Being open about mental health needs to start at the top

Last week I had the pleasure of observing HRH The Duke of Cambridge speak at the insightful new mental health in the workplace conference, This Can Happen. About halfway through the session, referring to a traumatic incident he’d been party to while serving in the Air Ambulance service, HRH explained that he didn’t tell his family what he’d seen or how it affected him – he didn’t want to burden them with it. Consequently, his workplace became the antidote to these negative feelings; he was able to process them by sharing these experiences with his colleagues.
This is both brilliantly observed, as well as blindingly obvious once you start thinking about it. Our families and friends are the people we love the most and try hardest to protect. Yes, we’re supposed to share our thoughts and feelings with them, but at the same time we wish to avoid hurting or upsetting them, often an unwanted consequence of being honest about mental health issues. On this logic, of course the workplace must play a role in helping people stay mentally healthy.
Conversely, our family and friends are not there to serve as lifeguards or human stress balls to the mental troubles induced by stressful or over-pressurised working environments. High performance workplaces should not come at the expense of high performing personal relationships.
Research unveiled by Accenture at This Can Happen revealed that the scale of our exposure to mental health problems is greater than previously calculated. Two out of three people have had a personal experience of mental health challenges – that’s as many as have been considered obese at some point in their lives, and as I understand it we have an obesity crisis in the UK right now.
Fewer than half of companies are currently set up to support employees with common mental health problems. I don’t believe that’s due to a lack of corporate interest. Rather, in most cases it’s an inability to understand what companies need to do to put these systems, processes, values and cultural practices in place.
Yet any of the 750+ delegates visiting the event will have seen that what’s needed is pretty straightforward, albeit not always easy to implement. At its core, this is about talking. If people talk about how they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing, knowledge and information will be shared, empowering employers to act accordingly. The issue isn’t a lack of solutions – we were shown one slide with 40+ digital mental health care provider logos, a far-from-comprehensive outline of the sheer range of support options available… and that’s just in the digital space. Once employers understand what the problem is, it’s not hard to investigate the potential options available. However, too many employers never receive the right information in the first place.
This is because encouraging people to talk requires, a) a culture of openness and, b) a culture of leaders being open. If people are afraid of sharing their stories - through fear of professional reprisals, of appearing inadequate, or simply through a lack of belief that anyone is there to listen – they will almost certainly keep their lips sealed. Likewise, if leaders appear omnipotent and utterly invincible then there’s little chance the rest of the workforce will want to share their all-too-human troubles, irrespective of the support that’s technically available to them.
When I first experienced mental health problems in the workplace – severe anxiety brought on by chronic insomnia, itself a product of silent, internalized depression after a very tough year in my personal life – I was fortunate enough to be given as much time out of the office as I required to receive the treatment I so badly needed. It took me having to flee a meeting because I thought I was going to be physically sick from the stress, in order to even realize there was something wrong. Back then, we just weren’t talking about the potential for mental health issues to arise in the workplace, irrespective of cause, or the impact they could have on our ability to carry out our jobs.
Today I try and talk about the ongoing, complicated relationship I have with my mental health as openly as possible, because I find it helpful and because I hope it makes other people more comfortable in sharing their own stories. I haven’t always done this within a workplace context. If This Can Happen has taught me anything, it’s that if I want to be a true leader, I’m going to have to lead the conversation about mental health rather than keeping quiet around my colleagues.
One final thought: Another stat that emerged from the conference is that a culture of working 11+ hours per day, as opposed to 7-8 hours, makes someone 2.4 times more likely to have a major depressive episode. In our Kite Hill handbook we specifically state the following:
“We believe that best-in-class client service is achievable without the pressure-cooker environment and long working hours so often associated with our industry... A stressful workplace does nothing to foster account teams that are always passionate and motivated.”
So keep it in mind folks – the PR industry can do a lot to improve everyday mental health simply by making sure everyone sticks to their contracted hours. This too needs to start at the top.

-Tom Kirkham, VP