• Alex Davies
  • 12 May 2017

Mental health awareness – it’s OK to be pink and fluffy

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (running all this week and ending on Sunday) has been ‘Thriving, not surviving’, and there has been a spate of publicity given to mental health and wellbeing in recent weeks, with everyone from Prince Harry to Lady Gaga sharing their feelings and experiences – it’s the new ‘coming out’. There has been the inevitable backlash against this too, with certain commentators suggesting we’re all over-sharing, and should ‘man up’. With statistics that show 144 people died at work last year, but 4,500 in work killed themselves, it is encouraging to see that most people – at least everyone attending the Mental Health for Health and Safety Professionals Conference held at the British Medical Association yesterday – see the benefits of siding with the former camp. Organised by Heather Beach’s Healthy Work Company, in partnership with Dr Tim Marsh, a world authority in behavioural safety, the conference’s aim was to get delegates thinking about how to maintain their employees’ mental health and wellbeing in the face of an uncertain UK economy.

The day started with three very open and frank discussions from the organisers and the keynote speaker, Alistair Campbell, about their mental health experiences. It wasn’t the usual and expected opening to a conference, and it’s clear there is still a very real stigma surrounding mental health, with Campbell saying he felt ‘annoyed’ at people telling him how ‘brave’ he was at sharing his experiences, when he took part in the ‘Heads together’ documentary promoted by the Royal family last month.

Campbell spoke at length (and had the rapt attention of the audience as he overran by half an hour) about his experiences and gave a very honest (and funny!) account of his psychotic episode in 1983 when working as a Fleet Street journalist, trailing Neil Kinnock around the country, which was the trigger for him to seek help, give up drinking, and analyse the aspects of his personality that were causing him to behave the way he was. Although fascinating, there did seem to be an atmosphere in the air – a palpable sense of dread – is this what we’re here for, to bare our soul and share our experiences? Dear God, don’t ask me to talk about my own mental health!!

Being practical people, the H&S professionals became more engaged and less uncomfortable when talking about solutions to the problem – suggestions of making mental health conditions a RIDDOR reportable event, for example, met with widespread approval. Frantic note-taking began when chartered psychologist Sharon de Mascia talked about the business case for addressing mental health at work, and indeed there were some scary statistics – a 41% rise in reports of mental health conditions at work, costing employers £8.4bn per year in absenteeism, rising to £26bn when reduced productivity and staff turnover are taken into account.

Research has shown that £1.96 can be returned on every £1 spent on diagnosing mental health conditions in the workplace early. But what does this actually mean? The major problem around mental health is that it’s hidden – caused by a sense of embarrassment, shame and failure – so no one talks about it. Sending round a wellbeing questionnaire asking ‘Are you depressed?’ isn’t a solution to the problem, no matter how persuasive the financial argument may appear to the Board.  Addressing the perceived stigma surrounding mental health, we were told mental health awareness shouldn’t be seen as something ‘pink and fluffy’. But I wonder what’s wrong with ‘pink and fluffy’? The fact is, organisations have to deal with hardline costs every day – increasing regulation on minimum wages, mandatory pension contributions, sick pay, parental leave – surely there is something ethically, morally right and commendable about addressing employee health and wellbeing and looking after their staff? I’ll happily hold my hands up to being branded naïve here, but we know that young people (and not so young people) are very conscious of where they buy things and who they work for. Being seen as a morally responsible employer will attract good staff, and the business benefits of that cannot be over-estimated. Let’s not stigmatise pink and fluffy!

The day took an even more practical turn with a look at the legal aspects of mental health at work, and a session from the HSE which showed how it is tackling work-related stress as one of its top three priorities. Happily, this fact-based approach was tempered by a session on mindfulness, in which delegates were asked to get out of their seats, stretch and move their bodies in whatever way they wanted, for about 30 seconds, or as long as they felt comfortable. Without exception, everyone was back in their seats within around 15 seconds! Discussing the ‘emotional and cognitive overload’ that we experience in modern life, and how this reflect in our mental health, Dr Itai Ivtzan’s solution to this is mindfulness – taking a few moments out each day to be present in the moment, to be instead of do. There was tangible resistance within the room, many wry smiles and much eye-rolling – but it was effective. As H&S professionals, we tend to deal in statistics, processes and rules – but this was merely an alternate process, and one that I think many will take away.

Later in the day, Dr Tim Marsh interviewed the actor, Ian Puleston-Davies (who played Owen Armstrong in sitcom Coronation Street) about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), most notably his fear of sitting down. It brought home to the audience the debilitating effects of mental health conditions, and the importance of sharing with those around you what you’re going through. Ian explained that he didn’t even know he had the condition himself until he was 35, and related that he met a 65-year-old man two years ago who only realised what he had from listening to him explaining his condition.

Following this, Amy McKeown from MHFA England spoke about Mental Health First Aid, and how their aim is to reach parity with physical first aid by training one in ten people in the UK in the discipline – which she maintains is an essential life skill. Quite a few of the delegates in the room were already trained.

At the end of the day we heard from three individual Health and Safety Managers’ experiences. Clive Johnson from Land Securities spoke about how as a company they realised they were working in siloes, and never talking to one another, partly as a result of being spread across eight floors. So, they moved offices – to a one-storey building already in their portfolio and designed the offices and meeting areas to promote agile working and create spaces where people could interact. Aided by day-long free refreshments, rest and contemplation rooms, the company is empowering workers by encouraging flexible working.

Judith Grant, formerly of Royal Mail and now with Mace Group, discussed the ‘Feeling First Class’ initiative she helped develop, and how its members increased from 2,000 regular users to over 25,000. She is putting in place a similar initiative at Mace, given the alarming statistics from construction – 454 suicides in the sector last year.

Finally, Karl Simons introduced Thames Water’s journey with improving the mental health and wellbeing of its workers, by explaining that in 2013, when he joined, only members of the senior executive team were offered free annual health checks. He argued that the company spent more on annual maintenance of each of the cars in its fleet (£50 for an MOT) than it did for its staff, a result of which was that ALL staff across the company now receive regular medicals. In the first year, over 20% of employees were referred to their GP as a result of the health checks, some of whom immediately. The company is now following a similar approach with mental health, and Simons is a leading advocate of including the words ‘or illness’ in the RIDDOR legislation.

The final session of the day was from Lord Richard Layard, who talked about happiness, and how the wealthiest societies are not necessarily the happiest. Research into what makes workers happy show that fulfilling, quality work is more than two times more important than income, and that depression is on a par with smoking in terms of its effects on health. The 18th Century philosophy of ‘the best society is where there is most happiness and least misery’ supports the whole theme of this conference, that fulfilling work leads to healthy, happy lives, and after a day of listening to engaging, knowledgeable and inspiring speakers, it’s clear that mental health is rising to the top of the business agenda. If we can make it more about the benefits to employees rather than the bottom line, it stands a good chance of success.