Five lessons about mental health from Mad World Summit 2019

October 16, 2019

Last week, I attended Mad World Summit 2019. I heard some great talks, met some great people, and had some great conversations about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. I’ll be publishing some of these conversations as more in-depth articles in the weeks to come.

But first, I want to share with you five key lessons I learned, simply by listening to the experts talk about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

1. We are finally all talking about mental health

When Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, took to the stage, the room was packed from front to back with people. People eager to listen and learn about how they can promote better mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

And one of the first things Paul said, was this:

“If we had tried to organise an event like this 10 years ago, nobody would have turned up.”


Thousands of delegates attended the second annual Mad World Summit in London, to learn about good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Paul openly admits that we are not even halfway towards where we should be. But at the same time, he is keen to recognise that we are making movement, and that we are moving in the correct direction.

And that’s why my first lesson, from the second ever Mad World Summit, was that many of the things we are doing already, are making a difference. There is less stigma surrounding mental health. We are talking about it more openly and honestly. And more people than ever are actively trying to learn what they can do to help.

2. Look for interventions that people will actually engage with

The keynote speech was delivered by Dame Carol Black, who spent 10 years as an expert advisor to the British government, consulting on the relationship between work and health.

In her speech, Dame Black said that in order to take effective action, we need to know which interventions are actually going to get engagement from the people they are trying to help. Because no matter how good an intervention looks on paper, it is no good just sitting on a shelf gathering dust.

Dame Carol Black delivers the keynote speech at Mad World Summit 2019

Dame Black cited research that showed low participation in most mental health initiatives. As low as 3%! Of course, knowing which initiatives people will engage with, is no easy task.

Dame Black says that ideally, you want to look for evidence-backed solutions first. But real impartial evidence can be very hard to come by. And that’s why, as a fallback, following “best practice” is the way forward. In other words, looking at which solutions are working for other companies, and seeing how you can replicate those within your own business.

3. Start small, scale up

Of course, there’s another way you can test which initiatives might be effective. Especially if you operate a considerably-sized workforce, such as that of rebellious footwear brand Dr. Martens.

If you have a good idea, then “start small” advises Holly Smith, Chief Culture Vulture at Dr. Martens. “Pilot your new ideas, and when they work well, scale them up and apply them across your whole business.”

Dr. Martens’s HR Director Helen Verwoert, and Chief Culture Vulture Holly Smith, take part in a panel about culture at Mad World Summit 2019

In other words, if you don’t have the evidence, but you’re convinced that something is going to be a good idea, then why not try it out on a small scale?

The important part here, says Holly, is making sure that you listen hard to feedback from employees, in a way that goes deeper than just hearing the words they are speaking. You must listen, and you must adopt the things they tell you.

Otherwise, you’ll just end up providing them with free fruit for a year, and wondering why it isn’t working.

4. Don’t forget about financial wellbeing

You might remember my interview with Dr Shaun Davis earlier this year, where he shared some of his tips for promoting positive mental health at work.

Dr Davis is the Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the Royal Mail. And at Mad World Summit 2019, he was keen to push the conversation onto the topic of financial wellbeing.

I actually heard a lot of experts talking about this at the conference. I get the impression this may well be the next battlefield that we should tackle, as employers. And I intend on exploring this in more detail in the months to come.

Dr Shaun Davis has recently published his second book, written with Andrew Kinder: Positive Mental Health

During Dr Davis’s presentation, the topic of financial wellbeing seemed to generate a lot of noise from delegates. Members of the audience were struggling with issues such as whether or not they should offer advances to employees. On the one hand, these advances are cheaper than payday loans. But on the other, they facilitate a pattern of living on borrowed income.

5. Build jobs that are good for people

Finally, the fifth big lesson that stuck with me from the conference, was something that Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD said, during a panel discussion.

“Create a world focused on building jobs that are good for people” he told the room. “The evidence is there that if you take care of people, they will stick around longer and produce more.”

Peter Cheese (2nd from the left) takes part in a panel discussion about thriving at work.

He added that if we continue to refer to people as “resources” or “assets”, then we are making them secondary – when in actual fact, they should be our primary focus.

Expect more content that pushes for stronger mental health in the workplace

I’m very aware that it was Mental Health Awareness Week last week. And perhaps you’re thinking that maybe I should have been publishing more mental health content last week, instead of this week.

But actually, mental health awareness is an ongoing battle. I purposefully didn’t talk about it last week, because I knew you would be getting bombarded from all angles. There was no need for me to add to the noise.

But now that Mental Health Awareness Week is over, you can expect to see me continuing the fight over the next 12 months. As well as other HR insights, you can expect me to continue publishing content, throughout the year, reminding you of the importance of a healthier, happier workplace.

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