World Mental Health Day: We employ people for their minds, so shouldn’t we be trying harder to protect and nourish them?

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By Olivia Sharp. Published on 10 October 2017

Today, 10th October marks ‘World Mental Health Day’, and this year is focused on mental health in the workplace. Eton Bridge Partners are members of the ENEI (Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion) and I was fortunate to take a few hours out last week to attend their conference on ‘Mental Health – get equipped for change’, specifically targeted at their employer membership.

As an advocate for mental wellbeing in the workplace and someone who, through my blogs, events and broader executive search work, attempts to get people talking about, and taking action on mental health, I was intrigued by the variety of speakers lined up by ENEI. I was absolutely delighted that the event lived up to its billing. The ideas and arguments discussed were diverse, interesting and compelling, and here I endeavour to capture some of the key points to share more broadly.

Introduced by Michael Cole-Fontayn, Executive Vice President and Chairman, EMEA for BNY Mellon, the main sponsor for the event, who spoke from the heart of BNY Mellon’s commitment to improving and protecting mental health, as well as his own personal lived experiences. This conference wasn’t about the case for change, but as he explained very simply, the need for forward thinking approaches to mental health, saying that ‘at work, we employ people for their minds, so we need to protect and nourish those minds’. Their total commitment to strengthening the conversation, both internally and externally was evident, and his concise summary of why this is important stayed at the front of my mind throughout the day.

Penny Mordaunt MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, shared the government’s perspective and the work they are doing to progress in this space. Currently, she explained, approximately 1.2 million people are out of work because of mental health issues, and while it is far from rare, in her view it is also ‘far from untreatable’. She spoke about the fact that promoting good business health should, in all cases, be enough of a business case for organisations to focus in this area, but that if it isn’t, then the long-debated benefits of a more diverse workforce and the more obvious bottom line, impacts of reduced attrition, sickness absence and workforce engagement should cement the argument. Ms Mordaunt talked about a number of government initiatives in her speech but I was most interested to hear that the ‘Access to Work Scheme’ (which facilitates workplace adjustments for disabled people to enable them to enter and remain in work) also has a specialist mental health support service in place, encouraging employers to focus on what people can do rather than any perceived limitations.

An academic perspective was shared by Dr Chiara Lombardo, a Research Fellow in Public Mental Health from the University of East London, and here are some key elements that stood out for me:

  • Work forms an important part of our psychological wellbeing, and contributes to our social identity. Interestingly, people who are unemployed have double the rate of psychological health problems.
  • However, work is not a universally positive experience, and her research shows that the worst management styles generate up to four times the amount of stress in direct reports than the best, probably reinforcing the old recruitment adage that people leave bosses, not jobs.
  • While presenteeism is being visible at work, yet unable to function productively, leaveism is the unhealthy balance between work time and home time, where people work during their annual leave, take leave when they are unwell or work outside of normal working hours, where they are unable to finish their allocated workload during work hours. Clearly in the modern workplace flexibility is key and expected. A persistent pattern of leaveism will often give rise to mental health impacts.
  • Job insecurity is associated with a doubling of risk of experiencing common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Notably, fellow speakers were in agreement with Dr. Lombardo that despite the weight of evidence that employment can improve mental health, the sheer fact of having a job should not take priority over the nature of that job, and care should be taken to design roles and delivery mechanisms to protect mental health. Vanessa Pinfold, of the McPin Foundation, shared her experience of running a small organisation which employs multiple people with mental health conditions, and how this has shaped her approach to role and organisation design, as well as workplace setting, noting that a ‘solution for one person is not always a positive for others.’

Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation was also a very compelling speaker, reinforcing that good work is great for mental health, but bad work is often ‘toxic’. Shockingly, their research suggests that almost 50% of those who have or had mental health problems have gone to work whilst experiencing suicidal thoughts.

He also shared the MHF experience of supporting people with mental health conditions in the workplace, noting that discrimination on the grounds of mental health appears less likely to be treated as severely in organisations as other types of discrimination. I would agree with his view that we clearly have work to do to align the mental health conversation with the disability agenda.

Later in the conference, Chris Murray from the Department of Work and Pensions shared his lived experience of depression, and his organisation’s approach to supporting him. The DWP’s ‘Stress Risk Assessment’ and ‘Mental Wellbeing Action Plans’ are designed to help managers and employees recognise triggers, as well as outline recovery tools, and seemed to have had an impact on keeping Chris both well, and at work. Chris reinforced the MHF’s view that work can often be the only social interaction for someone with a mental health condition, and so time away from work may not actually help recovery.

Amongst the wide variety of speakers, Mike Brian, from the British Antarctic Survey, landed the most alternative view of the day on the subject. Aside from coming up with creative ways of tackling the isolation that comes with working in such a remote location for months on end in reduced light, in close communal living arrangements, he offered advice on how his teams are advised to spread their energy: 1/3 to your job, 1/3 to those around you at work, and 1/3 to your support network at home. I suspect that adhering to his formula might offer an uptick in wellbeing in any workplace!

The final keynote speech was delivered by Rachel Kelly, who has published books on a variety of subjects linked to mental health, including gratitude and nutrition. It was unfortunate that she had only a short slot to cover such an important and interesting topic, but she certainly fired me up to explore the relationship between digestive health and mental wellbeing through her engaging session. In fact, her book is on my kitchen table already!

The conference was a fantastic way to connect with like-minded individuals across a variety of sectors, and hear some very diverse and captivating views on the issue of mental health at work. I’m confident that this year’s World Mental Health Day will be the most discussed ever – and hope that the resources on offer enable change to happen across industry.

Other blogs on mental health and wellbeing by Olivia Fenton can be read via the following links:

Shifting the narrative: celebrating mental difference in the workplace

Mental Health Awareness Week: It’s #oktosay

Mental health is everyone’s business