Don’t waste a good crisis. Make sure mental health and wellbeing are built into your recovery plans. This message came through loud and clear from my exclusive interview with Sir Ian Cheshire; a hugely respected business leader who, when it comes to workplace mental health and wellbeing, is leading the shift from stigma to solutions.
Sir Ian spoke to me working from his home on the Isle of Wight, five weeks into lockdown. Whilst the Solent was tranquil and blue, the storm of Covid-19 raged. He shared compelling insights into how the coronavirus pandemic has changed C-suite perspectives, tips for talking to both the CEO and global colleagues about mental wellbeing, his own experiences of lockdown and his call to action.
Q: Do you think the coronavirus pandemic has pushed mental health and wellbeing higher up the workplace agenda?
Evidence we’ve seen from the Thriving at Work Leadership Council is showing continued engagement and interest in workplace mental health and wellbeing, from leadership and teams all the way up, down and across organisations.
I can see that the pandemic has a strong mental health element. The direct impact is on people who are isolated and in extreme circumstances – such as those experiencing domestic violence. But for most people it’s a big dislocation and surveys have shown that it is producing a flare-up in anxiety and depression.
It has also reminded us how much positive mental health is linked to relationships with other people, which we’re suddenly deprived of.
In the short-term this creates a push, with people talking more about mental health. We’re also seeing a big focus on directing people to support through workplace wellbeing portals and employee networks. There’s been a shift from people saying ‘It’s probably right that we talk about this’ to ‘we really need to talk about it’.
Q: What about in the longer term? Will this interest be sustained?
I think the second phase is going to be how the world of work changes; what the world feels like as we come more out of the crisis. There will be an early phase of readjustment, which will involve people still being really nervous about going to work, using public transport and being in crowds. Then more subtly, I think our working patterns will have changed irretrievably – perhaps more so for some than for others.
But I think what you’re going to see is a different style of working and engagement that is more open and flexible. Employers will understand that one of the issues associated with this shift is the need to maintain people’s mental and general wellbeing in a different way.
So, we’ve got big stress, big dislocation, a potentially new working model. All of this is driving mental health and wellbeing up the employer’s agenda. And people are much more willing to talk about mental health and take positive steps on it. So, in an odd way, the crisis is shining a light on the mental health agenda in a potentially quite positive way.
Q: What are your tips for talking to the CEO about this issue?
I think this is the easiest sell to the C-suite that you’re ever going to have.
My experience so far, speaking with various CEOs and Chairmen, is that they are super aware of the stresses and challenges caused by the pandemic. There’s a particular focus through The Royal Foundation for instance on frontline workers. At Barclays, we are very conscious of trying to keep 600 branches open, to keep a national service going. But I’ve been really struck by how leaders at all levels have recognised the anxiety this can cause and are saying ‘we need to support people in this’.
Subsequently there has been a greater uptake of support services and employee networks. In an odd way, the timing has worked out because five years ago we wouldn’t have had those resources – we’d be starting from scratch. It feels like we’re bringing things forward that we already have in place but that we’re now putting them front and centre.
There has been 100% C-suite support for this. I haven’t seen anything other than people saying ‘we absolutely have to look after our people in these circumstances’.
The key in the short-term is getting permission to talk about mental health and wellbeing in a different way. We’re in extraordinary times – you’ve got an immediate health crisis and an economic crisis in full scale development. That’s putting huge pressures on organisations and huge stress on people who are physically removed from us.
If there was ever a time when you’ll get investment and support, this is it, because organisations are at peak stress.
Q: How do you recommend talking about mental health and wellbeing with colleagues in other countries?
This is not a standard global conversation. Culturally, the way into these questions has to be more or less country by country, as there are very different starting points.
For instance, when I ran the Anglo-French Business Kingfisher, I was surprised that raising money for mental health charities was frowned upon as this is seen as the state’s work. In India, where Barclays have 20,000 people, it is not yet considered culturally acceptable to be talking about mental health, so we’re working on destigmatisation and inclusion. In China, it’s less about focusing on the individual and more about groups working together.
Rather than trying to put in place a global, uniform programme, you have to ask yourself: “At the moment, in this country, what is the solution that will work?” The answer has to come from the people on the ground, who know what’s culturally possible and what isn’t, because the wrong message, delivered the wrong way, is pretty catastrophic.
Build a multi-level network in a country and find local champions. Work with them to identify the most important thing that will move the dial the most. Then give it away to local teams to develop. And don’t expect this to follow the same pattern country to country.
Q: Looking ahead, what changes do you anticipate?
I think we’re going to see a big increase in the usage of digital tools.
People are much more willing now to use a digital video conferencing call to talk one-to-one or one-to-many. They’re realising that whilst human interaction isn’t perfect like this, it is surprisingly good. Some people are speaking more to each other now than they did before the pandemic.
It’s been a revelation for my own parents, aged 90 and 87, who are self-isolating carefully. Since they got the technology to work, they’ve been delighted to have huge family conversations – even including my son, who is stuck in Beijing.
Whether they’re nattering on a WhatsApp group, or going to Friday night virtual drinks with their mates, or joining serious support groups run through Zoom or other platforms. Once people have discovered this form of communication, they will carry on using it.
We’ve done the transition to working from home. The next agenda is how we keep our people positive, well and engaged through this.
Early signs are that the level of take-up of free solutions during the pandemic, such as the offer of Unmind’s workplace mental health platform to NHS workers, may have forced organisations to say “we need to do this”, rather than “this is something we should do”.
I think the challenge will be getting the continuing focus on the broader agenda of mental health and wellbeing when we’re back to ‘peace time’ – keeping people in a place where they recognise that it’s business as usual.
My recommendation is don’t waste time. Act now to ensure mental health and wellbeing are built into your organisation’s recovery plan.
About the author
Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits and newsletter. Claire’s on a mission to accelerate the shift from stigma to solutions by helping every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make a difference to workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing.