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“It’s taken a pandemic to really elevate mental health”: CEOs must now lead on wellbeing


Poppy Jaman OBE
CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance

Mental health and wellbeing are firmly on the agenda, with many CEOs responding to the challenges of the past year by championing open conversations and sponsoring initiatives in the workplace.

Poppy Jaman OBE, CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance, says: “It is tragic that it’s taken a pandemic to really elevate mental health, but hopefully it proves a catalyst for long term change.” 

And there is still more to be done. While some organisations have adopted a progressive approach to wellbeing, Poppy says all CEOs need to get ahead of the mental health implications of reopening offices as well as working harder to overcome stigma, combat tokenism, and ensure wellbeing is considered a business issue.

Leading by example

In the business world, a stigma still exists around mental health. But Poppy believes this is changing and can change even more quickly if CEOs lead the conversation. 

Talking to PwC ahead of the launch of the 24th Annual CEO Survey, Poppy says: “During the pandemic I saw leaders become more open about their own struggles and how they are looking after their own wellbeing. Leadership vulnerability matters. It gives permission for others to be vulnerable too, and holds the door open for them. It signals that a culture of speaking up is welcome and it demonstrates how to share.”

The role of business acumen

While caring for employee wellbeing is the right thing to do, there are also clear business benefits. Poppy says there is no shame in admitting what’s good for your people is also good for the bottom line. If anything, it helps ensure plans are backed with budget and resources. 

“The pandemic has opened up our social conscience and more CEOs are looking at their purpose. But this is as much about the bottom line as doing the right thing.” CEOs must apply their business acumen to this problem as they would any other major threat to their business. If there was an IT problem costing businesses billions every month, you’d fix that problem.”

Where to begin?

Poppy says some CEOs have shied away from conversations on mental health, fearing they were unqualified. But as a business issue at the very heart of an organisation’s culture, Poppy says it must sit on the CEO agenda. 

“Skill up,” she says. “Skill up yourself. Skill up your workforce and create a robust approach to workplace health and wellbeing. Then build a strategy and lead from the top. You cannot achieve the progress we need to see if chief executives don’t get this.”

“CEOs must apply their business acumen to this problem as they would any other major threat to their business. If there was an IT problem costing businesses billions every month, you’d fix that problem.”

Other measures to implement include reporting on wellbeing, in the same way organisations are increasingly holding themselves to account – or being held to account – on issues such as sustainability and equality. Public disclosure and a growing body of evidence around the efficacy of different measures will also ensure all organisations can play a role in improving wellbeing across society.

Shaping the narrative around wellbeing will also require CEOs to get tougher on tokenism. 

“There is no space for tokenism such as publishing a solidarity statement with no strategy or resources behind it or appointing a wellbeing lead but giving them no team and no budget,” says Poppy. “CEOs need to ensure their organisation’s commitments are backed to succeed.”

The return to the office

One significant issue many organisations will face this year is the return to the office. 

While much has been made of the “death of the office”, many employees forced to work from home for the best part of a year are desperate to return for reasons ranging from needing a break from the confines of their home to craving human interaction or wanting to build stronger relationships with colleagues who influence their access to opportunities. 

“Workplaces should create an environment for people to flourish. Everybody should be getting up in the morning looking forward to doing their job because it has the right level of purpose, the right level of challenge and the right level of support,” says Poppy. “When you have those three things in balance we foster an environment for positive mental health.”

A sense of belonging

That doesn’t mean people have to be in an office all the time, or that offices don’t need to change to support a more hybrid approach, blending remote working with opportunities to get together in person. But CEOs need to look at the role of the office in supporting connection, a sense of belonging and inclusion.

“We tend to give big projects to people we trust,” says Poppy. “But if we’re not forging new connections there is a real risk of people being more excluded than ever from career development by unconscious biases.”

“If you’re excluded, your sense of belonging is disrupted, which puts you at risk of mental health problems. Now is the time to lean in on inequality because it directly relates to mental health.”

Show courage

Ultimately, the effectiveness of CEOs in driving the wellbeing agenda will depend on them looking far beyond their own tenure. Some of the most meaningful measures they put in place today, to improve wellbeing within their workforce and society and reduce strain on the NHS and the economy, can be central to their legacy.

“It takes courage to start a strategy that will outlive your tenure,” says Poppy. “But ‘paying it forward’ is crucial. Creating a legacy that others come then build upon and give more energy will make a huge difference.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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