I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural “This Can Happen” conference on mental health in the workplace on Tuesday, 20th November 2018. You may have heard about it, if only because HRH the Duke of Cambridge attended to talk about his experiences of mental health in the workplace from his days as an air ambulance pilot. Royal patronage certainly helps when it comes to publicity and breaking down the stigma attached to mental health and wellbeing.
The conference was attended by over 750 delegates from over 100 companies. It was an impressive conference and left a lasting impression on all who attended. I was lucky enough to spend the day with my colleagues Pippa Marler, Lindsay Brown, Richard Corran and Mark Brenlund.
The major thing I took away from the day is that mental health is such a significant issue, it needs appropriate time, resources and focus if we are ever going to break down the stigma attached to it and eliminate the barriers that people feel exist when it comes to talking about their mental health. I hadn’t really appreciated just how many things can affect a person’s mental health and wellbeing.
I went to an enlightening talk on addiction by Mandy Saligari (you may have seen her on Channel 5’s ‘In Therapy’). Addiction, according to Mandy, is “Using something repeatedly to fix how you feel to the detriment of yourself”. This goes way beyond traditional views of ‘addiction’ and I am sure it is something many of us can relate to whether the addiction manifests itself in terms of drugs, alcohol, gambling, caffeine, nicotine, overeating, screen time, or exercise.
Another important talk I attended was on suicide at work and how to understand and manage the effect of it. Most workplaces are relatively unprepared to help employees who are struggling with suicidal thoughts or to assist colleagues following the death of a co-worker by suicide. The talk highlighted the importance of employer’s having a clear policy on how to handle issues surrounding suicide and the difficulties in addressing such a sensitive matter.
Richard noted the statistics on suicide, particularly in relation to men. In the UK, men remain three times more likely to take their own lives than women. The highest suicide rate in the UK is men aged between 45 and 49. There were men from West Yorkshire Police and Jaguar Landrover talking about their own mental health struggles, particularly in respect of suicide, highlighting the importance of taking that first step or encouraging others to take that first step in terms of talking about suicidal thoughts.
Richard also attended a session on menopause and mental health. Women are at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems during the menopause, yet in general workplaces rarely raise awareness of the issue or provide specific help and support. For some reason it is one of those topics rarely spoken about in the workplace, which is possibly reflected in the fact that Richard cut a lonely figure in a session filled almost exclusively by female delegates.
The other thing that I hadn’t realised causes significant mental health problems is money. Over half of UK employees say that money worries affect their behaviour and ability to perform effectively in the workplace. This affects people whether they are high earners or at the lower end of the pay scale, as it is about the management of money as well as actual income levels. Richard attended a session which considered practical ways in which employers can provide help and support to their staff to be both mentally and financially well.
Mark noted throughout the day a number of messages, but two key ones. Firstly, it is paramount that mental health is discussed. We must shake off the stigma that attaches to it. Who we talk to doesn’t matter and we will all have our own network whether that is a work based colleague or social contact. But such is the pressure these days that we should all look out for the signs of others we engage with and ask the question of whether someone is ok, and be prepared to ask twice. There were personal accounts on the day from different people in different professions with different pressures, all of whom benefitted from the interjection from another, particularly where there were unhelpful personal perceptions that were wrong. Harbouring a belief about something can add internal pressure, and if this is incorrect and can be removed, the pressure is immediately lifted.
The other key point that Mark took back was that while on a human level we want those we work with to be mentally and physically fit, this works on a commercial level also. There is a body of evidence to demonstrate that those members of staff that are mentally fit are more productive. So take time out for yourself, use those Perkz, talk to your colleagues and friends and you will become a more efficient and productive worker that will benefit your team, the firm and your clients, as well as yourself.
Overall the conference highlighted the importance of cultural change, and there were many examples of the mental health journeys that a number of employers have taken and are continuing to take. It was uplifting to hear about just how progressive some employers are in respect of this important issue.
As well as coming away from the day with many exciting and practical ideas that can be taken forward, the final talk of the day was an amazing story of someone who has harnessed her own personal tragedy and is now inspiring others. Victoria Milligan lost her husband, daughter and her leg in a horrific boating accident in 2013. She had life changing challenges to deal with including grief and loss, coming to terms with being disabled and having to learn to walk again, and then being sole parent to her remaining children. Her story highlights that, regardless of circumstances, we can all make a difference in terms of improving people’s mental health and wellbeing.