I used to be pretty naive to mental health issues and the complex ways they can manifest themselves in our lives. That all changed on the 7th January 2016, when a good friend – a highly successful Finance Director – took his own life. Needless to say, this came as a complete shock to everyone that knew him and there was, and still is, huge sadness at losing a great man, who I will always miss dearly.
Nearly three years on the conversation around mental health is, thankfully, changing. Nationwide, there is growing awareness about the importance of speaking up on this issue and how best to identify and support family, friends and colleagues, who might be struggling. The main narrative is, rightly, about empowering people to say when they are not ok or when they might need some extra support. But I think we need to add more colour to this picture – particularly in the workplace.
Across the individual sectors we work in, we need more personal insights about how best to manage our mental health before things become too much. We need to discuss the role that our professional networks and teams can play in this. And, crucially, we need more business leaders to share how they tackle their own mental health challenges day-to-day, and at times of change.
Earlier this year, Afshin Amirahmadi, Managing Director of Arla Foods, wrote an inspiring blog where he detailed being diagnosed with depression. He said that, ten years on, his experience has shaped him into a better leader and citizen. His words that ‘everyone is fighting some sort of battle’ inspired me to write this post – something I’d been thinking about for a while.
According to the Mental Health Foundation1, almost one in seven people in the UK experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%) and 12.7% of all sick days are attributed to mental health conditions. Despite this, very few people are prepared to ask for help when they need it. In business, there is still a stigma attached to admitting you are struggling – especially at an executive level. Research published in The Grocer2 in July backs this up. Just 3% of retail sector employees would tell their employer if they were suffering from mental health issues, while 37.3% wouldn’t share their troubles with anyone at work. As leaders, we have a duty to change this.
We have to get the conversation going in our own organisations and create supportive work environments where people feel comfortable enough to speak up. We also need to demystify the idea that executives are invincible – because it’s just not true. Only by stepping forwards and sharing our own stories, will we inspire others to reach out and ask for help when they need it.
My own experiences have taught me that mental health issues can hit anyone, at any time. As the owner of a busy executive search consultancy, I know my own mental health depends on me regularly taking time out for myself; and lots of leading executives in my professional network agree with me. Like me, they factor time for themselves into their weekly schedule. Whether it’s a spin session at the gym, a quick run or half an hour reading a book, taking time out is essential for re-energising, refocusing and refreshing the mind. While we might not always correlate ‘taking time out’ with managing our mental health – particularly if we’re at the gym – I know I am at my best ‘mentally’ when I work out three to four times a week. It’s not always easy to find the time to do this. I feel guilty when I leave the office at 6pm for a workout. But, I know I’ll perform better in the office the next day if I do.
Through my work I’ve also learnt that looking after your mental health at times of change is essential – particularly if you are facing a period out of work, either through choice or because of something out of your control. However change comes about, adapting to a phase of no work can be difficult. When you don’t have to filter hundreds of emails a day; lead a senior team; or dial into multiple conference calls, a void can easily open up.
Perceived success from your peers can make talking about the mental adjustment needed during these periods even harder. There’s a presumption that, if you’ve just sold a business and got a great pay out, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. In reality that’s not true. Some of my most insightful conversations with top executives about their mental health have come when they have been at a crossroads. Being out of the loop, even temporarily, can be so much harder than dealing with day-to-day office life. The key is building and maintaining a trusted network of contacts (social and professional) that you can draw on when you need to.
Given my experience of extreme mental health issues in 2016, it’s encouraging that we are starting to talk more openly about the importance of emotional wellbeing – and there are some great tools becoming available to businesses that want to address this issue.
In September, Heads Together3; Mind4; and The Royal Foundation5; launched Mental Health at Work6, a platform that offers a range of resources to companies wanting to demonstrate their commitment to mental wellbeing in the workplace. Speaking at the launch, the Duke of Cambridge, said, to paraphrase7: “The thing about mental health is we often only talk about it when the situation becomes serious; when people are pushed to the brink or, tragically, pushed too far. It just takes one person to change the way a company thinks about mental health. It doesn’t matter what business you are in, by taking mental health seriously, you can build a better team, be a better boss, and be a better colleague.”
I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. We must banish any remaining stigma and applaud anyone that steps forward with a story to tell. We must also be aware and alert to the stresses involved in our industries day-to-day, and when looking for a new role. As business owners and leaders, we must increase awareness of mental health issues; share our own experiences, and encourage others to proactively manage their mental health. We have a long way to go but, together, we can show true leadership on this issue. Right, that’s enough from me. I’m off for a guilt-free run!