The workplace wellbeing conference returned to London on Monday, here's what we learnt...
The second edition of workplace mental health conference This Can Happen took place at the Queen Elizabeth II centre on Monday, with over 950 delegates gathering for panels, presentations and workshops across four streams.
Great British Bake Off's Nadiya Hussain's honest and very real closing keynote brought plenty of laughs, while Melanie Brown also made a star appearance to talk from a personal perspective, on a powerful panel which explored her own experience of domestic abuse.
Other sessions covered hard-hitting topics including grief, addiction and suicide, as well as the implementation of long-term workplace wellbeing strategies, featuring psychologists, clinicians, CEOs, authors and academics to name but a few. Speakers from the likes of Quilter, Unmind and Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) offered real life examples, personal stories and expert guidance on how organisations can help support the mental health of their employees.
Here COVER presents the key takeaways that we took from the event…
1. Open cultures must come from the top
"Some financial services companies almost require you to burn out," Paul Feeney, CEO of Quilter, told the audience in a raw and honest discussion about his own battle with mental health. Feeney admitted he felt afraid to talk to his bosses for fear of being seen as weak or losing his job. "The greatest pain in life is the inability to control your mind," he stated.
Sinead Lynch, chair of Shell UK, agreed that there needs to be a culture shift in order to reduce the stigma. We must "create an environment where people can speak up," she argued, while PwC's Sarah Churchman added that "trust is a very important factor to addressing mental health in the workplace".
It was also mentioned throughout the day that meaningful change must come from the top. Feeney said that "leaders need to stand up and be counted and get personal about this" while Steve Demetriou, CEO of engineering firm Jacobs, spoke about the need for authentic leadership: "If we truly believe in culture first, then everything else will fall into place."
2. Financial and mental health are intrinsically linked
In an incredibly honest discussion Receipt Bank's Rohan Kallicharan spoke about his own battle with bipolar disorder and the devastation that it brought upon his finances. He explained that he "just looked irresponsible" to others, who did not realise it was something he had no control over.
The point was made that a similar attitude to breaking down stigma toward mental health should be applied to financial health as the two are so inextricably linked. "Nobody wants to come forward and say ‘I'm in debt'," Vicky Rose of Norton Rose Fullbright stated.
Improving education around financial wellbeing is key. "It would be wonderful if every young employee could have a sit-down session, getting them more in control [of their finances]," Iona Bain, founder of Young Money Blog & Agency said. Financial health first aiders - alongside mental health first aiders - as well as role models and peer mentors could help employers here.
3. Mental health first aiders can come in all shapes and sizes
In keeping with the Iona's point, the idea that supportive personnel can be designated to specific areas of expertise and depending on experience was a theme that ran through multiple sessions. As well as financial wellbeing first aiders, grief ambassadors could support those potentially suffering following a bereavement, while, for example, a recovering alcoholic or addict would be an ideal person to help others encountering similar lifestyle challenges. LTGBQ+ representatives, as well as those from a certain religious or ethnic background can be well placed to help create safe spaces and encourage inclusive dialogues.
4. There is no one-size-fits-all solution - everyone is different
It may sound a tad clichéd to say this, but it's true. We are all likely to suffer with mental-ill health at some point in our lives. In today's modern, fast-paced environments, stress - in particular - is perhaps inevitable. But we are all individuals who respond and react to a crisis in our own unique ways, so it makes sense to tailor the help offered to the individual needs of employees.
CEO Demetriou explained how his company had different initiatives in different countries taking into consideration the variances in culture. In the Middle East, where there is perhaps a greater stigma attached to being mentally unwell, they have a programme that deals more specifically with stress called ‘Are You Ok?'.
On a panel exploring grief, film producer Lizzie Pickering said return-to-work rehabilitation following bereavement needs to be tailored to the needs of each individual, because grief is "unique" and impacts us all in unpredictable ways and at different times.
Speaking from the perspective of someone in recovery and on a 12-step programme, counsellor Marisa Smallman explained that someone in the grip of an addiction needs to be ready in order to ask for help, and often requires them to reach rock bottom before they do. This means support needs to be on-hand and available for them reach out - not the other way around.
5. Faith also carries a stigma at work that can create a barrier
While there are many mental health benefits associated with faith and spirituality, it can also lead to individuals feeling like outsiders unless there is an open dialogue about religion within workplaces. A panel discussion exploring faith and diversity highlighted that safe spaces need to be created for employees to allow for intersectionality across workforces. Those belonging to a religion should not be reduced to labels, which can often be either seen as negative or positive.
MHFA England's Simon Blake said: "We often put things into categories, but we all have different bits to ourselves. If individuals feel able to bring their whole selves to work, they will feel better at work."
He added that diversity and faith should be seen through the same frame as mental health and wellbeing, which is not about separation but about "dialogue, listening and being able to understand".
One useful suggestion involved using spiritual festivals and days to celebrate faith within workplaces to ensure people feel included. Another was to inform employees about religious events happening outside of work.
6. Employees spotting poor mental health early can save lives
It was encouraging to hear references to employee assistance programme (EAP) peppered across the sessions, with the service offering getting mentions in almost every session we attended. However, while these are crucial to helping those who are struggling, knowing how to spot signs that a colleague may be suffering can also serve as what's needed to help prevent tragedy.
In the days before his brother's death, Amandip Sidhu - founder and CEO of Doctors in Distress - said colleagues had noticed his perfectionism had become more intense, he was repeating himself and had become obsessive. "If you notice a change in a colleague's behaviour ask ‘are you ok?'" he said. But he also stressed the importance of checking back in even if they say they're ok, follow up with them. David Hammond of Haseltine Lake Kempner, and colleague of Graham McCartney's son Jonathan, told us not to be "frightened to ask someone if they're feeling suicidal… statistics show that you won't drive them to do it".
Flexible working, while allowing employees to manage their headspace, work/life balance and therefore stress, Rachel Lewis, an occupational psychologist, argued that isolated individuals working from home can be put in danger of become lonely. She said remote working can cut access to protective factors at work, impair social relationships and increases the risk of miscommunication.
7. Mental health hygiene should be taught in schools
Speaking on a panel about understanding suicide, Graham McCartney, who lost his son Jonathan to suicide two years ago, said that "we are taught how to clean our teeth, but never how to look after our mental health".
He expressed concern for young people moving from higher education and into the workforce who may move away from their friendship groups and work long hours to prove themselves. Neil Peters from the Samaritans spoke of young people needing to be taught the "skills to look after themselves in their early years so they're better able to cope" with the events that life will inevitably throw at them.
Mindfulness, meditation and wearables were put forward as suitable ways to manage our mental health. When asked "can you measure your health?" in relation to app technology, Dr Nick Taylor, Unmind CEO, said: "Yes. If you can measure it, you can track it - that's prevention."
Is technology the way forward?
As well as EAP, there is now an abundance of technology available to employees to help them monitor their own mental health; from apps to wearables, we are spoilt for choice. One that stood out to us was Okina, an app in the beta stages and developed by People Matter, currently being piloted by Experian. The app allows the user to input their values, work ethics and home life and add any challenges or pressures that come up at work and how they made them feel. It is done anonymously but allows employers to see how trends in the workplace are affecting their staff and they can then work out how best to help them or what they need to change to make the work environment a more pleasant place to be.
Unmind is another offering trackable mental health technology, and services such as Slack help employees working remotely communicate across a network, rather than expecting them to use email to feel connected. However, as mentioned above, agile working is something that needs to be managed carefully to avoid workers feeling isolated.
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