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Creating a workplace that supports mental health: Rob Stephenson

The physical workplace is, for many people, a big part of what keeps people well, says the InsideOut founder.

22/09/2020 8 min read

Editor’s note: As COVID-19 brings mental health into sharp focus for us all, we present a series of thought-provoking expert opinions on the state of mental wellbeing at work. Read more here.

Rob Stephenson is an international keynote speaker, campaigner and consultant who is on a mission to help create happier, healthier and higher performing workplaces. Rob is the founder of InsideOut, a social enterprise with the mission of smashing the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace by showcasing senior leader role models with lived experiences of mental ill health. This is done by virtue of a published annual list – The InsideOut LeaderBoard.

Rob is also the CEO of Form, a technology start-up helping people to monitor their mental health using a score out of 10 (FormScore) with a mobile app to help friends, family and colleagues support each other.

Tell us a little about your background and about InsideOut

InsideOut is a social enterprise I founded almost three years ago, as a vehicle to help smash the stigma of mental ill-health in the workplace. I experience bipolar disorder and for many years I learnt to manage my condition – but did so under the radar because of a fear of how I’d be perceived by friends, by colleagues, by clients. That was the stigma of mental illness.

In 2017 I saw that people were being more open about their mental health challenges – Princes William and Harry were speaking out about it, which really started to catalyse mental health on the workplace agenda. I thought, why am I hiding my psychotherapy in my diary every time to go and see my therapist, when I’ve got a team that I respect and love?

I shared my story and the reaction I got back from that was overwhelmingly positive. People were not only empathising and showing support, but they were sharing their experiences back. It got me thinking about how stigmatised mental ill-health is and how many people suffer in silence – and I thought, I’m going to get involved.

So, I looked around, I listened, and I spoke to anyone who’d speak to me on the scene. I kept hearing the same message; that we don’t have enough senior business leaders as role models, who are willing to open up about the challenges of mental illness. We’ve got Ruby Wax, Alastair Campbell, a few sports professionals… but we don’t have enough senior business leaders.

I founded InsideOut (which is a not-for-profit) with the mission to smash the stigma by showcasing senior business leaders who are open about the fact that they have a challenge. It’s CEO’s, Partners, MD’s – people who are in a position of leadership and are prepared to say that they experience a mental health challenge. When a leader speaks out, it facilitates a change of culture.

I’m now taking this concept globally, and my mission is to normalise the conversation in the workplace. The leadership element is super-important because it does facilitate change.

Why do you think mental health has suddenly become the key topic when it comes to people talking about wellbeing?

We’ve seen a movement that has really accelerated in the past few years. Workplaces are really getting behind the mental health agenda. I think businesses have now started to understand the mental health costs that they are facing – and not just the costs of absenteeism and recruitment, but the big costs. In Deloitte’s recent analysis, £29 billion of the £49 billion costs to UK employers is due to presenteeism: people who are in work but are under-performing due to sub-optimal mental health.

We’re starting to realise – particularly in this country, and we are quite forward thinking in the UK – that we need to support people who are struggling, for sure, but there’s also a great opportunity to offer education and literacy for everybody else on the wellbeing agenda. Mental health is a key part of our wellbeing.

It’s on the radar, and there are a lot of great campaigners and advocates in workplaces who are behind it – the role models on the InsideOut leaderboard, for example. Many of them are doing such a great job.

Is poor mental health on the rise – or is it awareness of the subject that is growing?

Lockdown is definitely causing an increase in mental health issues, and this is then translating into greater importance in society and the workplace. Lockdown is causing an increase in poor mental health because of isolation, because of increase in stress, because of general anxiety. We’re worried about the big bad world, the economic situation, our friends, our family, our children and ourselves. All of this is the perfect storm to create mental health challenges where there weren’t any before and amplify mental health challenges that do already exist in people.

From a personal perspective, I’ve experienced the virus – as has my wife – and we’re in this long tail of post-COVID sufferers (and there are thousands of us out there) where the symptoms keep coming back; the fatigue, the lethargy, the shortness of breath as it attacks the auto-immune system. This has really affected my own mental health, primarily because I struggle to get out and exercise and ride my bike – which is one of the main ways in which I manage my bipolar disorder and stay well. We’ve seen stats from the ONS saying that depression has doubled during lockdown – and that’s absolutely no surprise at all.

It is also bringing it to the forefront – because more and more people will experience a mental health challenge as a result of the pandemic. One of my favourite quotes on this issue is that 100% of us will know what it is like to struggle with our mental wellbeing as a result of the pandemic. That’s a negative, for sure, but I also think in the longer term it will increase empathy and that we can turn it into a positive. I’m an optimist, so I hope to see that.

The physical workplace is, for many, many people, a big part of what keeps people well, which is why we’ve seen a rise in depression and anxiety when people have been locked out of the workplace.

Has the stigma once associated with mental health issues disappeared?

I think the stigma is getting eradicated in the UK. People are feeling more comfortable talking about their mental health challenges. That means that we are seeing an increase in the reporting of people being out of the workplace because of a mental health challenge – which is good, we want to see that, we want to open up that can of worms. We want to know that people are off work for depression or anxiety or PTSD – not people faking a back condition because they feel uncomfortable or fearful talking about it. I think that breaking down of stigma over time is helping us identify the issues more correctly. However, I do think there are more general levels of mental health challenges because of the way we’re all living – and the pandemic has amplified that.

Has COVID/lockdown causing an increase in poor mental health issues – or is it more that it is bringing the issue to the fore? 

The press likes to sensationalise it, but I think we are going to see significant mental health challenges at a population level as we travel through this pandemic – we’re seeing it already with the reporting of the doubling of depression.

I feel there is a real danger that we’re going to see an epidemic of burnout. The pandemic has meant we’ve been sprinting to adapt, but we’ve stayed sprinting for almost six months and we’re only now starting to realise that this is a marathon. We’re only having little breaks during the day, we’re not taking holidays, we don’t have a natural buffer between home and work – and we’re also fearful for our positions. We might feel the need to be online much more and to work harder. All of this is creating conditions for an epidemic of burnout.

Employers need to be really mindful of this and offer support. Individuals need to just think about prioritising their metal health and their wellbeing to address that.

What should employers be doing to ensure that their people have the best possible support when it comes to their mental health?

There are three elements to an integrated strategy:

Awareness: letting people know that it’s okay to talk about your metal health, that it’s okay to seek support when you’re struggling and providing some literacy around how to proactively manage your wellbeing.

Having support in the workplace: EAP schemes, in-house therapy, peer support groups and technology solutions that employees can tap into.

Preventional promotion: providing education, resources and a culture that allows people to proactively manage their mental wellbeing, to stay well, or to move toward the thriving end of the continuum.

Right now, I think it’s really important to check-in with your employees – ask people to manage their mental health with a score out of 10. We need to find ways to reach into our employee base and find out how they are doing, and a FormScore – a number out of 10 – is a really easy way to do that. Then we need to be helping to facilitate social connections – this is the one thing we’re really missing from the workplace.

I think the message here is that mental health applies to everyone – wellbeing applies to everyone – and workplace design and culture has a huge impact on our mental wellbeing.

It’s about creating cultures that allow people to feel safe in asking for support – and that’s about having the right level of resource to deliver that support. EAP schemes are good, in isolation, but they’re not going to help everybody. Mental Health First Aid is a good awareness-raising tool, but again it’s not going to help everybody. We need a bunch of different elements to give the support and the prevention strategy for that to happen.

How can the physical workplace help with regards to helping people cope with mental health issues?

As we redefine the physical workplace, I think that the physical workplace will be a place that we go to connect with colleagues, where we go because something purposeful or magnificent is happening – not just because that’s where we go to do the day job or because it’s 8.30am on a Monday. What we’re lacking now is the social connection bit. The physical workplace is often a place where we can get that. It’s often a place where we get that collaboration and real sense of purpose. The physical workplace is, for many, many people, a big part of what keeps people well, which is why we’ve seen a rise in depression and anxiety when people have been locked out of the workplace. For many others, it is a source of stress and the commute isn’t great, so I think bringing flexibility into the workplace is going to be important – but I do think that the physical workplace is absolutely essential for human connection.

Do you have any tips for our readers when it comes to helping themselves deal with their own mental health?

Absolutely – this is square in the centre of what I do and very much at the core of the FormScore project. My first tip – and this is for anybody, not just people who are struggling – is to understand that we all have mental health. It’s one of the most beautiful things about being human – and if we accept that, we can then accept that we can influence it.

Taking the gift of a moment of self-reflection each day – asking yourself how you are today as far as your mental health is concerned – is a beautiful thing to do because that is the time when we notice what is going on – have I slept well? Has my exercise been good? Am I balancing my nutrition well? How am I getting those moments of recovery to offset the stress that life throws at us? These simple prompts can help us to tweak what we’re doing. It might be as simple as taking a break in the day or prioritising sleep a little more or reaching out and connecting with a friend. We need to bring this literacy and this awareness to what we’re all about – and the FormScore is all about that.

Images courtesy of Form

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