“Businesses can do better”: Pro-Manchester’s Mental Wellness Event 2019

Wednesday, 22nd May 2019

Guest blog by Sarah Glynn, Kuits Solicitors

Last Thursday, pro-manchester members came together to mark Mental Health Awareness Week and raise awareness of mental wellness in the workplace. The panel event brought together four incredibly successful businesspeople to share their own personal experiences of mental health and to discuss what employers could and – in many ways – should be doing to promote the wellbeing of their teams.

Founder and Managing Director of Make Events, Holly Moore, suffered from poor mental health for five years. By speaking out about her illness, she hopes she can turn her experience into a positive outcome for others.

CEO of textiles supply business Swiscot, Vikas Shah, has spoken openly and extensively about his experiences of spending 12 years suffering with anxiety and clinical depression.

Naomi Timperley, Co-Founder of Tech North Advocates, explained that, four years on, mental wellness is still a journey for her.

The audience then heard from Stewart Lucas, Strategic Lead at national mental health charity Mind. His mission? To raise awareness and change the way society thinks about mental health. Stewart doesn’t view his autism as an impairment – rather, it is the way society reacts to that him that is the real challenge.

The panel was chaired by business psychologist and vice president of the future-pro committee, Hannah Johnson.

Hannah: Thank you to you all for joining us today and sharing your personal experiences with mental illness. If there are people here in our audience who are also struggling, what advice would you give to them? What can they bring into their routine to help relieve some of their symptoms?

Naomi: When people are struggling mentally, I think there is a tendency to hideaway from the world, but talking to people is so important. I would also want to remind people to breathe, to be kind to themselves, and that it’s fine to say no to things. You can’t be everywhere and everything to everybody all at once.

Vikas: I think people make a mistake by trying to ‘self-medicate’ their symptoms away by doing yoga and attending self-help seminars. Mental illness can feel so all-encompassing it can be easy to forget it is a health problem. Go and see your doctor – there is no better alternative. I put off getting medical help for 10 years. Please believe the health professionals when they say you need medication, even just for a short period of time.

Holly: I completely agree with that. My illness came on in a single day. I can even pinpoint the exact moment it happened. Luckily for me, I knew something was off and rang the doctor immediately. It can be difficult to differentiate between ‘normal’ worry and when something is medically wrong, but trust yourself that you know your own mind and body. If something seems off, it probably is.

Stewart: I think one of the biggest things is to realise that this is normal. 1 in 4 people in this room will be experiencing a mental health problem right now. That statistic sounds shocking – but what if we turned that around and said that 1 in 4 people in this room were experiencing a physical health problem? A cold, a headache, a sore leg – now it’s not so unbelievable is it? We have to understand as a society that mental illness is a part of life. The thing that will give you hope is that of those 1 in 4, 65% won’t be experiencing those symptoms next year. Mental illness can be short-term – there is a misconception and fear that it will affect you for the rest of your life, but this isn’t true in the vast majority of cases.

Hannah: That’s great advice. So, how would someone go about getting support?

Holly: You might start with your social circle or family. You might be surprised at how much people get it when you tell them. Lots of people have experienced similar things to you and everyone has their own thing going on. But, if you feel like it’s too scary talking to those closest to you, your first port of call might be a doctor. The important thing is to know who you trust to be vulnerable with, and don’t think that you have to tell everyone.

Vikas: I think the key to getting to the place where you reach out for help is understanding that it’s ok to be feeling like you do. Unfortunately there is a hyper-alpha masculine culture in business that says you have to be tough all the time and show no weakness. This creates very toxic environments. I’m glad that I have been open about my experiences in the workplace. Our working environment is better for it and my team performs better knowing the truth about me. Decent human beings will treat you appropriately – anyone who doesn’t is not worthy of your time. I have gotten to a place where my experiences with mental illness are part of who I am and, in some ways, make me a better person and a more creative, effective leader.

Stewart: I agree, it’s about de-mythicalising mental health. Our physical health changes daily, and so does our mental health. It is a spectrum. Everybody’s mind is wired slightly differently. Understanding this will mean that more people seek support more willingly.

Hannah: If someone notices a colleague is struggling, what is the best way for them to help?

Holly: I think if more employers put something on similar to this panel and asked willing team members to share their story, it would raise awareness in their workplace and get the conversation started.

Vikas: It’s important that the senior levels are bought into the process. When it’s your business, you set the culture. Setting guidelines for team members on when they should be having downtime instead of accessing emails their emails or working late into the night is important – as is setting an example by following them yourself. I will ask any team member if they are ok if I see them responding to emails at strange times, and we ask our line managers to do the same. Some people are just like that and would rather be ‘on’ all of the time, and that’s fine if it genuinely works for them. There is no harm in having a 10-minute coffee and a chat to check they are ok. One point I cannot stress enough is that if you ask someone how they are, you have a responsibility to dignify that person by listening to the answer.

Naomi: Help them to work smarter, not harder. Some workplaces, particularly start-ups, have an unhealthy culture of being ‘switched on’ 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t work 24/7 now and I don’t answer emails after 6pm or at weekends.

Stewart: The easiest and perhaps most effective thing you can do is listen. How many of us actually listen these days? When the other person is speaking, we’re often thinking about what we are going to say next. A lot of people worry about speaking to people struggling with mental health, because of the fear that they won’t know what to say or say the wrong thing. But it’s not really about speaking, it’s about listening. Most of the time, people aren’t looking for advice – they probably know the solution already. They just want to share what’s going on in their head and vocalise their feelings. Remember that those with mental health issues are often the strongest people, because they are having these symptoms and yet show up every day – you don’t need to wrap them up in cotton wool.

Hannah: That’s fantastic advice for someone in any organisation. On a much wider scale, what are you seeing that is working?

Vikas: There’s a huge amount of dialogue on mental health at the moment. However, it is still not reaching most people. For example, if you work in Silicon Valley you could attend a different seminar every day on gender diversity – but in reality nothing has changed. Work still needs to be done to ensure we’re reaching those who aren’t yet engaged with the conversation and to enact change on a macro level.

Holly: I have a huge frustration with the NHS and the way mental healthcare is funded (or not) at present.

Naomi: I think more high-profile are sharing their own experiences with mental health these days and it can be a real catalyst for change. Making mental health more visible is key.

Stewart: Honestly, I have a bit of a problem with Mental Health Awareness Week – change is driven by consistent cultural dialogue. While media coverage of mental illnesses versus physical illnesses is moving towards parity, still only 12% of NHS money goes towards mental illnesses. Yet I’m grateful that times have moved on – I can talk about my autism more openly now than I have been able to before.

Vikas: I think we can do better. Businesses want to keep their teams happy in order to be successful – employees should use that as a springboard for action. Tell your employer that mental health has to be on their agenda, otherwise you will not participate in their organisation.

Stewart: We also need to stop treating and talking about mental illness as if it is a deficit. All the linguistics we hear around it are negative. It is always portrayed as a big issue and it creates fear. We never see representation of the people that just live with it and get on with life. Television and film always has to show the dramatic breakdown, but where are the characters just living with it every day?

Hannah: Thank you all for your time today and for sharing your thoughts and advice on mental wellness. Do you have any final takeaways for the audience?

Vikas: We are not taught resilience as a life skill. I teach an MBA and if it was up to me I’d get rid of all of the current curriculum and only teach resilience. Mindfulness was also life-changing for me when I realised I don’t have to sit on a cushion and meditate to do it – I do it in the gym, on my bike.

Naomi: Be kind to others and be kind to yourself.

Stewart: Don’t underestimate happiness – it is incredibly important. There is nothing wrong with being selfish. The only person who is going to look after you is you. I would also recommend that people read Mind’s Five Ways to Wellbeing.

If you are struggling with mental health, please consider calling the Mind Infoline on 0300 123 3393 or visit their information and support page.