Putting mental health at the core of your organisation’s DNA: How can your organisation move beyond tactical initiatives into systemic change?

Eton Bridge Partners recently hosted a breakfast panel discussion on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, the third in our annual series. Olivia Sharp, a Partner in the Human Resources Practice, presents the insights from our expert panel and the discussion in the room, packed with 75 focussed guests, all operating in a variety of senior roles.

Our panel at the event at the Royal Society consisted of:

> Karen Jackson (Chair), Founder of Didlaw

> Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation

> Kathy Poole, People Director at Wellcome Trust

> Gary Bloom, Sports Psychotherapist and talkSPORT radio host

> Jim Richardson, People & Performance Director at Babylon Health

I believe the landscape is changing. Three years ago, at our first breakfast event, the conversation was around the need for change, championing shared stories of lived experiences, and understanding the complexities of mental ill health in the workplace. I am heartened to say that over time organisations are maturing in this space. The challenge now, in my view, is to move beyond tactical initiatives to a place where mental health is part of the DNA of a company, allowing employees to feel accepted regardless of their mental health ‘status’, and leading the charge for talent and performance through acceptance and inclusion.

The importance of individual mental health is already sharply in focus – now it’s time for cultural change

The fact that mental health is high on the agenda in many workplaces can only be a good thing. Progress in the last three years has been huge, but the biggest challenge now is to drive real cultural change over mental health, wellbeing and inclusion in general. The panel felt this systemic approach was critical if organisations wish to attract and retain the best staff.

There was significant discussion about the needs and expectations of young people entering the workplace today. The idea that today’s younger employees will reject unhealthy working practices seems unimaginable, or even disrespectful to many of us who ‘earned our stripes’ through long, unsociable hours and undesirable working patterns, but studies are showing this is becoming a reality in 2019.

Companies that put wellbeing at the core of their offering to staff will be rewarded by both loyalty, quality and productivity of their people, which, as it has been proven, will drive performance and profitability.

The importance of mental health as part of your broader wellbeing strategy

From the work we do with clients and candidates, it is clear to me that on the subject of mental health and wellbeing, it is no longer about what they are doing in this space, it’s about what they are becoming. More and more companies are putting tactical initiatives in place around wellbeing, including mental health first aid and awareness programmes.

Karen shared her belief that these initiatives are working, but based on the volume of current tribunal cases, there is clearly a long way to go. Kathy felt it unlikely that this increase in litigation has been driven by a sudden increase in the volume of mental ill health sufferers (although increased media coverage and public awareness campaigns are likely to have encouraged more people to seek medical help and therefore increased diagnoses), but more likely as a result of people finding both the courage, and the language, to explain their illness and any discrimination or unequal treatment they are suffering.

“The challenge now is to move beyond tactical initiatives to a place where mental health is part of the DNA of a company allowing employees to feel accepted regardless of their mental health status.”

Success can lie in a different approach

Gary’s experience of operating in the sporting world offered an insight into the challenges that can arise if we focus on mental health as a singular issue. Gary shared how he secured a commission for his radio show – pitching a rounded discussion to a radio station controller about high profile sporting individuals, their careers and peaks and troughs. He felt strongly (and the quiet laughter around the room suggests he is accurate in his view) that suggesting an hour talking about depression, anxiety and mental health may not (possibly understandably) have achieved the same interest.

For Gary, while sport certainly seems more accepting of the potential of using mental health professionals (although almost exclusively psychologists) and their impact on performance than in the corporate world, there is certainly still some way to go in the sporting sphere as well. There are very few qualified practitioners operating in this arena – despite the obvious correlation between clarity of thought, peace of mind, focus and delivery.

Prevention is always better than cure – and honesty is key

An old adage still holding true: the next step must be to put structures in place in organisations to identify issues at an early stage before they become a problem, but also to create a culture of protection and prevention.

Mark’s view is that there should be a broad approach to the prevention of mental health issues. The Mental Health Foundation encourages employers to examine their approach carefully. What are their plans for the whole workforce? What is their strategy for putting those plans in place? What are they doing to support line managers? And how are they aligning HR policy and practice with organisational rhetoric to make sure they act consistently and congruently?

For Mark, becoming a mentally healthy employer should not be a comfortable process. The more challenging and searching the conversations you ask yourself as a business, the more systemic and fruitful the changes you make will be.

He shared a fascinating recent study in the United States which highlighted the need for managers to find the right balance between caring for your team and challenging them. At the high end of the scale is ‘Radical Candour’, where feedback is delivered in an honest, caring but challenging manner; the contrast is with ‘Ruinous Empathy’, where sympathy is expressed emptily, not in a way that leads to progress or change. It was suggested that perhaps managers (and notably HR functions) lean too easily towards Ruinous Empathy rather than Radical Candour – undoubtedly a moment for reflection for many in the room, myself included!

“Companies that put wellbeing at the core of their offering to staff will be rewarded by both loyalty, quality and productivity of their people, which as proven, will drive performance and profitability.”

Research shows that one characteristic shared by all outstanding leaders is the ability to self-reflect and self-manage. While that is a critical skill for managers, they should also work to equip the people under them to develop it too.

To date, the conversation around mental health has often been supported and driven by senior leaders sharing personal experiences of mental ill health. While no doubt powerful, all too often they lead to others following suit without the appropriate structures or support in place for individuals. Leaders should seek to go beyond their personal stories in a couple of ways:

1 – It’s important that managers are encouraged to be honest and recognise that in certain situations they could contribute to mental ill health. “The wheel of human needs” was highlighted by Mark and discussed by the panel in relation to their belief that people need to have or build resilience – and they need to take responsibility for their actions. Ultimately, every one of us has five fundamental human needs:

> Status

> Achievement

> Belonging

> Identity

> Connection

If these can be understood and accepted, a positive working environment can be built around them. This could, in many cases, lead to the prevention of traumatic work situations and a reduction in mental health issues.

2 – The panel agreed that neither honesty nor displaying vulnerability in positions of power are commonplace, and that the role of business leaders in instilling the right organisational values to promote mental health and wellbeing is absolutely crucial. It was felt that organisations should now be appointing and using leaders who can understand human behaviour, and are able to interpret the behaviours of the people they manage.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubt their accomplishments and has a persistent, internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Indeed, demonstrating vulnerability is crucial for role models and leaders: imposter syndrome can affect even the most powerful individuals and drive poor organisational culture from the top.

It can be daunting to admit as much in the company of your colleagues and in view of investors or shareholders; leaders who display vulnerability can drive real change in the DNA of an organisation.

Once again, the differences between younger employees and those with longer tenure was highlighted by Jim. The younger generation can be particularly willing to give honest feedback at all organisational levels and that can be uncomfortable, but transformative.

“The need to create cultures that promote mental health and wellbeing has to co-exist with the business requirement to deliver.”

The challenge of coping with narcissistic leaders

Many people have experience of working under difficult leaders who have little or no understanding of the desirability of modelling a culture of openness and inclusivity.

The panel felt that communication is key here, even if the conversations are difficult. Explaining that this sort of behaviour will not deliver results in the long term can be extremely difficult, and requires a strong, unified board: leadership and strength in this context was explained by Gary as an ability to ‘speak the truth to power’.

As Mark observed, leaders used to rule through command and control. In the post-industrial world, however, in his view the best way to lead is by unleashing talent. Leaders should create an environment of trust where people are encouraged to take risks.

This is a defining cultural shift; but even areas where command and control used to be the norm, such as the armed forces, are now looking at investing in different skills in their leaders, recognising this holistic approach as more productive – although as noted by the panel, results can be less immediate.

The inherent relationship between mental health and productivity

Ultimately, the need to create cultures that promote mental health and wellbeing has to co-exist with the business requirement to deliver. Kathy shared her experiences at Wellcome; they see mental health as part of a broader wellbeing discussion that is linked with productivity. It’s important that they care about staff, productivity and the delivery of its overall mission.

Wellcome’s exploration of flexible working and a four-day week has been an interesting project for her and the executive team. While on the surface the proposal seemed eminently both sensible and achievable, in reality it would have reduced flexibility at an individual level. In addition, as a charitable organisation, ultimately, they felt that if they could achieve what was in effect a 20% productivity saving, this saving should be delivering for the charity, not just for the individuals who work there. Kathy’s experience shows how honesty, and strong cultural values, helped them make a very difficult decision for the right reasons.

“A robust mental health strategy will equate to increased productivity and organisational performance.”

In conclusion

The panel felt that driving systemic change in organisations around mental health was about approaching the issue more broadly. Becoming organisations with clear values that aid decision making; help leaders demonstrate vulnerability and create purpose for the individuals who work for them is critical for organisational success. Unanimously, the panel agreed that robust mental health strategy will equate to increased productivity and organisational performance but taking a narrow approach to improving mental health will ultimately only scratch the surface.

Eton Bridge Partners would highly recommend the following resources:

> Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability

> Radical Candour

> Wellcome Trust four day week proposal
1 –
Wellcome Press Release
2 – The Guardian article

> Mental Health Foundation

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.