By 2009, David Tapnack had become the youngest director at PwC and was made partner shortly afterwards. He was young, arrogant, affluent and life was easy. When people discussed the pressure of being a partner in the biggest global professional services firm in the world, David couldn’t understand them. To begin with, it felt effortless.
When challenges – personal and professional – arose, David just worked harder, dug deep and pushed through them. But slowly, things started to get worse. Life began to feel like it was in decline.
One day in 2013, during a client meeting, David had a panic attack. He didn’t know what it was; he ignored it. Shortly afterwards, he was in Disneyland with his family and the same feeling returned. “I thought, this is mad. What could be a greater privilege than to be in Disneyland with my lovely wife and lovely kids? Why can’t I be happy?”
At the airport on the way home, David broke down. “I don’t know what’s happening,” he told his wife through tears, “but I can’t deal with it.”
It might seem obvious that the environment that you spend an average of 40 hours per week in is likely to have an impact on your mind. But it’s only recently that the topic of mental health has even entered discussions in the workplace. Once seen firmly as a personal problem to be left at the office door, issues like burnout and psychological safety have turned the spotlight onto how we think about our mental health – specifically in relation to work.
After the pandemic drastically shifted how we conceptualise the workplace, there is a new frontier of workplace mental health on the horizon that situates the human first and the employee second. How can our workplaces work harder for our mental health?
Company culture is increasingly recognised as one of the most valuable intangible assets that an organisation can invest in. It can boost morale, productivity, trust, motivation and, crucially, employee wellbeing. But when done wrong, culture can induce fear, anxiety, murky ethical decisions, bullying, isolation and stress.
A new wave of attention on dispelling these harmful cultures has emerged, ushering in an age of psychological safety and company cultures that attempt to cultivate trust, support, openness and authenticity.
“We know that stigmas around mental health at work can make people feel alone. If it feels like you’re the only person experiencing this problem, it can be incredibly isolating,” says Andrew Berrie, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at mental health charity Mind.
Company culture has been increasingly under the spotlight for employee mental health and emotional wellbeing. Many top firms have been accused of propagating a culture of judgement or a culture of silence when it comes to issues like depression or anxiety. Speaking up about a rough patch of depression might lead to being passed over for promotion, or seeking time off for anxiety could mean your job performance is questioned.
But a new wave of attention on dispelling these harmful cultures has emerged, ushering in an age of psychological safety and company cultures that attempt to cultivate trust, support, openness and authenticity. Above all, they emphasise the humanity of employees – rather than defining individuals by their productivity or performance.
“Creating a culture where staff feel able to have those open and honest conversations about mental health is really key to addressing mental health stigma and discrimination,” Berrie explains. “Particularly to address the stigma around feeling weak or perhaps that certain projects might not be given to you.”
“We have recognised that being the best at what we do means that we also need to be at our best.”Goska Konczak
And it’s a cultural change that many organisations are prioritising, with extremely positive effects. Goska Konczak is Senior HR Manager at law firm Allen & Overy, and has seen a shift in the way that discussions about mental health and wellbeing are treated by the organisation: “What has been really amazing is that mental health is not something that is considered just an HR initiative anymore,” she comments. “It’s now something that is prioritised by leadership because they see it as a strategic priority.”
“The responsibility is very much on leadership to set the tone of these conversations, and making them a normal part of the workplace rather than a taboo topic,” she continues. “We have recognised that being the best at what we do means that we also need to be at our best.”
At Allen & Overy, mental wellbeing has been embedded into its strategy in the form of three pillars: creating a culture of wellbeing and psychological safety; ensuring that the work environment supports positive mental health; and providing and signposting accessible resources, tools and support for those who need them.
“Investing in mental health is not only beneficial for team dynamics, satisfaction and employer brand, but it also makes the best business sense in terms of addressing staff absence, productivity and staff turnover.”Andrew Berrie
The law firm’s policies are evidence that an approach that combines the human with the pragmatic is not only feasible, but it is being implemented with success in large organisations: “It is now very much something that is baked into the reality of the business,” Konczak emphasises.
“We know that it makes good business sense,” Berrie adds. “You’re going to have happier, more productive employees if you are investing in mental health. It’s not only beneficial for team dynamics, team satisfaction and employer brand, but it also makes the best business sense in terms of addressing staff absence, productivity and staff turnover.”
These cultural changes become even more crucial when the prevalence of mental health problems is put in perspective. Mental health is not something that is inherently good or bad, or something that we have or don’t have – it’s something that we all experience on a sliding scale.
A broken leg can be expected to heal in 8 weeks. But it’s difficult to put a timeline on when someone will have recovered from a period of depression.
“We spend a huge amount of time at work, so it is clear that our workplaces can influence that fluctuating wellbeing,” Berrie continues. “Studies suggest that one in five people experience adverse mental health problems – so in a company of 500, that’s 100 employees who are going through a difficult period of mental health.”
Many people often use the comparison of physical health problems to illustrate the importance or severity that mental health problems can have. You wouldn’t come to the office if you broke your leg, so why should you be expected to when experiencing a difficult period of depression?
But the limitations of this analogy lie arise when it comes to duration. A broken leg can be expected to heal in 8 weeks. But it’s difficult to put a timeline on when someone will have recovered from a period of depression.
In the two years following his first panic attack, David experienced depression and anxiety that his kids affectionately named the Great Depression. He could barely sleep. He had physical feelings of pulses and tingling through his body. He became paranoid in public that people wanted to do something to him. At work, he couldn’t even process a basic email.
Companies need to embed a less linear understanding of mental health into their policies and corporate structure that prioritise the unpredictable, changeable and complex nature of human beings.
“Mental health problems are often ongoing,” Berrie adds. “Quite often it’s not necessarily a linear timeline that sees you unwell and then well again – it can fluctuate up and down several times.”
Berrie emphasises that companies need to embed a less linear understanding of mental health into their policies and corporate structure that prioritise the unpredictable, changeable and complex nature of human beings.
Mental health should be treated with the same importance and understanding as physical health problems, but the framework to provide support must look vastly different: “Organisations need to consider whether or not their policies are fit for purpose and whether or not they provide employees with appropriate support.”
The future of mental wellbeing
When it comes to the future of embedding mental health policies at work, personal boundaries have become increasingly pressing as technology blurs the lines between our work and personal lives more and more.
The pandemic is the most obvious culprit for catalysing that change. Berrie recalls the sudden invasion of work-life into our kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms: “People found it extremely difficult to maintain those boundaries between work and their home space. I actually started doing a fake ‘commute’ to work where I’d walk around the block just to try and install some structure and separation into my work day.”
“Working in a high performance environment means there are high expectations of employees,” says Konczak. “And it’s become a complex issue because the boundaries between work and personal life have been eroded as technology has increasingly crept into our lives.”
And it’s not necessarily back in the box just because lockdowns are over. Capgemini’s Future of Work report surveyed 500 companies and 5000 employees around the world and found that 56% of employees fear that long-term remote work will create pressure to remain available for work at all times.
But Berrie is optimistic that with the correct training and tools, organisations can support their employees’ mental health while also upholding the important personal boundaries that allow us to switch off from work. “Training can help to build mental health literacy and foster confidence in upper management of how you might have a supportive conversation that doesn’t cross any lines.”
Allen & Overy has recognised the importance of leaders driving these conversations in a way that reconciles personal boundaries with open discussions around mental health. “We implemented a project that allowed people to share their own stories about mental health,” says Konczak. “It began mostly with senior leadership sharing their stories, but gradually we have now had even junior employees wanting to share their stories in a psychologically safe environment. It has been an incredibly powerful project, and it sets the tone that we’re all human. We’re here to support everyone no matter what their story is.”
“The world can be a tough place. But if we can all support one another to deal with our personal challenges in whatever way works best for us, I think we can create a nicer world for everyone.”Goska Konczak
Today, David Tapnack enjoys life. He believes his experience with mental health has changed his impact as a leader and given him a greater ability to connect to his people. There are still echoes of the past, sometimes strong echoes, but he manages them carefully with a framework that tackles diet, exercise, sleep, meditation and his relationship with work.
One of the key changes he has made is about his work habits: “I never look at my emails before I get into the office, and I have a cut off time in the evening after which I don’t look at them. Before, my working day felt endless. But now I am rigorous about the changes I made.”
As an HR manager, Konczak spends the majority of her time working with the person beneath the employee. “The world can be a tough place,” she says. “But if we can all support one another to deal with our personal challenges in whatever way works best for us, I think we can create a nicer world for everyone.”