The Boardroom series: breaking the stigma around mental health to unlock potential

Most companies have realised, over the last 2 years, the benefit of talking about and supporting mental health in the workplace. From improving individual productivity and company performance, to boosting collaboration, enhancing client satisfaction and improving staff loyalty, the potential commercial gains are extensive. Beyond that, it is both a legal obligation in many countries, and a social responsibility. 

Having said that, even with all the best will in the world, it is not easy to break down the stigma that has accrued over time around the topic of mental health. As you may know, 10th October was World Mental Health day so, in this month’s boardroom series article, we address this challenge of breaking the stigma of mental health in the boardroom and beyond. Below we offer leaders three simple tips, offering you the opportunity to enhance the wellbeing of your staff and thus the resilience and success of your organisation.

Re-defining mental health

For most people the words “mental health” immediately brings to mind mental ill-health – depression, anxiety, suicide or psychosis. This is not surprising consider the culture we have grown up in which has primarily addressed this aspect of mental health. This is emphasised by the media, which, during Mental Health Awareness Week or on World Mental Health Day, focuses on the prevalence of ill-health rather than the full spectrum of mental health, from illness to wellness. This misconception that if we are talking about mental health we must be talking about low mental health, or a diagnosed condition of ill-health, is a major contributing factor to stigma. 

For most, this lack of clarity around what mental health is makes talking about it feel awkward as it is assumed that by doing so there must be a ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed. This fails to acknowledge the fact that we all have mental health, every single day. And that our own mental health is prone to fluctuation from day to day – some days we are focused, motivated, patient and kind, other days we are tired, irritable, distracted and lack hope. Just as some days our physical bodies feel healthy and energised, and some days we feel a little bit achy or have a little indigestion. It doesn’t mean that we have an illness, it is simply a sign that our body is adapting to changes in our external and internal environments, and that we are aware of how changes are affecting us. This is normal and healthy and offers us the chance to make changes where necessary to maintain good health. 

Why should we talk about mental health in the workplace?

If we assume that mental health only matters when we have a diagnosable illness, it is easy to ignore the early signs of decline in mental health. This often means that the opportunity to prevent illness arising is missed. You may have even heard people who are struggling say “I am not that bad, there are people worse off than me.” Well, we don’t have to wait to hit rock bottom before we start taking action. The same way that with our physical health we try to eat a balanced diet or do regular exercise, striving to be as fit and healthy as possible, we can do the same for our mental health. By taking a more proactive approach to our mental health, we shift the focus to prevention and optimisation. This is just one reason I talk about mental health in the workplace as mental fitness, our ability to adapt and thrive in ever-changing conditions. And the research shows that by improving our mental fitness, we can improve our decision-making, our productivity, our relationships, our career success and life satisfaction, as well as our physical health and making us less susceptible to both mental and physical ill-health. 

What this means is that by not prioritising and investing in our mental health, we might be undermining our own potential, and that of our teams. As we open up the conversation around mental health, it creates an opportunity for everyone to consider: What enables them to feel and think at their best?: What actions can individuals take to maintain optimal wellbeing?; How can we, as leaders, support that? Doing so, we empower every employee to take more ownership of their wellbeing and their performance, thus improving business results and reputation.

Breaking the stigma around mental health to unlock potential

1.Define what mental health means in your organisation

As you start working towards creating a workplace culture which supports optimal mental health, it is important to consider what exactly you are trying to achieve. Quite simply, what would our organisation look like if everyone was at their best? 

What 3-5 words would you use to describe this workplace? 

  • Innovative, supportive, consistent, collaborative, fun, meaningful, professional, reliable, creative…..? 

How would it feel to work in this environment? 

  • Would it be pressure and stress free, or would people thrive on challenges and embrace opportunities to try and fail? 
  • Would your focus be that everyone feels comfortable and stress-free all the time, or would you encourage courage in the face of fear, adaptability in times of change and collaboration when the pressure was on?
  • Would your priority be ensuring people were able to perform at their best now, or to enable them to be continually growing and developing? 

How might this impact the organisation? 

  • Would this impact productivity, client satisfaction, and business results or absenteeism and retention? 
  • How might it affect employee surveys, collaboration, communication?
  • How might this be recognised in your recruitment process, company reputation or other aspects of the business?

Engaging your leadership team and the wider organisation in conversations around what positive mental health looks like for you is the first step to promoting engagement in your wellbeing strategy and ensuring you define suitable metrics for your success.

2. Consider your role in mental health conversations

As a leader, you are a role model in your organisation. Being a role model does not just mean that you need to look after your mental health, it means you need to start demonstrating that it is ok and important to speak about and look after our mental health at work. By your having conversations about your wellbeing, it normalises the topic, communicating that health management is a key component of being able to do our best work. 

Have you ever spoken to someone in your organisation about your ups and downs? Would you feel comfortable doing so? If not, then it is unlikely that your team do and, therefore, it is likely that opportunities to prevent illness and optimise performance are already being missed.

If you want to empower others to take ownership of their own mental fitness, start talking about how you look after your own. If that feels like a big step, you might want to start by talking to a coach, a peer or a mentor on a one-to-one level. You could introduce the topic for 5-minutes at the start of a board meeting. Start to get more comfortable in a safe space. This article by Lauren C. Howe, Jochen I. Menges, and John Monks offers more tips on doing so.

3. Go public

Once your leadership team have started to understand how best to speak about their own mental health and what they feel comfortable sharing, it is important that they then extend this to the wider company. This is not only good for the leader, potentially lessening the negative impact of challenges, it also enhances empathy and trust between leaders and their teams, enhancing the likelihood for employees to look after their own mental health and building morale and loyalty. 

Again, this is not about diving in at the deep end or sharing deeply personal stories, instead it is simply creating a regular platform for leaders to share some of their own experiences and knowledge in a different way / on a different topic. This could be done by asking leaders to contribute to company newsletters or speaking at townhalls or in regular team meetings. Questions that they could answer could be:

  • What actions do you as a leader take to keep your mind at its best? 
  • What challenges or obstacles to doing so do you face in the workplace? 
  • What learnings can you share about how to manage these?

They key is not to overcomplicate what needs to be done, simple habits that can be consistently maintained are usually the best. If it feels like too big a jump for leaders to share in this way, then start with at least a mention of mental health at regular company meetings, sharing a resource or asking your audience to self-reflect on a topic about wellbeing.

Your company needs you

Over time, in putting these simple habits into action, you will find that the barriers do start to diminish, the conversations start to flow, and the impact on your team will be evident. Remember, leaders, it starts with you. All the initiatives, webinars, external support and training is futile if you are not leading by example, and that starts today.

Please share below one action you could take today to start a conversation about your mental health?

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