Time to push mental health at work from the edge to the mainstream

December 4, 2019

You are probably sick of hearing me talk about mental health at work, but I don’t care – we still have work to do. And according to Paul Farmer, CEO of mental health charity Mind, we are only just approaching the halfway mark.

I spent some time with Paul during Mad World 2019, and had the chance to ask some of the pressing questions on my mind. Questions like:

  • What are we doing right?
  • Why isn’t there more legislation around mental health?
  • What should we do next?

His answers were very insightful, and helped me to understand what needs to happen next. And if we keep pushing, we might just nudge the issue of mental health from the fringe of entrepreneurialism, into the mainstream of business.

The picture of mental health is improving

Let me start by reiterating that it’s not all doom and gloom, and we have certainly come a long way in the last few years. Especially where tackling the stigma of mental health is concerned.

For example, thousands of delegates attended Mad World 2019 in London this year – an annual conference dedicated to the discussion of mental health in the workplace. And when Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind,  took to the stage, the first thing he said was that if an event like Mad World had been organised just 10 years ago, nobody would have turned up.

“We’ve worked really hard to unpackage the stigma of mental health in recent years” he told me, during a chat after his presentation. “Five and a half million of us now have better attitudes about mental health, and they’re more likely to engage with the conversation at work.”

Paul Farmer

Now we’re talking

Paul stresses that we are still less than halfway towards where we need to be, in terms of the action we are taking as employers. And in order to support the agenda of positive mental health for employees, we need to do more.

“We are talking about mental health now, which is great” he says. “But the next step, I think, is for businesses to consider the way in which they are talking about it. For example, ‘corporate reporting’ on mental health so far has been relatively minor. I think that if more people start doing that, it will encourage the people that aren’t.”

Paul is not the only leader to call for more reporting on mental health in the workplace. Dame Carol Black says that mental health reporting is seriously lacking, and that while the evidence is there that good mental health is good for work, it is not widely accessible by smaller businesses looking to find evidence-backed initiatives.

But also, it’s about setting the right example. Paul tells me that the more organisations that seriously incorporate mental health reporting into the way they work, the more other companies will see this, and ask themselves “hang on, why aren’t I taking it as seriously as they are?”

We are getting closer to tipping mental health at work into the mainstream

Paul says that we are on the brink of a people’s revolution on mental health. He says that we are almost at the point where we are nudging mental health from the fringe of adventure and entrepreneurialism, and into the mainstream of business.

“Workers are increasingly asking organisations about their wellbeing credentials” he tells me. “And a people’s revolution is very much coming. We are nearly reaching a tipping point, and the nuts and bolts that make it an issue that everybody takes seriously, are almost in place.”

But Paul says that we need to finish getting these nuts and bolts in place before we consider the question of legislation.

Once we’ve done this, then we can talk about legislation

The legislation surrounding mental health at work is something that I have often pondered, in a way that troubles me. You see, I hear stories of people who try to push for mental health provisions to be written into company policies and processes, only to be told by HR that “the law doesn’t require it, so we don’t need to do it”.

This is the wrong attitude, and it makes me wonder if we should be pushing for more legislation to force more engagement from organisations. But Paul has an interesting perspective that makes me re-consider my position.

“I think in the next few years a lot of legislation is going to happen” he admits, “but there is a lot of evidence that says that if you make something mandatory, people don’t really love it. Forcing something on people through legislation stops them from asking why, and turns whatever it is into another tick box exercise. And mental health should never be a tick box exercise.”

Paul says that over time, we will probably see more people asking why the health and safety executive, or the quality and human rights commission, aren’t doing more to look at some of the really awful workplaces out there. But for now, we should keep leading by example, pushing to report more on the things we are doing in our own organisations, and see how much further we can take it.

The Stevenson Farmer Review

Of course, Paul has already prepared a lot of the groundwork for future legislation. And in 2017, the UK government actually asked Paul Farmer and Dennis Stevenson, to produce an independent review into workplace mental health.

Their review is often referred to as the Stevenson Farmer Review, and does an incredible job of setting out the stage, and making excellent recommendations that both the public and private sector should be taking on-board, in order to solve many of the problems caused by poor mental health in the workplace.

Many of the recommendations made to organisations in the Stevenson Farmer review are easy and very low-cost.

You can read more about the Stevenson Farmer Review on the Mind website here.

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