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How HR can reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace

By 01/06/2022July 1st, 2022No Comments

The month of May marked Mental Health Awareness month here in the UK, which naturally formed the topic for our monthly webinar: ‘How HR can reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace ’. Joined by David Beeney, Founder of Breaking the Silence, we discussed the stigma of mental health in the workplace and what HR leaders can do to help their teams.

It’s been reported by Mind charity that poor mental health impacts a staggering 1 in every 6 employees. And pre-pandemic analysis from Deloitte estimated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion annually and suggests that ‘for every £1 spent on supporting employee mental health, employers get £5 back on their investment in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover’. So, it’s clear to see that there is a strong financial benefit to organisations actively investing and improving their employee wellbeing strategy.

How HR can reduce the stigma of mental health in the workplace webinar: 

Or read on for the key takeaways from the session:

It starts at the top…

There’s only one place to start and it must be at the top of the organisation with the leadership team. Sadly, too many companies are still just ticking a box when it comes to addressing mental health in the workplace, and are not demonstrating ‘action’ or making wellbeing one of their strategic priorities. David has seen first-hand the difference and impact that can be had when leaders prioritise mental wellbeing over those that don’t:

“Andy Alderson, the CEO of Vanarama, a sales driven company, is one of my favourite examples of a senior leader who sets the tone from the very top of his organisation. At the very start of the Coronavirus pandemic, none of us knew what was going to happen and people were very nervous about where this pandemic was leading us. However, Andy sent out an initial video message where he said, at the moment, I don’t care about sales. I care about you, my people and your families. He said, my priority over the coming months is going to be to make sure we’ve got a great business at the end of this that we’re all still proud to work for. Well, guess what happened? Sales went up. Andy’s people were so inspired by his authenticity that they wanted to work even harder for the organisation. Does Andy care about sales? Of course he does. He’s put his life into this business. But he also genuinely cares about his people.

Sadly, in reverse to that, often I do a mental health talk to 50/60 staff within a business, but there will be no senior management in the room because they’re ‘too busy’. And by them not prioritising the time to attend, it shows the team that this subject matter isn’t important to them. Change must start at the very top because culture and behaviours trickle top down. And unless senior leaders change their behaviour and role model this, then nothing’s going to change further down the line.”

People managers need to play their part

People managers play an important part in culture as well, where it tends to be the case that what you think of your manager is what you think of the organisation you work for, too. David discusses a real-life example of employees who worked for a brilliant organisation with a great culture, but where this wasn’t reciprocated by their manager.

‘’One of the key things that every business must do, in my opinion, is educate and train managers on the power of saying ‘how are you?’. There’s a lot of evidence to support the fact that we need to be starting meetings at work before we start talking about work, and asking people how they are. But you’ve got to be prepared to listen. It’s the simplest and easiest way to create a culture where people feel cared for.

One of the largest banks in the world, who were once considered one of the best employers, conducted their largest ever wellbeing survey for 76,000 staff. They asked them lots of questions about wellbeing, but one question was very black and white. It simply said, ‘Do we care about you? Yes, or no?’ –  They asked that question because they thought most people would say yes, but 38,000 of their workforce said no, you don’t care about me. They drilled into the data and went looking for common denominators, where they found the issue straight away – their boss or line manager. They then drilled further into the data to see what the managers do to make employees think they don’t care about them, and the number one thing was that those managers always talked about customers KPIs sales etc., as opposed to asking, ‘how are you?’ or ‘how are you doing?’. Management training, in creating the right sort of culture, is therefore so important.’’

The power of communication

Many leaders fail to understand the importance of having conversations at work that are not about work. Communication with employees is more than just talking – it’s about creating a meaningful connection with them, which gives leaders a better understanding of the needs and goals of their staff.

‘’When I was at Autotrader, my colleague Sharon came up to me one day and said, ‘David how’s Sally’s dog?’, to which I started laughing. Sharon said, ‘what’s funny about that question?’, and I said, ‘well, would I ask Sally about her dog when I didn’t even know Sally had a dog?’. Sharon didn’t even smile, then said she was disappointed and that I should know that Sally has got a dog because he is her life, and that next time I see her, I should start that conversation about her dog. So, I did! When I look back at my relationship with Sally, the dynamic of it only really changed for the better the day that I asked her that question, because we connected on a more humanistic level. It’s simple stuff like that, that makes a really, really big difference.

In another workplace, a very alpha male senior leader had a lady who worked for him for a few years whom he noticed was always very nervous around him. When she coyly approached him one day, he remembered overhearing a conversation that she had recently taken a day off work to help her son settle back at university, so he thought to drop this into the conversation they were having. And, he said that for the first time in two years, this person fully relaxed in front of him and seemed like a completely different person. After this, he reported that she became an even better employee, wanting to work even harder for him than she previously did. It was the first time in two years that he’d spoken to her about anything outside of work, which turned out to be the key to unlock their relationship.’’

Reframing mental health in the workplace

One of the best ways that HR can improve conversations around mental health in businesses is to get rid of the word ‘mental’, as part of the stigma tends to be around this word, and people don’t like it. In fact, David encourages businesses to reframe the topic by changing the language to ‘healthier minds’ or ‘health and wellbeing’ instead.

‘’If you put ‘mental health’ into Google Images, it’s all negative imagery like pictures of someone with their head in their hands looking really sad. If, however, we talk about ‘healthier minds’ and ‘health and wellbeing’ instead, you would generally get more engagement.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to do a presentation to the board at one of the leading travel businesses with the managing director. He was worried about senior members of the team getting involved and invested in mental health, so instead, he chose to introduce the presentation on the agenda as ‘driving energy through the business’. But, when he introduced me that day, he said, ‘I’m going to make no apologies – if I put David Beeney on the agenda as the mental health or wellbeing guy, some of you wouldn’t have turned up today, or if you did, you may not have turned up with the right mindset. The reason for me putting David down as ‘driving energy through the business’ was because I honestly think that if we get our approach to wellbeing right, we will drive energy across the organisation, which will ultimately drive performance.’’

Lead by example

Leading by example is a fantastic strategy to use when looking to benefit those within your team, whereby the person at the top will demonstrate a behaviour they want to be emulated.

‘’I spoke to someone very senior in the Royal Navy about three years ago where he privately shared with me about his mental health break down. And at the time, he told me that he hid it from everybody. But about six months ago, I had the privilege of sharing a stage with him where he spoke to hundreds and hundreds of sailors about his mental health breakdown. There were grown people crying and it was very emotional – he never thought he would have talked about this in his career. But is he now seen as weak? Is he now seen as liability? Not at all. He’s now seen as a more courageous leader than ever because he’s been prepared to talk about his mental health. And, it’s been found that even as a CEO, these days you’re likely to lose your job in the boardroom when you don’t show vulnerability.’’

Camera’s on…

With remote learning becoming the norm since the pandemic, businesses have resorted to move many of their team meetings online, where switching on laptop cameras has now become the way to get much of our face-to-face interaction with colleagues from the comfort of our own homes. David goes on to discuss the importance and effectiveness of having your camera on during meetings: 

‘’I’ve worked with many diverse cultures, and some businesses always encourage people to not have their cameras on in virtual meetings. Now, I know it sounds very flippant, but you wouldn’t go to a meeting at work with a box on your head because you didn’t want people to see you on that day. If we’re going to keep an eye on our people and truly connect with one another, where possible we should really have our cameras on. I respect that some people don’t want their colleagues to see what’s behind them, and there’s sometimes good reasons for that, but in many cases, it’s good to see a cat, and it’s good to see an interesting picture on the wall, because you’re relating more to that person in a humanistic way.’’

Self-compassion and the power of ‘how are you?’

To round up, David talks about how we simply need to go back to basics when wanting to take that first step in bettering both our own and others mental health through showing ourselves self-compassion and purposely asking others how they’re doing.

‘’I want everyone who listens to this session today to find a way to become kinder to yourself, because that will mean different things to each of you. When you become kinder to yourself, you’ll generally always improve your mental wellbeing, as well as your performance.

‘’In terms of looking after people in the workplace, it’s important to acknowledge the power of ‘how are you?’. Try and start as many conversations as you can with work colleagues and in meetings by saying, ‘look, I know we’re busy, but how are you?’. Be prepared to listen, and maybe perhaps share a little bit about yourself as well at the same time.’’

Conclusion

Reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace wont happen overnight, it requires a culture shift which starts at the very top of your organisation.  However there are some quick wins you, as a HR leader can implement, such as encouraging more positive conversations around mental health (or health and wellbeing as we’ll now be calling it!) and embedding new behaviours across all people managers.

Mental Health in the workplace masterclasses

David specialises in masterclasses and workshops that explore the causes, stigma, and some of the myths of mental health. Practical steps are agreed which can then be taken back into the workplace with the goal of creating a culture of openness and trust. You can learn more here.

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