Shifting the narrative: celebrating mental difference in the workplace

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By Olivia Sharp. Published on 24 July 2017

Eton Bridge Partners recently hosted a Mental Health Business Breakfast at The Royal Society in London. The event brought together a panel of speakers whose personal experience of mental health and combined passion, commitment and expertise made for a fascinating debate on one of the major social and employment issues of the 21st century.

Around one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year,[1] and in England one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety or depression) in any given week.[2] Despite such prevalence, modern businesses and organisations are shockingly ill-equipped to deal with this issue – unable to support those who need help and, perhaps more importantly, to proactively protect the mental health of the workforce as a whole.

A recent study from the Institute of Directors found that the majority of its members would direct employees to their GP for advice on mental health problems.[3] But with the mental health charity Mind voicing concerns about the lack of GP training in this area, there is increasing pressure on employers to address this challenge internally.

Positive reframing

According to event Chair Karen Jackson, a leading employment lawyer at Didlaw, a specialist law firm focused on disability and workplace health issues, ten years ago nobody was talking about mental health. In the last decade, it has crept up the social agenda and is now a critical issue for employers. And yet the narrative around mental health remains overwhelmingly negative and prevents meaningful progress from being made – particularly in the workplace.

Asked why this was the case and what could be done to shift the narrative, Geoff McDonald, Executive Director of Open Minds Health, said we need more aspirational messages and images around mental health.

“Walk into any Nike store,” explained McDonald, “and you’ll see images of fit, trim, healthy people whose purpose is to help sell sports apparel. In stark contrast, the images surrounding mental health are always black and white, negative in tone. We need a more positive visual representation of mental health, in the same way we have with physical health.”

Echoing this view, Colin Minto, mental health campaigner and Co-Founder of APeopleBusiness, said that for too long mental health has been viewed as a burden, whereas there are in fact many reasons to celebrate what he calls “mental difference”. Having lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for years, Minto explained that people with mental health problems are often depicted as a drain on resources, “a cost to UK Plc”. But in reality, such people often have unique skills that are attributable to their condition – in Minto’s case his risk radar, his solution-oriented brain, and “the more advanced ideas [he] can bring to the mix”. Indeed, Minto asserted that his OCD has enhanced, rather than inhibited, his performance in senior resourcing roles for multinational organisations.

However, research trends continue to reinforce the negative views and stereotypes. According to Minto, there has only been one report in recent years that really “sells the benefits of those who have experience of mental ill health”. The report, produced by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with employment specialists Unum, proposes that “the value added by people with mental health problems in the workforce is greater than the costs arising”. It estimates that in 2015 alone, people living with mental health problems contributed £226 billion gross value (12.1%) to UK GDP – nine times higher than the costs typically associated with mental health problems at work.[4]

Storytelling, disclosure and leading from the front

Adam Spreadbury, Senior Manager at the Bank of England, believes that the positive reframing of language, image and narrative around mental health will encourage others to share their experiences – something which he maintains is critical to driving improvements in the workplace.

“In 2008/2009, I became depressed,” he explained. “It wasn’t until someone at work shared their own story of mental health that I realised how little this was talked about. So, I set up a network at the Bank of England focused on storytelling, where people could share their experiences on the intranet. These stories really resonated, and in time we started to see a change in people’s attitude and behaviour.”

According to Spreadbury, the Bank is now a more inclusive place where difference is recognised, and where the workplace wellbeing scheme – rebranded ‘Think Well, Act Well, Be Well’ – focuses on mental and physical health in equal measure.

Picking up Spreadbury’s theme, Sue Warman, Senior HR Director at SAS, said that real and lasting change will only materialise when the sharing of experiences and stories comes from the top. “We need to legitimise the subject,” she explained. “And to do that we need leaders who are prepared to share their experiences and disclose their problems; only then will we accelerate the discussion and encourage others to come forward who may otherwise fear judgement.”

Applauding the recent trend of companies promoting ‘mental health first aid’ programmes, Warman suggested that by “getting the dialogue and vocabulary out there, people will start to share and will feel able to approach their organisations for help”. But to reinforce this process “we need leaders to come forward and celebrate difference; to say it’s okay to ask for help and admit that you’re struggling”.

As Geoff McDonald added, “until we see very influential leaders from the workforce discussing their experiences of mental health (as opposed to just sporting celebrities), we won’t see progress” in this area.

Putting the ‘human’ back into human resources

In order to support employees who are experiencing mental health problems, all panel members agreed that organisations need to create more human working environments. As Geoff McDonald reminded the audience, “HR is about human resources, so we need human interventions and compassion to help create a more human place to work”.

Karen Jackson reflected that leaders need to “think outside of the established processes that might work for broken arms, but not for depression”, and that “compassion should be a key quality in HR business partners”.

Overwhelmingly, however, the panellists placed responsibility for driving a more progressive approach to mental health with line managers rather than labelling it an HR problem, agreeing that businesses often wrongly equate compassion with a lack of commerciality. As the HR function can’t be everywhere at all times, and indeed often doesn’t have a personal relationship with individual employees, line managers must be able to provide the human perspective. To this end, organisations need to think hard about how they enable and train their line managers to embrace this aspect of their job. Indeed, the need to professionalise the role of managers, to hold leaders accountable for the wellbeing of their teams, and to build mental health awareness and compassion into leadership competency models, was a recurrent theme.

There were many other practical suggestions articulated during the event around how to stimulate positive change in the workplace. These included proper investment in mental health support and the importance of building long-term strategies rather than simply providing ad hoc, one-off activities. Such measures, it was agreed, are critical to ensuring that the infrastructure exists to support those who feel able to come forward, disclose, and ask for help.

The panellists also agreed that work itself can be of enormous therapeutic value to people experiencing mental health problems. Encouraging people with depression back into work can be much more advantageous than extended periods of absence. For many people, being at work reinforces a sense of competency and direction and has a central place in recovery. This is confirmed by the Mental Health Foundation’s wellbeing survey, which found that 86% of all respondents believed their job and being at work was important to protecting and maintaining their mental health.[5]

Discussing with employees the often simple adjustments required to enable them to return to, or stay at, work is paramount. Of primary importance though, as seen almost daily by Karen Jackson in her role acting for employees, is to keep the conversation going: silence from either side is likely to escalate the situation and is much more likely to result in one or both parties concluding that the relationship is irrecoverable, ultimately bringing the employment relationship to an end.

Can you afford to ignore 25% of the workforce?

The argument for diversity in organisations is compelling, and alongside the push for balance across gender, ethnicity, and all other types of protected characteristics, our panellists painted a strong argument for extending the concept of diversity and inclusion to mental health as well. Actively seeking to encourage mental difference supports the drive for diversity of thought, which in turn stimulates greater organisational performance. After all, it’s not just about the one in six workers who are suffering right now from a common mental health problem, it’s also about their colleagues, families and friends who make up the rest of the population.

In the panel’s opinion, promoting and protecting mental wellness in everyone must become as important as the promotion and treatment of physical health for employers. Challenging the assumption that physical ill health is largely recoverable, but a period of mental ill health leaves a person ‘scarred’ forever, was a key part of the discussion. Hopefully the practical guidance and inspirational insights provided during this event will help to encourage and enable meaningful action, and drive positive lasting change, on mental health at work.

“It was a pleasure to attend Eton Bridge Partners’ Mental Health Business Breakfast at the Royal Society in London recently. Olivia Fenton and the team alongside the Panellists provided the guests with great insights into the issue and most importantly practical support to make change within organisations. The fact that so much of it was experiential grounded the conversation so that all of the participators could see where they and their organisations can make a difference. Congratulations for putting on a great event.”

Porteur Keene, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, Changeboard

To read more blogs on this topic, please click on the links below:

Mental health is everyone’s business

Mental Health Awareness Week: It’s #oktosay



[1] McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey. The NHS Information Centre for health and social care.

[2] McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014. Leeds: NHS digital.

[3] IOD Policy Report March 2017, A little more conversation: mental health and the changing world of work.

[4] Mental Health Foundation, Unum: Added Value: Mental health as a workplace asset, cited on

[5] Mental Health Foundation, Unum: Added Value: Mental health as a workplace asset, cited on