August 23, 2019

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Where is the mental health agenda heading?

The changing mental health agenda of 2019 is driven by cultural change and leadership, according to a panel discussion held at Safety & Health Expo 2019’s Workplace Wellbeing Theatre.

mental-healthThe panel, chaired by Acre Frameworks’ Kendelle Tekstar, comprised Stacy Thompson, Founder, CEO & Mental Health Nurse, The Performance Club; Rob Stephenson, Founder, InsideOut; and Claire Farrow, Conference Director, Mad World Forum.

A truly holistic approach to workplace mental health and wellbeing begins with a root-and-branch reappraisal of what mental health really means, according to Stacy Thompson. People – employees and leaders alike – need to appreciate that mental illness doesn’t cover all of mental health. Indeed, it can be challenging to measure exactly how less visible mental health issues affect productivity, particularly when you add the stigma of speaking up.

To address this, said Thompson, self-education is critical, adding ‘we have to accept the fallibility of our colleagues’.

But this a challenge, according to Rob Stephenson: 65% of British employees describe themselves as neither thriving nor unwell, making it difficult for companies to improve their overall mental health provision. How do you address ‘just doing fine’?

For Claire Farrow, the change needs to be driven from the top down. She used the example of Shift8, a company that produces cognitive impairment technology, which improved its employees’ mental health by initiative a bold, top-down strategy. They addressed management issues and introduced more options for flexibile working, and in doing so eradicated presenteeism – a phenomenon in which employees turn up to work demotivated and performing poorly.

Cultural change from the top

The kind of cultural change requires strong leadership, according to Rob Stephenson. He drew on the example of Cicero’s Mark Twigg, whose own admission of mental illness helped drive cultural change within his organisation, and encourage others to speak out. It is this courage, according to Claire Farrow, that creates change, helping people to share their troubles.

Stacey Thompson was more cynical, ascribing the increasing pressures on mental health to a society hit by ‘medicalisation’, with an intolerance of uncertainty and a focus on instant gratification. To solve this, she claims, leaders need to be ‘real’ and inspire their employees, as well as be more tolerant of emotions and of failure.

Improved, but not there yet

Businesses, however, continue to struggle. Claire Farrow noted that 70% of British employees believe mental health provision has improved, but the fog of stigma still surroundings mental health, and wellbeing departments are remain under-resourced.

It is perhaps unsurprising, as Rob Stephenson suggests, because businesses are still struggling to properly value and measure wellbeing. Most workplaces remain fixated on profit and shareholder value, and that inability to measure wellbeing in terms of a return-on-investment speaks to that desperately-needed internal culture change.

But the conclusions are clear: businesses need to look carefully at their current wellbeing strategies to determine what is and isn’t working. They need to survey their staff too, but, more importantly, keep their senior leadership engaged – after all, cultural change needs to the consent and participation of executives to properly take root.

The closing statement came from Stacey Thompson. From her perspective, the only way to ensure the effective provision of mental health services in a workplace is for workers to look after each other, and to self-educate about the ways they can improve their wellbeing. ‘This is not about solving an illness crisis’, she said. Instead, people need to be there for each other.

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