Harnessing the strength of vulnerability to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace

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Our fourth annual Mental Health summit, which took place in October, focused on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. We were delighted that some 150 people joined the webinar to hear from an outstanding panel of speakers, namely:

> Karen Jackson, who chaired the event, is the founder of didlaw, a specialist practice in employment law, particularly discrimination of all kinds.

> Dr Jacqui Dyer MBE is President of the Mental Health Foundation. She is an independent health and social care consultant with a background in adult mental health commissioning as well as community and family social work.

> Jonny Jacobs, who has just moved to Starbucks where he is Finance Director for EMEA. Before a period at M&S, Jonny spent seven years at Pladis in senior finance roles in the UK and the US.

> Jin Chin is Head of HR Transformation/Chief of Staff at Legal and General. A long standing volunteer with the Samaritans, he was the Chair of Trustees for the Central London Samaritan branch for four years.

> Annette Andrews is an experienced Chief People Officer and has worked with senior leaders on a global basis in highly regulated organisations including Ford Motor Company, Lloyds Banking Group, and most recently, Lloyd’s Insurance Market.

This blog sets out the main themes of the discussion. A follow up piece will round up practical suggestions for leaders who want to build a workplace supportive of good mental health. If you’d like to watch the discussion in full, then there’s a link to the webinar here.

It is clear that the pandemic and lockdown have had a major negative impact on the UK’s mental health. As we enter another  period of partial lockdown it could not be more timely to consider what we can do to create a workplace culture that supports mental wellbeing, one where it is as normal and natural to talk about mental health as physical health.

Nine in ten people recognise that their work has a huge bearing on their mental wellbeing. Which makes it very worrying that exactly the same number of people feel that talking about mental health to their line manager could be career limiting. That has to change. We need leaders who act with kindness, who choose the right language and share their own human vulnerabilities to show the way forward.

If you can choose to be anything, be kind

While working from home is not ideal for everyone and can have its disadvantages, it can help us all to know more about each other. We’ve seen colleagues’ homes, met their pets or waved to their children. That experience helps us understand that the person we see at work has a whole other life going on.

It’s important that people feel they can bring their whole self to work, physically and emotionally.

As Jacqui Dyer put it “wherever we are, there’s a responsibility to be aware that our humanity is made of the physical and mental world. That’s what makes a human being – they are an integrated whole.”

Creating the conditions where people feel comfortable to bring their whole selves to work requires leaders who act with kindness and empathy, who are willing to share their own insecurities. Jin Chin described it as servant leadership, as defined by the Samaritans: “not talking about ourselves”, but responding with empathy and confidentiality, without judgment, with care and accepting that people know what’s best for themselves. It has a lot in common, says Annette Andrews, with the coaching model of leadership, that chooses to grow and develop people rather than just telling them what to do.

Mind your language

It’s not just what we say but how we say it that matters. Just mentioning ‘mental health’ can be a downer. Jonny Jacobs won’t be the only one to have had this experience: “…talking with colleagues, every time I said, ‘mental health’ I felt the stigma drop out of my mouth and onto the floor…”. Getting the language right can make a real difference to the conversation. At Pladis, Jonny branded his mental health programme ‘Positive Minds’, aligning it closely with the company’s values.

Show your own vulnerabilities

One of the most powerful things leaders can do to build a culture where it is OK to talk about mental wellbeing, is to share their own experiences and their personal vulnerabilities. That gives other people permission to be vulnerable. Jacqui Dyer has been a carer all her life and she says, “I carry that wherever I go. I can’t hide it. Bringing my vulnerabilities gives other people permission to do the same”.

Jonny Jacobs recalls a company event on mental health where a senior colleague stood up to talk about a family member and despite its brevity, the emotion within that powerful testimony was what everyone remembered. “It’s the personal stories that resonate with people and help us make progress”, says Karen Jackson.

There are increasing examples being shared among sportspeople and household names of dealing with mental health issues. And it is worth noting that tapping into the world of sport, and how positive mental fitness drives performance, can also help advance the conversation in the boardroom.

A poll during the webinar raised a red flag: 83% of attendees agreed there’s a danger that working from home will blur the boundaries between work and home, which could have a negative impact on our health. Organisations have a responsibility to help employees create and respect boundaries. Indeed, how employers behaved in 2020 could have reputational consequences that may affect their ability to recruit in the future. During the first lockdown for example, compare certain retailers forced to close all their branches but who kept employees on full pay, with other businesses who showed a reluctance to pay either employees or suppliers.

We are making progress

The cost of poor mental health to UK business each year is £45 billion. The human cost is incalculable. However, we are making progress. Even a decade ago, we would not have had these conversations and the issue of mental wellbeing is higher than ever on the business agenda.

Increasingly, we know what to do. That’s not always the same as knowing how to do it and in my next blog we’ll bring together some of the practical recommendations from our webinar panel. Until then, especially given the renewed lockdown restrictions in the UK, I wish you all good mental health.