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