I’m convinced we’ve reached the tipping point. The point of no return. The point at which what was once a fringe issue is now smack bang in the mainstream. Mental health has come out of the shadows in the UK.
This week, a cross Party group of high profile individuals made huge headlines with their campaign to ensure that mental health services get the same profile, funding and support that physical health gets. The coverage of their campaign was heartwarming. It showed how far we have come. It showed that the argument has been won and now we just need to ensure that this government and subsequent governments put their money where their mouth is. It’s no longer about ‘if’ but ‘how’.
It was also encouraging to see so many figures from across British public life lending their support to the campaign and telling their stories – doing lots to remove the final stains of stigma which have dogged mental health for generations. Some of these figures came from business. Many businesses, including some of the UK’s most recognisable and iconic, issued supportive comments and statements. All good. But there is one health warning – especially for Britain’s biggest businesses.
The focus of many of these statements were on ‘the stuff we are doing’……the manuals, the training courses, the awareness raising, the helplines, the intranet pages and the like. This is all good stuff – well, it’s means well and in some cases does well, but it runs the risk of missing the point. The issue of mental health at work – specifically the stresses and anxieties that can breed at work and lead to serious health issues such as depression – are more about culture in these businesses than the courses they mandate people to take.
I know from experience of working in some fantastic big organisations that they invest time, money and effort in this work. But I also know that it is not the most important contribution they can make. The problem – and it is a major problem in many big organisations – is the culture. The way stuff happens in their organisations. The way people behave. The expectations – often unspoken and almost always unwritten – for what people need to do to get on, fit in and succeed. These expectations are set at the top – the MDs, CEOs and Partners who work consistently anti-social hours and contact their junior colleagues at these times; the sacrificing of time at home with family and friends to put work first; the pressure of unnecessary deadlines and unrealistic workloads to see who can cut it and who cannot; and the anxieties and pressures that people feel when more senior people treat them without the respect they deserve and tolerate others doing the same. This atmosphere is the problem.
Training can play a role but a much bigger role is played by the organisation not tolerating poor behaviours, bullying, aggression, bad manners and intolerance of colleagues no matter how successful or profitable the culprits are. Big businesses creating a culture that allows people to be themselves at work, supports them to succeed and yes, sets high standards and demands the very best possible work is the big thing they can do.
I heard one big business this week talk about the importance of resilience and how they work hard to help their employees develop more of it. My heart sank. Of course resilience is important in work and in life but when we talk about people’s health and especially their mental health we should be talking about them as people not sheets of metal. We shouldn’t be sending the signal – as I believe this does – that it is somehow the fault of the person who is unwell – if only they were stronger or could bounce back better everything would be ok.
It’s about shared responsibilities between employer and employee; creating the right environment for people to succeed and the right support if things get difficult. Like all things in life, it’s about respect. Respecting people as people not as a resource. Respecting that they have lives that are not just about their work. Respecting them always.
None of this takes away from the progress being made in business and elsewhere to make mental health a priority but let’s never forget work is only work; it’s should never be the thing that makes people sick.