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Attitudes to mental health in the workplace

By Jo Whittle
2 July 2018

This roundtable was organised by The Business Magazine and hosted by the Cardinal Clinic, Berkshire’s only mental health private clinic. Tim Wickham reports on the discussion.

How we deal with mental health issues has been gaining a lot of attention. But how can employers best support their employees? The panel discussed what’s being done, what needs to be done, as well as barriers that can hold back progress on improving employee wellbeing.

A growing problem

Professional services firm EY decided addressing mental health issues was so important it made a significant commitment in 2013 by setting up an employee-led mental health network. Cathy Wilkins, who co-chairs the network in the UK and Ireland, said: “It was a pioneering approach for us. The firm had an emphasis on physical wellbeing but not on mental health. It was a gap we felt we needed to fill.”

Stress at property professionals Savills can increase from constantly maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction said Ali Bird, office manager at the firm’s Reading office. “It may sound obvious, but keeping customers happy can be stressful. They often want immediate responses and results and they can seem very demanding. Sales employees especially risk burn-out, particularly younger staff who may take time to adjust to the pressure when they first join.”

Limbick Labs develops technology that can contribute to good mental health and wellness, especially in young people. Founder Nick Holland said he had witnessed stress increase in employees when he was working at large tech companies. “You see it especially in people working long hours. But I think to an extent you have to be responsible for your own wellbeing, especially in areas like sleep, diet, exercise and renewal. If you put your own well being first, you can perform at a much higher level, which ultimately inspires others to do the same.”

Epoq IT has a high proportion of younger people in its workforce. The company puts out a very clear message that ‘it’s okay not to be okay’. “For us, it’s okay to talk about mental health issues. But as a business, we also have to support demanding customers and face lots of pressures, so it’s a question of how we balance these,” said managing director Gary Swanwick. “There’s a growing awareness of mental health issues with many public figures sharing stories which is positive.”

Royal Mail faces challenges running a business that operates every day of the year with 140,000 full-time staff and 20,000 temps who work over the Christmas period. “We are a regulated business that has been around for over 500 years, so there are big expectations on us. I’m interested in the idea that there is a certain trendiness about mental health at the moment – and I am keen to get underneath the real, root causes.  We have to guard against treating it as trendy and appreciate it is a very complex and multi-faceted aspect of health,” said Dr Shaun Davis, director of health and wellbeing at Royal Mail.

Army veteran Nick Wilson set up Working Minds Matter to provide consultancy to businesses on dealing with workplace stress and mental health. He said: “Mental health can be sector dependent and be affected by your clients and line supervisors. Research shows that the financial and legal sectors have the most mental health issues but spend the least per employee tackling them. While millennials are talked about a lot, we have an ageing workforce and need to look after both young and old. You also have to consider personal stresses outside work.”

Dr Martin Carroll, the Cardinal Clinic’s clinical psychologist, drew attention to ‘soft’ factors that can affect workplace stress. “Relationships between colleagues, especially with bullying, as well as organisational change and the ways businesses communicate with staff are all important.”

Can you hear me?

A problem shared can be a problem solved, but not if messages of support aren’t getting across.

“Companies may be communicating about how they can help, but the word that often gets forgotten is ‘effective’ communication. Have you got real engagement, are people reading your messages, and are they listening to you?” said Wilson.

Davis added: “You need effective communication channels that reach the intended recipients. Historically we did a lot on our intranet, but our postmen and women work in the field so we needed a rethink. We now also communicate mental health information through PDAs and take the message to the recipient.”

Wilkins agreed: “A lot of people at EY spend weeks working at client sites and don’t always have time to log on to our intranet. So a partner will be directly responsible for communicating with their team members to check in with them.”

Are workplaces becoming toxic?

Swanwick said how companies educate people to look after their peers was massively important. “Negativity can impact your mental wellbeing. Most people are aware of physical health but less aware of mental health and will just take it for granted that you’re okay.”

Offering support to work in ways that safeguard mental health, like taking a 20-minute walk, or working from home, are important ways you can support employees,” said Wilkins.

Disinterest danger

If managers show little interest in colleagues’ life outside work then they might not find it easy when it comes to helping people. Wilson said teamwork was important in the steps you take towards improving wellbeing. “It comes back to understanding people. The army has a buddy system, which is a form of peer-to-peer mentoring. You know you’ve always got someone looking out for you. As a corporal – a ‘middle manager’ – I made sure I knew the first names of all my team, knew about their families, what they liked doing at weekends.”

You definitely need to focus on people, as well as products and processes, agreed Holland. “Businesses can be too goal oriented. There’s a danger that if you lack the soft skills then you won’t know what your team is experiencing and they will disengage.”

It comes back to training, thought Wilson. “Managers are key. Middle managers are the ones handling situations, nurturing people and making sure goals are achievable. They need training to empower them to deal with mental health issues.”

Still a stigma

Carroll said one of the biggest problems is the stigma around mental health. “We deal with a real mix of work-related issues. We see people who say their boss has been amazing and supportive, but they are scared about how their other colleagues will react to their problems.”

Attitudes are slowing shifting, thought Wilkins. “Our mental health network has doubled in size in the past year. It shows things are changing, but we’re not there yet. But in general, statistics show that around 75% of people with mental health problems carry on working.”

Wilson added: “You can recover and come back to work, but you’ll never be the same person. We read a lot about high-profile figures suffering and overcoming issues. What I’d like to see are more stories about ordinary people and how they have coped.”

Bird: “We have a lot of real-life stories about coping with stress, like staff who look after elderly parents, those with youngsters or with older children going to university. It can be difficult coping and the firm tries to offer release mechanisms that help colleagues reduce personal stress.”

Davis: “A lot needs to change to remove the stigma. Many companies inadvertently reward people for overworking through the bonus schemes and performance-related pay mechanisms they have. People want to be high performers for personal pride and to earn that bonus so the reward is potentially driving the wrong behaviours. We’ve done a lot of work on mental health issues, and are conscious of the relationship(s) with policy and procedures – we have some work still to do. In my opinion until organisations better align with HR, reward and pay policies – giving cognisance of health and wellbeing – we will only be partially successful.”

Spotting the signs

It’s not easy to see the signs that something’s wrong with a colleague, pointed out Carroll. “It might be noticing a change in behaviour; some people work harder, others arrive late, underperform, or are irritable or withdrawn. The Cardinal Clinic is pushing hard for companies to bring mental health strategies into the workplace. It can be difficult unless the people at the top support them. For example, if the CEO does yoga sessions to de-stress then others are more likely to follow their example.”

Wilson: “You’ve got to have buy-in across the business. If your HR managers don’t believe in the benefits they might not support the cost of taking action.”

Cost of doing nothing

It’s not just absenteeism that costs businesses money; presenteeism that causes stress can also lead to time off work. Productivity and reputation can be damaged if businesses have a poor approach to tackling mental health.

Davis said: “You’ve got to tailor your messages about the benefits of taking action on mental health: for HR their priority might be about attracting and retaining people; for the CEO it maybe about shareholder value and reputation for your CSR team it’s about telling a positive story in the annual report. Don’t be afraid to use your full toolkit of arguments to get traction in the mental health debate.”

Wilson: “Nowadays, salary isn’t always the number one reason for deciding who you work for. Health and wellbeing are coming to the fore. Job interviewees are becoming the interviewer: they want to know how you are going to look after them.”

Holland noted: “Employees need to know they have a purpose and meaning in their jobs. You need to offer that to attract people.”

Swanwick agreed: “Having a purpose is important. If people feel they are involved and are making a positive impact, that definitely helps.”

Positive actions

The panel discussed measures that can help alleviate mental health problems, which generally focus on early detection.

EY’s mental health network organises webinars, as well as offering advice on mental health care pathways. “We have a buddy system for people returning to work where we pair them with someone who has gone through a similar experience,” said Wilkins.

Bird said: “We run a buddy system with mentors who volunteer for the role. It’s seen as a good thing for your career to offer to be a mentor.”

Davis noted that an organisation the size of Royal Mail offers a lot of assistance and counseling, but SMEs can find it tougher to provide support. Wilson emphasised that action doesn’t have to cost a fortune. “You can set up a quiet room, offer yoga at your desk or guided meditation sessions. But some businesses don’t want to do anything because they fear that talking about mental health could open a can of worms, so they find it easier to say they don’t have a problem,” he said

Swanwick agreed: “There are also small things you can do, like saying to people ‘take a lunch break and take it away from your desk’, or encouraging people to leave work on time. These ideas have to be promoted from the top or people might not follow them.”

The Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) scheme is an important initiative that businesses are taking up. EY and Royal Mail are rolling it out and Working Minds Matter supports it. “I’m a qualified MHFA trainer. It’s becoming more popular and needs more promotion. It’s a way for companies to think outside the box,” said Wilson.

Davis added: “We are training our physical first aiders in MHFA. We have about 2,500 MHFA people, as well as around 150 mental health ambassadors who act as mentors. This initiative is being driven from the top, by our chief executive Moya Greene, which sets the tone for how important it is.”

How far should you go in helping?

Companies need to think carefully about how much help they can give employees and to know their limits, suggested Carroll. “People can be really good helping with mental health issues, but you have to know your capabilities and if something is beyond what you’re capable of then you should know where to go next,” he said. “Issues like bipolar disorder and OCD are particularly hard to deal with in the workplace.”

Davis said: “Our mental health ambassadors wear badges to identify them, so employees know they can start a conversation with without feeling embarrassed. It gives employees the confidence to seek help if they need it. Often, a situation can look worse before it looks better – you sometimes have to hold your nerve and not back away from helping.”

The Cardinal Clinic has been going in to businesses more and more over the past 18 months to offer on-site resilience training to help employees cope with stress. “It’s been really interesting because company employees can see what a clinical psychologist actually looks like. It helps break down boundaries when they see we don’t wear white coats or carry straitjackets,” said Carroll.

Saying yes too often

Sometimes, we bring pressure on ourselves that can lead to mental health problems. One trigger is saying yes too much. “Not knowing when to say no can lead to stress building up unchecked,” thought Bird. “We advise our new graduate recruits not to worry about saying no sometimes, and to find alternative solutions for clients.”

Davis referred to the power of a positive no. “Saying no is about saying yes to something else, so you are reframing the situation. However, many people are pre-conditioned to say yes to everything.”

Empathy is a great quality but can come back and kick you, observed Carroll, who gave an example: “Saying yes all the time can put you under pressure and you become insecure about your performance. So you stop answering calls, start falling behind in your work, and are stressed about seeing people. It makes you depressed and burns you out. The answer is not to be afraid of answering those calls and saying no if you need to.”

Saying yes all the time can lead to worries about making mistakes because you are taking on too much. You then worry about being singled out for making errors. Swanwick said: “Mistakes are part of life. It’s how you react to them that’s important. Companies need to instill this attitude in their culture.”

However, having a ‘no blame’ culture is a challenge as it can mean mistakes may not be corrected, noted Davis: “At Royal Mail, we have moved to an open, just and fair culture instead. You need to be able to get to the root cause of a problem, where there might be some responsibility. You shouldn’t get too hung up about avoiding identifying where something went wrong – the real skill is making the correction and learning from it.”

Barriers to overcome

The area where you live and your personal background can influence how you deal with mental health issues. “There are still pockets in the UK where we need to do more work. Regional differences in attitudes mean it can be harder for people to come forward and say they have a problem,” said Davis.

Wilson: “There are also religious differences to consider. For some people, saying you have a mental health problem is unacceptable.”

Businesses face a challenge in offering suitable support to a wide age range. “The older generation tends to have a stiff upper lip attitude to talking about mental health. We have to think about how we support older employees as well as the millennials,” added Wilson.

Davis added: “We’ve recently started piloting a reverse mentoring programme, where new graduates mentor older employees, especially in areas like working with technology. This works best where the relationship is reciprocal.”

Best practice ideas

The discussion wrapped up with the panel sharing ideas on what can change attitudes to mental health in the workplace.

Davis: “You can alleviate and address a lot of mental health issues just by talking, then working out strategies for coping.”

Wilson: “I advocate PIP to companies: prevention, intervention and protection.”

Carroll: “The Cardinal Clinic is working with companies to get more involved at the prevention stage.”

Holland: “Most people have a public and private face; we tend to leave our emotions at the door so identifying mental health issues can be a challenge.  Ideally we need to create a safe environment that allows employees to express rather than suppress their emotions.”

Wilkins concluded by saying support has to come from the top. “Make sure you have a board-level sponsor if you are responsible for your company’s mental health initiatives. Someone who has your back, who shares your passion, and who will support what you are doing.”


Positive Male Mind: Overcoming mental health problems                     

by Shaun Davis and Andrew Kinder

Provides insight, advice, and tips on what can be done at a very practical level to make men’s mental health much more positive.

To be launched on World Mental Health Day in October

Available on Amazon as a pre-order

Useful contacts:

Cardinal Clinic:

Mental Health First Aid England:


Dr Shaun Davis: Global director of safety, health and wellbeing, Royal Mail

Dr Martin Carroll: Clinical Psychologist, Cardinal Clinic

Nick Holland: Founder and software developer, Limbick Labs

Ali Bird: Office manager, Savills Reading office

Gary Swanwick: Managing director, Epoq IT

Cathy Wilkins: Co-chair UKI Mental Health Network, EY

Nick Wilson: Consultant, Working Minds Matter

David Murray: Founder and publisher of The Business Magazine, chaired the discussion

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