Happy Birthday Minds@Work

We had a double reason to celebrate at last week’s Minds@Work event at the offices of Made by Many in Islington: firstly, in the way that’s now traditional for our meetups, we had a matchless cast of speakers who had come to explain the invaluable work they are doing to destigmatise mental illness in the workplace (more on them shortly). But secondly – it was our first birthday. A cake was ordered, made and delivered, and it fell to Minds@Work’s own Camilla Upson to cut it. “Mills”, as she known to her colleagues, is the secret logistical magic behind our movement, which was founded in August 2015 by Geoff McDonald and Georgie Mack, and she’s one of the key reasons why membership has grown over the last year from a small band of 12 like-minded people to over 260.

Naturally, that doesn’t mean that the work is done. Far from it: it has only just started and judging by the presentations that evening, there’s plenty of it going on already.

Adam Spreadbury of The Bank Of England

Adam Spreadbury of The Bank Of England

For instance, Adam Spreadbury (above) talked about the initiatives being made in no less than the Bank of England to mandate mental health. Spreadbury is co-chair of the BoE’s mental health network, and he talked about the recent “This Is Me” video, in which employees fearlessly open up about their challenges. "This Is Me" was originally launched by Barclays and later open sourced to the whole of the City as part of the Lord Mayor's Appeal. One wonders, if an institution as august as the Bank Of England can lead in this area, just how far can the message spread?

There were further examples of grassroots initiatives. We heard from Deepti Parmar of Oakleaf Enterprise, a Guildford-based mental health charity which offers vocational training, support and activities to adults living with mental ill-health in the area; and from Olivier Vidal who leads The Fair Hiring Project, which aims to level the playing field in recruitment and assist job candidates in authentically telling their stories – including their challenges with mental health – on their own terms, in order to cut bias and improve inclusion in talent selection. And lastly, the teacher Isabel Hutton talked about her work on another frontline where the battle for mental health is being fought: the secondary school classroom. Why not make contact with any of these (in our Slack channel for instance) and see how we can work together??

"Don’t Ask Me What's Wrong, 

Ask Me What Happened"


The quote above (which encapsulates a positive approach for working with people who have suffered) came from the eminent Dr Peter Kinderman, professor of clinical psychology at Liverpool University and current president of the British Psychological Society, who added a degree of widescreen context to these strands of activity. A born raconteur with a persuasive and engaging argument (and plenty of good one-liners as well), Kinderman enraptured the gathering with the story of how, in his view, mental illness remains deeply misunderstood and poorly treated in society today, as well as by psychiatry itself. We should be suspicious, he said, of the claim that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lives – after all, don’t we all have “mental health”? Similarly, traditional psychiatric models of labelling, diagnosis and treatment need to be upgraded to a much broader understanding of differing inner experiences. As he writes in the pamphlet for his recent book “A Prescription for Psychiatry: Why We Need A Whole New Approach To Mental Health And Wellbeing”, what we today call “mental illness” should instead be dealt with though the “empathic understanding of the normal range of human responses to life’s challenges.” It’s normal to be anxious and depressed, in other words; thus the acid test is how we deal with people who feel those things acutely. And among the Minds@Workers listening to his talk, the feeling of agreement and resolve was palpable, and we could have listened and talked for much longer – but there was pizza, beer and cake awaiting.

To The Next 12 Months And Beyond

Deepti Parmar or Oakleaf Enterprise

Deepti Parmar or Oakleaf Enterprise

Professor Peter Kinderman

Professor Peter Kinderman

So collectively and individually, Minds@Work has achieved a lot in the last 12 months, and the atmosphere at this particular event was celebratory. But we hope it can be even more celebratory in future – only the next day, Geoff McDonald was off to visit Number 10 Downing Street to lobby the post-Cameron government for a greater focus on the area in future…

We’ll be in touch about that when there’s more news to report (and thanks to everyone who came to the event last week), but lastly, please make a date for our next event on December 7, which promises to be the most impactful and inspiring yet. Places will be limited and distributed on a first come, first served basis. We’ll post more that very soon.

Keep up the good work, Minds@Workers!

The next Minds@Work meeting…

…takes place tomorrow from 6.30pm the offices of Made by Many, Diespeker Wharf, 38 Graham Street, London N1 8JX. We'll be celebrating because this meeting marks a year since Minds@Work Movement was founded by Geoff McDonald and Georgie Mack, and we now count over 250 people as members. 

We hope to see you there!

Open Secrets & The Big Conversation

Some of the best conversations happen in private, by candlelight, in intimate company. Some of the most important ones take place in the public sphere, becoming social talking points, mainstays of the news agenda and subjects of popular debate, even emerging as questions raised in parliament. The talk around mental illness — how to confront the stigma surrounding it, particularly in the workplace — mainly occupies the first of those today. So how to amplify and transfer this private magic into that public sphere, at the same time as turning intentions into action?

That was something I contemplated a few days ago after attending a dinner generously hosted by Lynette Deutsch, Founder and CEO of the international people and business consultancy Endaba, on behalf Minds@Work, the group founded by Geoff McDonald and Georgie Mack of Made by Many. I contemplated it since there exists not only an appetite for challenging professional and social stigma around mental illness today, but also a growing openness about broaching these difficult topics more broadly in society. Given that many people today will have had personal experience of mental illness, and just about everyone will know someone who has either suffered or is still suffering, this subject begins to look like the big open secret which is ready to become the next big conversation.

There was a practical focus to this gathering, held at the inviting Angelus restaurant near Paddington. Endaba had invited a range of accomplished human resources directors and executives from the fields of banking, retail, law, media and more, and over the course of the evening we drilled deep into some specific points of conflict and tension: how can employees go about reporting difficulties with stress, depression or anxiety, and how can existing HR processes help them? What are the ramifications for having a bully as a boss, and do existing corporate models even encourage narcissistic behaviour among the uppermost ranks? Can the fear of litigation prevent effective management of the common hazard of burnout? There was also the question of whether the final responsibility for mental health in an organisation lies with its board or its directors, and not forgetting a further hot topic, the “mental health pay gap”. And still further, we discussed the frequent mismatch between what a marketing department may wish to say about its company and the reality of employees’ experience of working there.

Across the table we heard perspectives about what does work (buddy systems matching a sufferer to a someone who has come through a breakdown, along with reintegration processes, for example) and what isn’t working (when the greasy pole game favours staying silent over speaking out). Since HR operates right on the frontline of these battles, the talk around the table was, naturally, lively, and if a consensus emerged it was a combination of both grassroots initiatives as well as top-down, strategic programmes would be best.

We also looked ahead and above, imagining what healthy workplaces would look like five years from now, and we talked about the responsibility of leaders not only to mandate emotional health in the workplace through their own personal experience, but also to enact the changes they wish to see — after all, mental illness is a business issue as well as a human and social one: countless millions in revenue are lost to absenteeism, presenteeism and burnout every year. In order to go beyond mere “wellness” and into a genuinely empathic relationship between employers and employees, there’s plenty of work to be done.

As the dinner plates were cleared away, ex-Unilever Global VP of HR Geoff Mcdonald delivered his personal story of experiencing panic attacks and, as a consequence, reorienting his professional purpose around challenging stigma and creating emotionally healthy workplaces, all of which led directly to his founding the Minds@Work project with Georgie Mack. Next, Project Libero’s Jon Bartlett also recounted his experiences of illness and release, luminously describing the changes he is already seeing in the enlightened organisations he works with.

Stories such as these are powerful and persuasive, but it was the tenor of the entire evening’s conversation — intimate, personal and revelatory, with each attendee offering some piece of hard-won insight on the struggles against stress and despair — that told the greater story, about how a desire for change exists, and will itself begin to make the necessary changes happen.

Behind closed doors and at events likes this, that open secret isn’t really secret any more, and it’s fast becoming the big open conversation. So here’s to more dinners, more talking and more stories, and amplifying it all into the change which needs to happen.

By Kevin Braddock

What HR is thinking about Mental Health today

Findings from an evening of dinner and conversation among HR leaders. 

The Minds@Work Movement is not alone in thinking that much can be done to enshrine mental health in the working world; defining best practice, getting it on the corporate agenda, pushing for change. That’s certainly what we found in June when we spent an evening with a range of leading HR executives — CHROs, directors, VPs and heads of talent — hosted by global executive search and leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart.

The aim of the evening was to better understand the concerns shared by the HR community and senior leaders across a range of sectors, including banking and finance, retail, education, legal, media and logistics. And it was a productive, stimulating and energising evening.

While there is still a mountain to climb relating to mental health in the workplace there is also cause for optimism. We heard how the Board of a major FTSE100 had invested significant time and energy discussing the mental health, workload and work-life balance of its internal CEO candidates during a succession planning exercise. We also gained a clear sense that this topic is “the next big thing” and that there are is “a potential tsunami of mental health issues” in corporate life. We also acknowledged that while the UK, Canada and Australia are making progress, the stigma and misunderstanding around mental health remains and many corporates are “in the dark ages”.

What follows is a summary of the key themes, anecdotes and points of interest that emerged over the course of an inspiring evening:

Reporting of mental health issues is problematic

The stigma around speaking out about mental health issues in the workplace is deep. Companies offer mental health support, yet few people use it. Employee engagement surveys fail to ask about mental health or wellbeing. Employees are often sophisticated in hiding their difficulties, or may simply be blind to them. Breakdowns can happen with no apparent warning.

HR can often be the last to know when an employee is suffering. Those organisations that are making progress in this area have done so when a leader discussed mental health directly with the organisation and started a “big conversation”. Several anecdotes regarding internal blogs and intranet activity going “off the charts” when mental health was addressed made it clear that when the topic is raised many people feel they have “permission” to discuss it openly.

Reporting also works upwards — but we heard that there is no accepted best practice for executives to feed back to their ExCo or Board about employee mental health issues. Well-rounded executives may understand well the problems posed by such reporting, but delivering the information upwards can be challenging.

This led the group to identify a degree of “stress-reporting paralysis”.When problems arise with a direct report, peer or colleague, many executives are not equipped to deal with the potential impact. People often worry deeply about legal ramifications of “saying the wrong thing”. A gap in many executives’ skills is that of active listening and reassurance. Education and progress in this area is needed.

Stress has been normalised

It was widely agreed that companies everywhere now expect staff to do more with less — working longer hours and often weekends to the detriment of work-life balance. This naturally hinders wellbeing, yet, as one senior leader remarked candidly, “our business couldn’t survive with people only working nine to five”.

Leaders themselves may nurture resilience— asking, are you OK? How are you feeling? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you taking your weekends off? Yet the same leaders may not always be able (or willing) to lead by example. The group recognised that the current generation of executives are the first that cannot escape the “always on” culture. The proliferation of mobile devices, global connectivity, social media and expectations of immediate responses is deeply impactful. Many were concerned that our current way of working is unsustainable and unbalanced, making “wellness” an aspiration rather than a way of life.

We also heard that in some cultures “reputation is a big part of how success is achieved”. Hence aspiring leaders often do not speak out about their own or others’ mental health issues for fear of being stigmatised. Many feel that they are not able to lead by example, even if they wish to.

Thus a tension exists between wishing to do good for the wider corporate ecosystem and safeguarding one’s own path; a tension that can be extrapolated to business at large: seeking to be profitable while also caring for employees.

A key question is whether we can break away from legacy behaviours. Doing so may require a short-term hit. It seems that change can either be driven top-down from the leadership, or may be pushed for bottom-up by employees — millennials in particular — opting out of corporate practices that prevent good mental health and happiness. This requires a consensus in large organisations that something has to change, joining hands to make the move together but recognizing that there is always a risk for the first mover.

Burning out millennials

Graduate burn rate
We discussed that some businesses still hire bright graduates and work them to the bone. Inevitably some will burn out — we heard that some companies view that as a natural filter, sieving out those who will not survive. This is an unpleasant way of doing business that everyone present felt has no place in today’s society.

The paradox of millennials
Burdened with debt and pressured to start earning, millennials fear not getting ahead and building a career, yet at the same time are assertive with big demands regarding work-life balance and high expectations as employees. Social media has helped millennials to be comfortable talking about their emotions, yet the demands of that same social media also cause them anxiety.

How then to deal with those who are the future of the workforce? One leader said she worried that millennials who have “fallen down” will not get up again — and often they gave no sign at all of suffering on the path to breakdown.

None of us felt we had the answer to the challenges and opportunities at hand with millennials. But we all agreed that what had worked for previous generations would not work now and that we must listen hard and shrug off some of our own prejudices. The stereotypical millennial outlook that executives’ lives, weighed down with stress and anxiety and hence not worth aspiring to, received some sympathy around our tables. But there was also a level of concern that we may be losing some of the brightest and best future leaders before their careers are underway.

Moving towards solutions

Starting a big conversation
Those businesses that have begun to discuss mental health openly, thoughtfully and positively found that simply by beginning a big conversation new issues came to light, colleagues felt more comfortable sharing their challenges and a sense of progress was created.

It’s clear that most executives feel poorly equipped to have a direct conversation about mental health. In a conversation that requires real humanity many leaders are frightened of potential legal ramifications, “getting it wrong” or uncomfortable with the intimacy of discussing such a sensitive topic. Learning how to discuss mental health — without having to euphemise the topic to “efficiency” or “resilience” — is crucially important.

Getting enough sleep is critical to mental hygiene. Everyone agrees on this and the science supports it. But what is often missed is the idea of recovery — taking time out during the day for regular breaks and a mental refresh.

A diverse approach
Many of those present agreed that a policy on mental health interventions, support and care must be holistic and sustained. Best practice is still yet to emerge. But there is clearly a desire to share our progress and our challenges and move forward collectively.

There was plenty of debate around this topic, including the idea of a corporate mental health index. Predictive analytics may be getting better at supporting interventions, but at present the data points with which to talk about mental health are limited. While making the “business case” for mental health support is necessary in some corporate cultures, most agreed that “doing the right thing” takes precedent over return on investment.

This conversation shed much light on where contemporary leading HR practice intersects with mental health in the workplace. But it is only a starting point. With Spencer Stuart we are committed to accelerating positive change, by joining the dots and disseminating a wealth of thought, expertise and vision where it counts.