Mel Stride’s approach to mental health is blissfully ignorant

In the search for controversy, Mel Stride has been blissfully ignorant.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Stride – motivated by the UK’s worryingly turgid welfare bill – has claimed today’s approach to mental health risks going too far. But he couldn’t be more wrong.

In fact, it was another of his comments that struck a particularly bad tone: “as a culture, we seem to have forgotten that work is good for mental health”. Stride’s got the wrong end of the stick here. As outlined by the World Health Organisation, work – in of itself – is not good for mental health, but a salient factor that determines mental wellbeing.

We should not get these mixed up. Dysfunctional or, at times, even abusive workplace cultures are more common than you’d think – I’ve experienced this first-hand. These cultures cause a lot more harm than good. They can cause psychological injury.

We need to hold corporations accountable for the mental health of their employees.

In what has been an economically challenging year, the UK has been reluctantly crowned the world’s second-most miserable nation (Business Insider). We are at the epicentre of a mental health crisis – and yet, the necessary support is lacking.

Mental health charity Mind has found that mental health crisis care services are in critical need of support. Services are severely understaffed – 41% of mental health trusts are falling well behind established staffing benchmarks – and vulnerable people aren’t being assessed quickly enough: only 33% of those in crisis were assessed within four hours of contact with NHS services.

These statistics are worrying or, as the charity puts it, “damning”. However, sadly, they only highlight some of the issue.

The workplace is incredibly important for a person’s wellbeing; after all, it is where people spend five days a week each year – it is a core environment of day-to-day life. Unfortunately, despite the importance of their roles, global corporations are lagging well behind in their duties towards the wellbeing of their employees.

The Corporate Mental Health Benchmark’s (CCLA) 2023 Global 100+ Report reveals the extent of this issue. In an assessment of 110 of the world’s most recognisable and largest companies, the report finds that – despite a near-perfect 95% of respondents recognising mental health as an important business concern – the average mental health score across these companies was a meagre 28%. This means these companies have only just begun to formalise their approach to mental health management and disclosure.

The corporate world is well behind the curve. To ensure the mental wellbeing of their many thousands of staff, these companies – all, in fact – need to be held accountable for mental health in their workplaces.

They need to publish honest disclosures about the epidemiology of mental health conditions among their staff, the effectiveness of their support, and – perhaps most importantly – the performance of leadership and cultural programmes in addressing the lag. I mention this because the CCLA found that only 17% of CEOs are publicly championing mental health. This is not good enough.

Corporations just are not doing enough to support their people. The current status quo of ineffective Employee Assistance Programme services, superficial mental first-aider courses, and more are completely and utterly insufficient.

Stride’s baseless incredulity is part of the problem. If he’s serious about wanting to bring more people back into work, he can’t attach absolute and unproductive labels to what conditions are mild and those that aren’t.

Pigeonholing does not work – it exacerbates the issue. The government should instead be creating formal mechanisms that hold employers accountable for their workplace mental health standards. This will spur widespread cultural improvements, which – given the fluctuations workplace environments have seen throughout the post-COVID era – are definitely needed.

Stride’s claim of work being ‘good’ for mental health is vague, insensitive and completely misses the point. To encourage people back into active employment, it is crucial to first figure out how they can return to work safely. If the government does not set aside the suitable resources and support to Stride’s mandate, vulnerable people could enter hostile and unsupportive working environments. The government needs to ensure workplaces build staff confidence, esteem, security, and social connections.

Pushing people to return without these ‘good’ measures in place is both dumb and dangerous. The consequences could be dire. Mental health is fickle, it constantly shifts – negative environments could worsen conditions and, in some cases, possibly cost lives.

However, whether sincere or not, I admire Stride’s appreciation of today’s “more open approach to mental health”. Mental health awareness is at an all-time high, and outdated, stubborn taboos have shifted.

But people are still suffering in silence. Plus, in 2019, the World Health Organisation found that approximately 15% of working-age adults were estimated to have a mental disorder.

So, as regular, talented people continue to battle these very human conditions, I ask you to consider this question: is Stride blissfully ignorant or blindly stupid?

I’d go with the latter.

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