Barbara Harvey is a driving force behind the workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing agenda – both within Accenture and through her work with organisations such as the World Economic Forum.
In this interview for Make A Difference Media, Barbara highlights how Accenture is inclusively supporting mental health.
Tell us a bit about your professional background at Accenture. How did you come to co-found Accenture UKI’s award-winning Mental Health programme?
I’m a Managing Director at Accenture and lead our research programme on inclusion, diversity and workplace culture. About seven years ago mental health impacted my life for the first time when a colleague and then a close family member became unwell. Both feared anyone finding out and, in both situations, I felt lost and unable to help.
A team in London was exploring the idea of a mental health programme and looking at whether we could adapt the concept of ‘straight allies’ to tackle the stigma around mental health. They needed a sponsor to help drive the idea and I was more than willing to step in! We now have an amazing team of over 2,500 allies in the UK and more than 6,000 worldwide; our global programme is growing by the day.
Since COVID-19 took hold, what has been the most effective aspect of your workplace mental health and wellbeing programme?
When it comes to mental health the most effective element of our programme over the last year has been empowerment; it’s making sure our people feel trusted and empowered to decide what works for them and giving them the flexibility to adjust how they’re working to meet their needs at any given point over the pandemic.
This last year we’ve had so little control over our lives (where/if we can work, who we can see, where we can go and even how we celebrate special festivals like Eid, Diwali, Christmas and now Chinese New Year). Empowerment puts a little of that control back into our peoples’ hands.
In terms of practical support, we’ve scaled up our efforts to help people build their resilience. For example, by offering a self-guided course developed in conjunction with Thrive Global and Stanford Medical.
We also provided more options for getting help with mental health challenges, including offering coaching alongside more formal one-to-one counselling and online support.
Caregivers, who are already more at risk than others of mental and physical health problems have faced many demands as the pandemic has unfolded. What advice would you offer to employers looking to support the wellbeing of caregivers?
Since the start of the pandemic we’ve been regularly conducting pulse surveys of our UKI employees to understand how they are coping and to help us continually improve and target the support we give. The challenges carers face was one of the strongest needs revealed by our early surveys.
This group is less visible than parents in organisations; we’ve got used to seeing kids on our videocalls and so we’re aware of the balancing act parents are managing. But with carers it’s much more likely to be hidden.
And, as you suggest in your question, they were indeed more likely to be experiencing a more significant decline in their mental and physical health. We worked with our Carers Network to enhance our support, developing a partnership with Carers UK to offer specialist advice, digital resources and information for line managers.
I’d strongly recommend understanding more about the needs of the carers in your organisation (we found, as a group, they skewed older, more senior and more female, for example) and working with them to develop relevant, workable support options.
The need for wellbeing initiatives to interface with diversity and inclusion is increasingly front of mind for employers. What tips would you share with employers looking to achieve seamless integration of these two agendas?
I see this not as two agendas, but as one. To be a diverse organisation you first have to be an inclusive organisation. You have to create an environment where people are able to be themselves; truly themselves. If you do that; if you give people a voice, make them feel safe and trusted and respect them for who they are then over and again our research shows people thrive.
For me, mental health is part of that story in two ways. Firstly, when people aren’t accepted for who they are – a gay employee who doesn’t feel safe being out at work or a black employee who’s subject to daily microaggressions, for example – they are more at risk of poor mental health. Secondly, an open, supportive, non-judgemental culture will encourage people to speak more openly earlier and seek help if their mental health is declining.
Getting culture right is the fundamental priority; yet we know only one in five leaders have set this as a strategic priority for their organisation.
We believe strongly that leaders need to be able to ‘put on their own oxygen mask’ before they can support others. What are the top three simple habits you advocate that can help us all manage our mental health?
This year has tested us all and I think everyone has had to find what works and what’s realistic for them. For me personally, the three would be…
- Structure to my day. In the beginning I thought working from home would give me the chance to be less structured (no commute, no travel, more choice); in fact, that was a disaster and work just took over. Now I structure a morning walk, coffee stops, lunch and something that marks the end of my working day.
- Being outside as much as I can; never have I appreciated being outdoors as I do now; the only shoes I put on these days are my walking boots.
- I’ve learned to limit how much news I’m exposed to; to be informed but not to allow the ‘wash’ of constant negativity to get me down.
The pandemic has forced mental and physical health to the top of organisations’ agendas. Our goal is to make sure it remains a priority and becomes embedded as business as usual post-COVID-19. What is needed to achieve this sustainable shift?
I love your goal. And we share it. The expression ‘post-Covid-world’ suggests that we’ll all wake up one day and it will be over. I suspect the reality will be much more one of gradual change and the evolution of a Covid-safe-world.
People will need to time to adjust, to reflect, to grieve, to come to terms with lost opportunities and the reality of commuting and even socialising again.
Our mental health may remain fragile for some time ahead. In our research “It’s Not 1 in 4; It’s All of US’, we showed that in organisations where mental health was supported employees were almost twice as likely (from 51% to 91%) to say they could cope with the everyday stresses of work. They were also 40% less likely to have recently experienced poor mental health.
Simply put, organisations have the power to make a difference. If they’re looking for employees to be at their best and help drive recovery then they need to make sure they take care of their mental wellbeing.
Thank you for your time and for your inspiration Barbara. You can read more about Barbara Harvey on her LinkedIn profile here.