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How to guide employees to a healthier headspace

08 December 2017 by John Binns

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The case for boards to take an interest in mental health is both commercial and moral

In 2007, I returned to a successful career at professional services firm Deloitte after overcoming a period of serious depression that led to three months off sick from the business and even a spell in hospital.

Before the breakdown I had been a partner for nine years and after recovery I went on to have seven more years as successful market-facing partner.

These days, I am proud to be among the first business leaders in the City to speak openly about my personal experience. Yet if in 2007 I had tried to bring together others who thought mental health could be a boardroom issue, we could have met in a telephone box.

My sense now is that we are on the cusp of seeing a real change in attitudes, as increasingly forward-thinking firms recognise that the most common presenting mental health problems, namely stress-related heightened anxiety and depression, are not the curse of the weak, but in a high-performance business environment often the curse of the strong.

In fact, it can be a risk linked to all the traits that make the brightest and best great at their jobs. The desirable qualities of ambition, taking responsibility for success, caring about the outcome of projects, listening to feedback and so on can all be taken out of proportion.

“Too often HR staff and others fail to recognise that it is possible to fully recover from and successfully manage mental health problems”

A sign of the shift is that from a small group of enthusiasts from KPMG, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs and Linklaters, we now have 43 firms as official paid-up members of the City Mental Health Alliance.

Alongside this, some of the country’s leading corporates, such as Proctor and Gamble and Marks and Spencer, now sit on the Business in the Community’s Wellbeing group, which also promotes  good mental health in business.

Fear of exposure

But more needs to be done. There is still a fear of being open because of concerns about being perceived as weak.

Too often people still feel the need to hide behind euphemisms or cite physical health issues instead, and too often HR staff and others fail to recognise that it is possible to fully recover from and successfully manage mental health problems.

One of the most powerful levers for change within a business is when real people with real stories are prepared to speak about their personal experience and how they remain successful in their work.

The Lord Mayor’s ‘This is Me in The City’ campaign, whose launch I chaired, is a great vehicle for this.

Many firms across the City have now produced videos in which staff share their mental health stories for publication on their intranets, the Deloitte video receiving the second most hits of any item ever published on its intranet site.

But there is still a need for more senior leaders at board level to be open about their experience, as it is when senior people are prepared to speak about an issue that change happens fastest.

Messages from the boardroom about mental health and whether the business is committed to fostering the good sort is the single most important factor in setting the tone and culture within the organisation. Even organisations with excellent HR policies can be completely undermined by the behaviours of leadership.

The case for caring

According to mental health charity Mind, a quarter of people will be affected by a diagnosable mental health problem during their career. People will be experiencing mental health issues within the business whether or not the board recognises it.

There is the moral case that as a responsible employer any board should seek to minimise behaviours and environments that might foster poor mental health, and offer pathways to support where someone has an issue.

But in commercial terms there are also huge risks linked to not taking the issue seriously, as well as great benefits from getting it right.

As I know personally, the symptoms associated with stress-related anxiety and depression include: finding it hard to make decisions; finding it hard to concentrate; increased anxiousness about abnormal things; and social withdrawal from things that would usually be enjoyed.

If the board sets a culture where people believe that they will be judged as weak if they are open about how they are feeling, then the evidence shows that they do not get help and they keep coming to work hoping that no one will notice and that they will eventually get through it.

The risk to any business is stark.

“It is common for people without help to develop symptoms over time, finding it harder and harder to perform week by week”

In my case, I found myself sitting in front of my computer trying to work out how I could tell the three senior partners most relevant to my area of the business that I simply could not face coming in the next day.

I was operating at about a fifth of my capability and it had taken me about a year to get there. It is common for people without help to develop symptoms over time, finding it harder and harder to perform week by week.

A culture which discourages openness and encourages presenteeism risks an obvious impact on productivity and business performance.

Linked to this is recruitment. Businesses thrive by attracting talented people. Younger people are more likely to care less about pay when seeking work, and more about interests, working flexibility, and the approach to wellbeing.

The board needs to ensure that talent is not being diverted to the competition because of entrenched attitudes within its middle management.

Supporting steps

With all the risks of mismanaging mental health, as well as the attendant benefits, there are some basic steps all boards can take to deal with this issue.

First, boards should set the tone by communicating that they understand that we all have mental health and that developing a mental health problem is a risk for all of us. It can affect the brightest and the best and is not a symptom of weakness.

The biggest lever for change is when individual board members are prepared to speak about their own mental health problems and how they have overcome them.

Second, managers and leaders in the business should be trained to spot the signs in themselves and others early, and to understand how they can adapt their thinking to mitigate the impact of negative events.

Integrating cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) insights into the normal management training curriculum provides great results.

The best companies will also offer a range of channels for people to get help if they feel they may be affected, and it should not be one size fits all. Swift access to CBT therapy through an employee assistance programme, access to mental health champions in the business, insurance-funded routes to therapy, and directing people to self-help websites are some examples of this.

Deloitte was the first large business to provide senior mental health champions, of which I was the first in 2007.

There are now 25-plus who are available confidentially to advise anyone who is worried and wants to get some reassurance and help. Over the years many hundreds of people have approached the champions and been helped to find a route that works for them.

The shift in attitude gives organisations a chance to implement these policies and push for lasting change. Taking a more enlightened attitude to mental health at work is good for productivity, the business as a whole, and – more importantly – for us as human beings.

John Binns MBE is vice-chair of Mind and non-executive director of the City Mental Health Alliance

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