Because “It’s the Right Thing to Do” Isn’t Enough: How to Sell Mental Health Initiatives to the Business
11th March, 2020
I’m deeply ingrained in the world of mental health. I’m part of mental health communities, I volunteer, write, speak, research, listen, share... I live “mental health”. I have done since my own breakdown back in 2017. It formed part of my recovery, continued to evolve and now forms a large part of the business we do at Balpro.
When wrapped up in this world, it’s easy to get blown away by the incredible support, the kindness, the shared mission. The stories that are in equal part heartbreaking and heartwarming.
It’s easy to forget that we’re operating in a very special, safe space - our own little mental-health-warrior echo chamber - and how easy it is to get knocked down when you step into the real world.
We care so much that emotion can cloud judgement. I know I’m not the only person who has excitedly gone to a senior exec and said, “I’m ready to change the world, let’s support our people and their mental health” and watched as the door was slammed shut in my face.
Luckily, the mission trumps the rejection. Selling these initiatives to the business requires logic, not just heart, and we’ve since changed the hearts and minds of the most cynical clients.
Start by understanding why they may say “No”
Before turning to why a mental health initiative is good for business, you must become familiar with the reasons why your organisation may object to programs being introduced. This enables you to objection handle using logic rather than emotion.
The most common objections that I tackle with clients fit into three brackets:
Fear of the unknown. The most common objection that’s linked to fear is that if you simply whisper “mental health” in the workplace, people will take advantage. We’re the subject matter experts here. For many, this topic is unfamiliar territory and this lack of knowledge fuels concern and stigma. It’s our job to explain what mental health actually means, in a very simple and relatable sense. It’s only after that education is done that we have that we can go on to demonstrate the impact that it’s already having on business today, and that there’s a cost to doing nothing.
We don’t have time/money. This isn’t an objection, it’s an invitation. There’s a direct link between employee wellbeing and business performance. Deloitte proved that you get £5 back for every £1 in, but it’s important to get far more specific to win this battle - the points must directly link back to your organisation’s pain, the cost to your business; generalised data isn’t enough.
Deflection. Everyone is busy and our priorities rarely align. Without articulating how this problem impacts the person you’re talking to, it’s likely they’ll dismiss or deflect. They’ll argue that managers can handle specific concerns on a one to one basis or that mental health belongs outside of the office walls. With solid prep, we’re able to show that management needs further support, that poor mental health is already wreaking havoc in the workplace and that implementing a mental health initiative is going to make everyone’s lives better - not just add items to to-do lists.
Preparing your business case:
1. Identify the pain + The cost of doing nothing
All successful initiatives are implemented with a winning business case. To prepare, you need to gather the data that will support your initiative being launched and defend it against the competition.
Your biggest competition? Doing nothing.
If you’re reading this you already know that your organisation needs to improve mental health support and you’ll have reasons behind this. You need numbers to back up anecdotes and gut feel. If you’re struggling to find powerful data to support you, here are the key areas to explore.
Staff turnover: When staff are unhappy, many act with their feet. The company cannot survive without its people. You should include the hard costs associated with hiring here too - recruitment is expensive. This could include lost revenue when no one is in the job, onboarding and training costs, recruitment fees and manager time in interviews.
Decreased productivity: Presenteeism is one of the leading results of poor mental health, people showing up in body but not in mind. This leads to productivity decreasing meaning the company literally spends more to sell a product or provide a service.
Poor employee engagement: Failure to create a safe and supportive environment leads to a lack of trust and/or connection to the company, colleagues and culture. This drives both factors above and is easy to demonstrate through a simple employee engagement survey.
No longer able to attract top talent: Companies who don’t support their staff get bad reputations, quickly. It’s crazy how quickly your competitors will start pitching themselves as “like you, but with a better culture”. Glassdoor ratings can be a great source here.
The human cost: Suicide rates in the UK are rising. Many of the corporates who are now leading the way with wellness initiatives are doing so after they’ve lost staff to suicide. This cannot be the catalyst that drives action for your business.
2. Evaluate and demonstrate what’s on offer today
To overcome the “we did that training last March for XYZ team” obstacle, execute a simple audit and show what is available (and the limitations) today.
Things to look out for:
Leadership specific programs - Demonstrate that this is great but it only impacts x%
You may have private health care, but it might not cover mental health support
If it does, private health care is reactive, it’s there to treat a problem. The goal is to be proactive - make strides to prevent issues existing
Remember that flattery works. The topic of employee wellbeing can bruise ego’s and breed defensiveness, especially for people managers. This section of the business case is a great opportunity to show what is working well and build champions for your mission.
3. Position your initiative
Now that you’ve perfectly framed the business problem it’s critical to take advantage of this momentum and to position a pilot program that’s impossible to turn down.
People you’re pitching to are unlikely to have been exposed to the amount of research you have done on this topic, so it’s hard for them to imagine what actual tactics could be involved in a mental health initiative, and how they help. This is where it all needs to come alive.
Things to consider:
It’s likely the data you’ve gathered shows a key demographic that is in most urgent need of support, target this group first
Use market data to estimate ROI - if you’re using credible, external specialists, they should have a full repertoire of supporting stats
Make a crystal-clear link between the problem and proposed solution, and define how results will be tracked
Beware: The lone wolf falls
The final piece of this puzzle is your business champion. Before taking your perfect PowerPoint into the boardroom, it’s critical that you identify a person (or people) of influence who will fight for this with you.
Include people in this initiative as you build out the business case, especially the ones you fear may try to stop it in its tracks. This is the kind of subject that people hate to be surprised by. Instead, gently recruit them over to your corner.
It might feel like hard work, but boy it is worth it
You’re reading this because you care, you get it, you’re probably desperate to #bethechange. You know that this is not just about numbers and percentages, revenue and output. It’s human, and that can hurt. It’s hard when people don’t get it.
Being the right thing to do really should be enough, but it isn’t. However, the truth is, building a business case is actually exceptionally empowering, and it works. We’ve worked with clients who had a goal of helping a small team but are now driving company-wide change, all because they led with a solid business case.
I’ve implemented mental health initiatives on both sides of the fence. I’ve gone from being the first to whisper “mental health” as an employee (and then gone on to drive Global change). Now this forms a large part of the work we do with Balpro clients.
I must admit, it can be easier being an external consultant. We’re not impacted by the emotion and corporate politics that aren’t just distracting, they’re tiresome. But wherever you sit, whatever stage you’re at, the results are worth it.
Leading with a solid business case arms you with the data points to not only get sign off to start but to track long term success and continuously drive improvements.
It doesn’t take long before others get excited and start driving change in their own communities. And ultimately, the combination of it all could save a life.
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Amber Coster is Founder & CEO of Balpro. Before launching her
own business she helped take a technology company from a
$100m valuation to a $3.7bn acquisition, and then through M&A
integration. Along the way, she suffered a [glorious] mental
breakdown – leaving her unable to walk or talk properly for six
months. Learning from this experience and determined to help
prevent others reach this same fate, Balpro helps organisations
grow, but not at the cost of their employees.
Balpro is born from The Balance Project: an organisation that is on a mission to make business