Why now is the time for organisations to embrace vulnerability and tackle mental health

Conversation with Sonia Minards, Senior strategic finance leader, Counsellor and Therapist

Following on from our fourth mental health summit in October I spoke with Sonia Minards, a Counsellor and Therapist who understands both the pressures and rewards many professionals experience and the toll this can take on our mental health.

Before training as a counsellor, Sonia spent two decades working as a senior professional in large global financial services organisations, including Deustche Bank, PA Consulting and JP Morgan. While she relished the fast-paced, challenging environment in which she was constantly required to solve problems and learn new skills, she became increasingly aware of the disconnect many people – including myself – experienced between their authentic selves and their work personae.

Sonia is passionate about how companies can better support the mental and emotional health of their people. She believes the mental health crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, is a wakeup call for companies to be brave and vulnerable in how they prioritise supporting the mental health of their people.

OS: Sonia, thanks for speaking with me today and sharing your thoughts, you’ve spoken about the need for companies to be vulnerable, what do you mean by this?

SM: Well, during my career in high performing organisations I have accumulated extensive experience of working with senior leaders, including C-suite executives. I understand what it takes to make teams function optimally, and the variety of different issues that can jeopardise this. I realise that thinking about organisational vulnerability may seem a bit strange. We’re used to thinking about individual vulnerability, and have seen many great examples demonstrating how powerful it can be when employees and leaders of companies express vulnerability, by speaking up about their mental health challenges in the workplace. This has been key in raising awareness, and has led to significant attitude changes, but whilst the mental health agenda has come a long way, more is now needed. I believe the same qualities of bravery and willingness to ask for help are needed from organisations not just its people.

The pandemic has had a wide-reaching impact on the nation’s mental health, and we’re heading towards a mental health crisis, of which we’re only just seeing the tip of the iceberg. The figures are worrying – in August last year, after just a few months, the number of adults experiencing depression had already doubled versus pre-pandemic, and these figures will only have worsened as we’ve faced prolonged uncertainty, fear, loss, and anxiety.

Companies have a critical role to play in supporting their people through this period: if they don’t, the consequences on the health of their company, not just their people, will be dire – for example, high levels of burnout and absence, disruption to business operations, low engagement, high attrition and a loss of workplace talent, which will all have negative impacts on organisational performance Now is the time for companies to be vulnerable – for me this means:

  • Daring to ask for specialist help to create a forward thinking, robust, and appropriate mental health strategy and support infrastructure
  • Doing things differently by reframing their safeguarding role, no longer outsourcing support, but bringing it in-house
  • Being brave enough to create a proactive as well as reactive solution that embeds mental and emotional health and development into DNA of their organisation

OS: So the vulnerability is about tackling mental health in the workplace differently. Many of the companies I speak to on this topic are already doing a lot in this space, what more do you believe is needed?

SM: You’re right many companies are doing great work, last year we saw a huge change in how openly mental health was being discussed across organisations which is amazing. But more action and development in the type of responses to workplace mental health is needed.

There’s a natural tension that exists between the impact of the psychological health of employees on the company, and the challenges of businesses potentially damaging the mental wellbeing of its people. This tension has understandably become even more strained right now as both company and employee health (physical, financial, emotional and mental) are facing huge challenges. We need to meet these challenges with more and better support if we’re going to come through this period with more individual and organisational resilience. It’s not just about doing more of the same. The type of support needs to evolve to include proactive as well as reactive solutions. I shared with you my diagram which outlines the four levels of support that I think about. The top two proactive levels are key to creating a forward thinking and robust strategy that will lead to lasting cultural change to keep the organisation and its people mentally and emotionally well.

OS: So what does proactive support mean, and why is it so important?

SM: These changes are what demand the vulnerability and bravery. It asks companies to open their doors (and their wallets) to allow experienced, knowledgeable professionals in, to help shape and deliver a proactive mental health infrastructure.

Reactive approaches such as EAPs and MHFA have a very important role to play, and crucially are a service that’s available to all employees when they’re facing challenges. But I don’t believe they are enough anymore, or indeed for long term change. EAP counsellors often don’t have the business experience to understand the context of many workplaces, and critically they are not working with the employer but rather as an outsourced provider. I believe there are huge benefits to bringing in-house an experienced specialist therapist or psychologist to work with the organisation and its culture, working proactively with individuals and leaders to facilitate mental wellbeing and address any issues early.

Typically when I mention an in-house therapist people will give me a wry smirk and mention Wendy Rhoades, the psychiatrist/company performance coach in the hit show Billions. Whilst she is an exaggerated character, she is an example of how an experienced specialist can work in an advisory capacity to help bridge the culture a company is striving for and how its people are experiencing the workplace. Not that I advocate the culture that show depicts!

Finally, to embed lasting organisational cultural and change I believe mental health objectives should be reflected in the DNA of the company. This includes individual, leaders and organisational performance objectives, targets, and frameworks. I’ve seen firsthand how effective such approaches have been in the banking industry when it pursued widespread cultural changes after the financial and LIBOR crises. By including culture and conduct factors in employees performance reviews, and ultimately renumeration, this led to ongoing behaviour changes.

OS: These sound like great suggestions, but I know many companies will be asking why they should make such investments, especially when spending is so constrained?

SM: It’s quite simple, if companies don’t get on the front foot and care for their people their business will suffer. Companies that don’t risk being vulnerable, who instead rely on standardised policies, outsourced providers, and a mental health strategy that hasn’t been adapted to the needs of the moment, won’t be prepared to address the mental health fallout of this period. For many, this has been a period when they have had to reconsider their priorities, and their relationship to their work and employer. Once this crisis has subsided and employees, customers, and clients have the economic and physical freedom to vote with their feet they will respond to how companies have cared for their people during this period. Companies that are on this path will come through this period stronger than before, with a more motivated, engaged, loyal, and emotionally intelligent workforce.

Thank you so much for your time.

You can find out more about the Sonia’s company and individual work here: https://insightcounsellinglondon.com

Olivia Sharp (Fenton)

Partner
Executive Search
Human Resources


Olivia specialises in executive search for our HR Practice. Her background in HR, gained in various senior HR positions in a FTSE100 organisation, combined with her extensive general management experience, gives our HR practice a unique offering for clients and candidates alike.