, accordingly, numerous strategies for engaging in culture transformation. Models can be helpful for gaining an academic understanding of the topic, however, rarely does any company culture fit neatly into a template that can be tackled with a fixed method. More commonly, businesses are mixtures of different elements, yielding cultures as distinct as fingerprints. This means there’s simply no one-size-fits-all approach for culture change. 

So how can you define and grasp the unique workings of your company culture? And even if you manage that—given that there is no benchmark—what steps can you take to ensure you create and maintain a workplace where YOUR people can thrive? 

As mental health aficionados, we know how important it is to recognize one’s limits, so we’re passing the microphone over to our colleagues and occasional collaborators, SHITSHOW, to address these questions. SHITSHOW are experts in the field of culture transformation. Working as consultants, they empower companies, organizations, and people to integrate mental health into their professional and personal lives. 

In the course of their work, SHITSHOW has identified three dominant mental health culture types. These three types differ fundamentally in regard to the nature of the beliefs and convictions about mental health circulating in the company, how often mental health is openly discussed, and which stakeholders are involved in the culture transformation to be more mental health-friendly.

Below you’ll find an overview of each of the three types. Keeping in mind that each culture has its own unique character, you may not immediately recognize your own organization here, nevertheless, there will probably be similarities in general tendencies. If you are an HR- or other team-leader looking to convince C-level of the urgency of addressing mental health at a company-wide level (or continuing to do so), these descriptions can serve as a useful mirror to hold up to show how internal attitudes may not be serving the company’s efforts to strengthen culture. If you’re a leader yourself, we invite you to use this as an opportunity to examine your own beliefs and biases about the role of mental health in the workplace and consider your power as a leader to endorse company-wide mental health initiatives so they’re rapidly implemented and accepted by employees.

Culture Type A: Mental health as an individual responsibility

Core beliefs

In organizations of this type, we find underlying beliefs along the lines of ‘everyone is responsible for themselves’,  ‘mental health is a private matter’, and ‘stress management is a matter of personal attitude/skill/knowledge.’

Motivation

These organizations are often at the very start of their engagement with the topic of mental health. Often the reasons for addressing the topic are the appearance of acute problems in the workplace—for example high levels of sick leave—which leadership want to get under control quickly.

Policies & practices

The methods or tools that organizations of this type choose are often focused at the individual and behavioral level. To this end, employees may be provided with resources and tools (e.g. stress prevention courses, apps, coaching) or given time off for the purpose of concentrating on the topic (e.g. mental health days/weeks, etc.). Job-specific factors that affect mental health are less often taken into account in any interventions (e.g. considering enhanced job flexibility or reduction in workload). 

Stakeholders involved/level of participation

Usually only a few individuals are involved in the selection and implementation of initiatives and new practices for the purposes of supporting mental health. If people are specially deployed to address this topic internally, they often have no training in the field of mental health and/or must juggle implementation duties with their existing work responsibilities. The projects initiated often run in parallel and independently of other operational processes. Executives and management either don’t consider the issue a high priority or don’t feel explicitly obliged to address the topic of stress—and/or other workplace mental health topics—themselves.

Communication

In-house communication on mental health issues mostly addresses the affected individuals with the aim to encourage them to seek help. It is also more occasion-/ event-specific and not long-term oriented. Topics such as stress management, self-care, or mental hygiene are often the focus.

Culture Type B: Mental health should be handled by experts

Beliefs

In organizations of this type, prevailing beliefs include: ‘mental health is just as important as physical health’, ‘we should talk more about mental health’, ‘mental health is also a company culture issue’, ‘mental health is important to employer branding’.

Motivation

These organizations have recognized the importance of mental health for employee satisfaction, motivation, and productivity. They believe that support and prevention should be consolidated, and destigmatization actively lived, rather than merely reacting to mental health-related problems as they arise.

Policies & practices

In such cultures, the attitude is that internal and external communication on the topic of mental health should be enhanced. To this end, mental health days and training courses for managers and HR are often established, while in parallel, support measures at the individual level are professionalized and consolidated (e.g. via EAP providers). Frequently, efforts are also made at the team level (e.g. via supervision, team building) and job- and task-specific changes are implemented as well (e.g. enabling more flexibility, supporting parents working from home, etc.). Factors such as performance targets and objectives are rarely evaluated for their effect on mental health.

Stakeholders involved/level of participation

The level of participation is higher than in the previous model: employees are asked about their needs and wishes via regular surveys. Usually individual departments, such as HR or Learning & Development, are given the task of empowering employees to address and promote mental health in themselves and others. C-level and management support these expert groups through budget approvals and underline their endorsement within the framework of initiatives and campaigns. Mental health is also recognized as an important aspect of Diversity & Inclusion. DEI teams often also work together with HR/L&D to promote mental health.

Communication

These organizations already have quite a high level of openness to mental health matters. In addition to concepts such as stress and self-care, ‘sensitive’ topics are also addressed and mental illnesses called by their names. Knowledge building and transfer are valued. C-level and team leads encourage transparency and openness in their teams.

Culture Type C: Mental health as a pan-organizational endeavor

Beliefs

In organizations of this type, beliefs pervade along the lines of: ‘the health of our employees is just as important to us as their productivity (and in the long run even more important)’, ‘mental health is a value that permeates our entire organization’, ‘Stress isn’t merely a personal matter—it’s also a question of business strategy and objectives.’

Motivation

These workplaces recognize mental health as a pan-organizational undertaking that spans all levels of hierarchy and requires regular evaluation. They are keen to support mental health in the long term to sustainably reduce staff turnover and absenteeism and to gain employee loyalty.

Policies & practices

The policies and practices embraced at such organizations are designed to promote and support the mental health of employees over the long term. Regular psychological risk assessments (PRA) are carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of implemented measures. Negative drivers and stress factors at the structural level – such as job insecurity due to fixed-term contracts or excessively high objectives – are identified and minimized.

Stakeholders involved/level of participation

The level of participation is high. When employees bring solutions to the table to address mental health problems, they are heard. Employees form mental health working groups/Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and are actively involved. Representatives are trained and deployed to act as independent points of contact—outside of HR and leadership—for mental health matters. Stakeholders from the works council and staff council (where applicable) are brought into discussions around mental health policies and practices. Employees at all levels are encouraged to work together to avoid stress. There’s a high level of commitment from leadership.

Communication

Mental health is discussed frequently and employees are kept regularly and properly informed on the topic. C-level and team leads may comment on their own mental health challenges, routinely define the mental health goals being pursued by the organization, and be transparent about whether or not these have been achieved.

The Psychological Safety Framework

As stated already, the three culture types described above rarely manifest in a ‘pure’ form. And it’s not a matter of simply judging any one type as “good” or “bad”—the important thing is that mental health is anchored in the culture at all and that companies are taking steps in this direction. Building a mental health-friendly culture is never a quick fix: it’s an ongoing process. 

What these examples also illustrate is that in quite a few organizations, good ideas and/or grassroots initiatives fail because there is a lack of willingness from leadership to act and/or buy-in to make mental health an organizational priority. Furthermore, there are frequently inadequate tools available to address cultural change around mental health in a structured and targeted way. Yet this is precisely what is needed: company culture plays a fundamental role in reducing psychological risk factors in the workplace, and in Germany, reducing workplace psychological risk has been required by law since 2013 under occupational health and safety regulations. 

A promising new approach for analyzing and transforming corporate cultures to enable sustained mental health is the Psychological Safety Framework, originally researched and developed by researchers in Australia. Unlike other, more broad, frameworks employed for culture change, the PSC allows organizations to explicitly examine their culture in terms of its impact on the mental health of their employees and, using the results, to implement targeted changes. The PSC framework is also helpful for identifying each company’s level of response, examining factors such as leadership commitment, communication and participation—much like in the examples above—and continually reevaluating these over the long term.

At SHITSHOW, we use this framework in our consulting as a springboard to help companies respond to the findings in a way that’s appropriate to their unique culture and resources. 

For a deeper dive into our work, we invite you to explore our assessment framework, designed for HR managers and leaders who wish to make their culture more mental health-friendly and want to better understand how we approach this critical task.

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