Creating a positive mental health culture

“Don’t treat mental health as an HR issue and a bit of a philanthropy but make it an essential part of your business,” called Sir Ian Cheshire, speaking at October’s Mad World forum in London.

The event provided fresh thinking on the future of workplace wellbeing and mental health from high profile speakers, together with case studies, numerous panels and roundtable discussions.

Throughout the day, speakers offered their views and shared expertise on how a culture shift in relation to mental health can be achieved and how to make mental health a strategic enabler for business. We summarise some of the ideas here.

Bridging the mental health gap

Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Barclays Retail and the campaign chair of the charity Heads Together, recommended a three-pronged approach.

The workplace is a key force for good when it comes to mental wellbeing, even though some work environments are highly pressured and toxic. The workplace is a place where the first symptoms of mental health can be recognised and thus where early, proactive interventions can take place. Looking after mental health is the collective responsibility of the organisation and of the individual.

For finance directors requiring a business case for mental health, there are plenty of statistics which demonstrate the costs of absenteeism and presenteeism relating to mental ill health. However, they should also take on board the arguments that if a company wishes to retain talent, it must create the conditions for people to thrive.

He also recommended ruthlessly targeting CEOs to get them behind the mental health message and presenting them with initiatives which they can support. This will help people in the organisation to open up and speak about their mental health.

Cary Cooper, Professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, argued that with only 35 per cent of employees in Britain considering themselves healthy and well at work, quick fixes to improve wellbeing, such as sushi at the desk or massages, are not going to have a lasting effect. The real solution is to change the culture of an organisation.

He stressed that relationships at work are fundamental for one’s mental wellbeing and asked: “How often does your boss tell you what a good job you do? Management by praise and reward is key for wellbeing and engagement. How often do people send emails instead of talking to their work colleagues? Most of the line managers in the UK are technically very competent but cannot manage people. How can we enhance their emotional intelligence, so that they have a better understanding of their workforce and its emotional needs?”

Cary Cooper: "Manage need to understand their workforce"

Rhetoric and reality 

Louise Ashton, wellbeing director of Business in the Community, presenting the key findings of the Mental Health at Work 2018 report, said: “We are living in unprecedented times in terms of the mental health agenda. We should take responsibility for it and make things happen faster, inspired by the bold campaigning of organisations such as Heads Together and Time to Change.
If we position health and wellbeing as a key boardroom issue, the change will come sooner.”

She pointed to the existing discrepancy between the perception and the reality: senior business leaders are full of rhetoric about mental health but this is not translated into tangible action. Currently, 58 per cent of them think that their organisations support their staff, while only 42 per cent of employees with no managerial responsibility said that staff with mental health issues are supported. Moreover, 85 per cent of managers think that employee wellbeing is their responsibility but only 30 per cent of line managers have received mental health training. Fortunately, this issue is easy to fix.

Professor Dame Carol Black (who we interview here about wellbeing) believes that board engagement is key to changing a company’s attitude to mental health. A non-executive director who knows what’s going on in the organisation in terms of mental health should also be on the board. She stressed that it’s not enough to give line managers mental health training once. The company needs to manage this capacity on an ongoing basis.

The language of mental health

Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, said that less than 5 per cent of people with anxiety and less than 4 per cent with depression are able to talk about their condition to their employer, (quoting an NHS 2017 survey). The mental health language is very poor and the vocabulary is negative. The language relating to mental health became toxified very early on and no real progress has been made since then. For example, suicide is still linked with the word ‘to commit’. Although suicide stopped being a crime in 1961, the word still conveys shame.

Brendan suggested the language of mental health would change if society reduced the fear associated with the condition and increased everyone’s engagement. For example, this could be done by shifting the public debate away from ‘time to talk’ to ‘time to listen’. It could help people feel freer to talk about their condition while the rest of us are prepared to listen. This would shift the onus from a person experiencing mental ill health to a person who is supporting them.

Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Member of Parliament for Twickenham, as well as a guest speaker at the conference, has a long-standing commitment to mental health, going back to the time when his mother was hospitalised after suffering a breakdown. Although he epitomises resilience (he stood for parliament ten times; both winning and losing his seat five times), he described politics as a very brutal profession. The lesson that he learnt during his political struggles was to develop emotional resilience, which helped him to manage stress and separate his professional life from his private life. His hobbies, including ballroom dancing and writing and reading novels, helped him to do this.

However, he is very concerned about the young people entering the workplace now. “We are raising a new generation of young people who are under enormous pressure, because of the employment and housing situation, having already experienced the pressures relating to high academic expectations. This is apparent in the great incidence of mental health problems among young people which manifest themselves from an early age. Society has to find solutions to this problem before it’s too late.”

A business case is not enough

Closing the conference, Geoff McDonald, campaigner and consultant at Mental Health at Work, said: “We are living in the 21st century, when we put men and women on the moon and use artificial intelligence to manage our lives. Yet, we are still unable to talk about our mental ill health.

“However important a business case for mental health is, we need to press an emotional case. It would help senior leaders in organisations to connect with mental health and become advocates for it. So, how do we position mental health as a strategic enabler that will drive the performance of an organisation?

“We need to put a major change programme behind it, agree what resources we are going to assign to it and decide how we are going to re-design the infrastructure of the organisation to ensure the support for it. We also need to agree with all employees how we are going to celebrate the milestones of such a programme.”

“Crucially, we need to see more organisational accountability for providing mentally healthy workplaces. There is a lot of accountability to create safe workplaces, but no accountability for providing healthy workplaces. We also need to define individual accountability, so that people are able to maintain their health to perform at their best.”

Finally, he asked: “Who is going to be the Usain Bolt of mental health in your organisation?”

Mad World Forum was held on 9 October in London: www.madworldforum.com