Mental health must be taken as seriously as physical health

Mental health must be taken as seriously as physical health
Opinion: Career Leaders

As Mental Health Awareness gets underway, there’s no better time for our industry’s leaders to make one simple commitment that’s proven to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace. 

I was recently given the opportunity to appear at The Media Leaders Awards, along with some of my fellow Future 100 inductees, to present a personal manifesto to our industry’s leaders; my perspective on an issue that I believe we should be prioritising in the year ahead.

For me, there is no greater threat to our industry’s ability to prosper than the present and growing mental health crisis, and in particular the impact it’s having on our emerging talent.

Now, you probably don’t need me to tell you why we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis: the aftermath of a global pandemic, the economic downturn, cost-of-living pressures, political instability, incessant culture wars, and record-breaking NHS waiting lists (and not in a good way).

In our workplaces, hybrid working is still in flux and has reduced social interaction levels across the board. Every business is under increased economic pressure whilst everyone is expected to deliver more with less to work with.

And it’s our junior teams, as the newest and lowest paid employees, who are feeling the sharper end of these pressures and who don’t necessarily have the experience or confidence, or feel they have the permission, to speak up when things get too much.

Sobering statistics

Okay, some numbers now – I wouldn’t be from Thinkbox if I didn’t halt proceedings for a few numbers.

A recent Deloitte study estimated that the total annual cost of poor mental health to employers was £56bn in 2021.

The same study suggests that of the young people who have recently left their job or plan to do so in the next 12 months, two in three say the decision was driven by poor mental health.

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Meanwhile, mental health calls to NABS are up 31% year-on-year, but up 74% on pre-pandemic levels. And as their CEO Sue Todd shared recently at The Future of Brands event in London, new data suggests that for almost 70% of people, their manager has more impact on their mental health than their therapist or doctor, and it’s equal to the impact of their partner.

If you’re a leader, you’re right to find these stats sobering. And to try and meaningfully tackle such a huge issue alongside the day to day running of a profitable business can seem a hugely daunting task.

You’ll no doubt already have a number of polices and initiatives in place to look after the wellbeing of your people. But can you honestly say that everyone in your organisation feels as comfortable talking about their mental health in the same way they might their physical health?

Having a direct positive impact

I grew up with a parent with severe mental ill health, so I became fluent in the language of the subject from a young age. But to bring some of that experience into the workplace and do some good with it, I became a Mental Health First Aider in 2021.

It’s a two-day course that requires no previous experience or knowledge in the subject. Much like physical first aid, you’re trained to be the first responder in a mental health crisis, but you’re also equipped to be able to talk confidently about different mental health conditions, to understand the definitions, and to be able to spot the signs of mental ill health before it gets out of control.

There’s ample evidence that it improves attitudes towards mental health issues, reduces stigma in the workplace, and has a direct positive impact on the health and well-being of those who attend.

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MHFA England has a goal to train one in 10 of the population, so this Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m looking for one simple commitment from every leader who believes in nurturing the wellbeing of their people:

That 10% of your workforce is trained as Mental First Aiders within the next 12 months – and a further commitment that that number is doubled to 20% of the senior leadership team.

Become more fluent in the language of mental health

There’s enormous power in our industry’s leaders taking the lead in this commitment, using just two of your 260 days to better educate yourself in mental health.

Taking a physical first aid course doesn’t signal to your people that you now suddenly take heart attacks and burst varicose veins more seriously than you used to, but with mental health it really does make the difference.

Help your organisation become more fluent in the language of mental health. Ensure that there is always someone within arms reach to provide support and to spot when things are not okay.

And actively demonstrate to your people that you care about their mental wellbeing, that you take it seriously both as an organisation and as a human being.

GroupM CEO Josh Krichefski said it best recently in his inaugural speech as IPA President:

“We don’t have factories, trucks, manufactured goods. Our people are everything. It’s their brilliance and imagination which is what makes us who and what we are. And that’s why we have to look after them.”

Chris Dunne is head of marketing at commercial TV marketing body Thinkbox. 

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