Mental health: Stigma killed my friend…

…was the opening gambit of a conference on Mental Health in the Workplace that Golin’s HR Manager Harry and I attended last week. Geoff McDonald (one of Unilever’s senior execs and global HR leader until 2014) was referring to a close male friend of his, a banker who took his own life only a few years ago. The quote refers to the stigma still attached to talking about and addressing mental health issues in the workplace. The tide is turning but it’s a juggernaut to shift.

Stigma is one of the things we’re trying to address here at Golin this World Mental Health Day, sharing anonymous quotes from senior members of our team to start a dialogue and create a culture of empathy. We are looking forward to welcoming a series of speakers in coming weeks too, again to begin a meaningful conversation and widespread training in the New Year.

I wanted to share some of my key take outs from the conference – which was both shocking and insightful – in the hope that it might help us collectively take just a little step forward on this vital journey.

Geoff McDonald, who now consults UK corporates on mental health, raising awareness and tackling depression & anxiety in the workplace;

  • A common theme in every organisation he works in is that today, he always finds an exhausted, drained workforce. Burnout is the result of a never-ending drive for efficiency, doing more with less.
  • His hypothesis is how about we put people’s drive, motivation or ‘energy’ first (rather than efficiency) in corporate UK? Nurture and even measure it in reviews – better for the individual, better in fact for organisational output. This will effectively help wellbeing become institutionalised which it has to be for change to be meaningful.
  • What drives our energy & drive? Our wellbeing is a pyramid built upon a foundation of physical wellbeing, upon which emotional elements are laid, followed by mental and then at the top of the pyramid comes an individual’s sense of purpose. If all levels are nourished and sound then you achieve wellbeing. ‘You can’t pour an empty glass,’ says Geoff.
  • He eloquently argues that we have to find a way to shift the current narrative on mental health. Today, if you hear that phrase the assumption is in fact, mental ill-health. We need to turn the narrative to a positive one, turn mental wellness in fact, into a platform for competitive advantage.

Susan Scott, best-selling author, psychologist, nutritionist & public speaker. She has a new book out next week, ‘How to Prevent Burnout’;

  • Susan has just released research of 125 young UK professionals (21-32 year olds)
    • 39% felt close to burnout
    • 31% said line managers weren’t at all supportive
    • BITC research last month also saying LMs are the front line = it’s time to change!
  • Your own sense of purpose is central to your wellbeing – take note business leaders.
  • Stress doesn’t ‘exist’ – rather it’s your perception and individual response to triggers
  • Mental Health definition (WHO); “state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to contribute to his or her community”.
  • Mental health is not the same as mental illness.
  • Only 14% of organisations have a mental health policy (glad that Golin is in that 14%)
  • 90% of mental illness in UK today is depression, anxiety and panic attacks
  • ¾ of people affected by stress and anxiety in the workplace don’t tell anyone
  • Suicide – is the biggest killer of young men and it’s growing.
  • The science; neurotransmitters are controlled by a collection of hormones/chemicals. Really low levels of serotonin for example can lead to clinical depression so that is effectively purely a chemical imbalance. But, stress triggers can also affect this chemical balance.
  • Susan believes that “work life balance is a term from the 80s”. It’s now more about life balance, making the two parts of your life work together.
  • Pace and scale of organisational change is huge in today’s economy – that combined with lack of control/communication is a massive stress trigger.
  • The natural daily cortisol cycle is being tinkered with today – people no longer tail off with the natural generation of cortisol in the afternoon and evening so therefore 69% of young professionals are struggling to sleep (according to Susan’s survey). If you overstimulate, and don’t recover your brain is damaged. If it keeps going you will crash – if your cortisol goes below a certain level you CANNOT function. You cannot get out of bed, cannot make a meaningful contribution.
  • Signs of stress and depression to look out for in the workplace include;
    • Memory loss
    • Lack of concentration
    • Racing thoughts
    • Poor decision-making
    • Tearfulness
    • Dizziness
    • Making mistakes
    • Withdrawing
  • EU Courts are cracking down on instances relating to mental health, instructing tribunals to take a hard line on corporates. The UK HSE is also cracking down and UK employers are now legally required to conduct an audit and risk assessment so there really is a business imperative to act here.

My hope for this World Mental Health Day is that we UK employers are compelled to collectively move a step or two forward on this journey. I do feel positive about the level of public dialogue but there remains a significant elephant in the room (stigma). I am hopeful of making good progress within our own organisation building mental well-being in the coming months, good luck within your own four walls!