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Mental health, leadership and operational resilience

Normalising discussions around mental health is a burning issue at present, and the past year has emphasised the need to recognise the pressures that everyone can face in their working life. Insider Engage explores the tangible benefits to organisations of improving mental health awareness

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Mental health has been all over the news in recent years, with everyone from business leaders to sports stars revealing their own struggles with anxiety, depression and a range of other mental health issues.

Such revelations have typically focused on the importance of being able to talk about, and thus, normalise, experiences of suffering from poor mental health.

But they have also contributed to a wider discussion about the issue of whether an organisation has a duty of care towards the wellbeing of its employees - not least with the recent allegations made by workers at investment bank Goldman Sachs about the toll that obscenely long working hours have taken on their physical and mental health.

Put simply, most people are likely to suffer some sort of challenge to their mental health throughout their lifetime; and that notion of ‘mental health’ describes a very long spectrum that all of us will travel up and down, to a greater or lesser degree, in the course of our existence.

Having some way to deal with these low points in our lives could not only make life better for many workers, but could make both them – and they organisations they work for – more effective, it is argued.

All business leaders should at least be aware of the impact of workplace stresses on their employees’ ability to carry out their jobs and, if their stated commitments to being a ‘better employer’ are to mean anything, companies should also be assessing the effect on staff’s mental health.

This in turn should mean that organisations begin to consider ways in which the company culture can be adjusted to ensure everyone is able to be their best self as much of the time as possible and that people have the space to deal with mental health issues when they are not feeling at their best.

And of course, that goes for leaders too. Aside from the human interest angle, you don’t need to be a behavioural psychologist to work out that leaders under a great deal of mental stress will end up making poor decisions and be worse managers of their people.

The cost of mental health

Mental health as an everyday issue in the workplace has really come into its own over the last year, as the global pandemic has not only raised general anxiety levels, but has also created new stressors for people trying to balance home working and home schooling, for example, or trying to cope with the isolation of lockdown.

Conversely, it has also introduced the notion of flexible working to those looking for a better work/life balance as a realistic and workable prospect for both employer and employee.

As such, the notion of better mental health feeds into issues not only of diversity and inclusion, but also of digital transformation and operational resilience. When coupled with established concepts like ‘psychological safety’ – the idea that individuals should be free to express themselves in a collaborative environment, without fear of censure - it can result in getting the best out of your people, ensuring that they work better both as individuals and in teams.

According to research by Deloitte, published in January last year, poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45bn a year.

However, the report found, for every £1 spent on supporting employees’ mental health, organisations recouped £5 on their investment through reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover.

The report also noted that the rise in costs due to poor metal health could be attributed largely to a significant rise in ‘presenteeism’, with employees working when they were not at their most productive.

Personal experience

Speaking to leaders in the (re)insurance sector, the anecdotal evidence of the impact poor mental health can have on everyone from senior executives to frontline staff begins to pile up – as does the resultant effect on productivity, the amount of sick leave taken by staff and, ultimately, employee retention and recruitment, and company reputation.

Forbes McKenzie, founder and CEO of McKenzie Intelligence Services, is no stranger to the realities of a high-stress working environment. As a former British Army Intelligence Corps officer, he recalls six-month tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he describes as “basically sprints” – consistently working with 4-5 hours of sleep a night over a set period, albeit with the knowledge that there will be a rest period at the end of it.

Given that MIS was founded around a core of former army intelligence personnel, he says this mentality initially informed how the business was run.

“Because we’re a start up and we’re VC funded, we’re under-resourced financially, which translates into not having enough people. The data we require to operate has a fixed cost – that’s something we don’t have any control over - but we do have control over people and [they] were willing to roll their sleeves up and work the extra hours,” he recalls.

Like many start-up businesses, the company’s growth strategy is linked to investment rounds, the most recent of which was due to happen in June last year – bang in the middle of a pandemic.

“We were asking people to work from home, and everybody in the company was briefed on what’s going on, but they were expecting to have more staff members; the cavalry was supposed to have arrived this August and it didn’t.”

The company’s consulting business dried up during the pandemic, resulting in some staff being furloughed, while other staff were tempted by offers of work elsewhere, meaning the already hard-working employees were having to work even harder,

“There’s only so much physical courage an individual can have – and that’s essentially what we’re tapping into. And you know they’re getting burnt out – there’s only such much carrot and stick that you can do,” says McKenzie.

Counterintuitively, however, the experience of home working during lockdown has had some positives for the collective mental health of employees, possibly because, aside from the pressures of home-schooling or home-working in a crowded shared apartment, for many employees it has given them a greater degree of control over how they allocate their time.

“What is interesting for me is that productivity has remained fairly stable,” says Craig Keating, chief operations officer of Gallagher Bassett UK. “We’ve had little dips here and there – around 5% at certain times with certain people and the worst case we’ve had is a 10% drop - but the sickness rate has absolutely plummeted.”

“As a general point of view, pre-lockdown, we tended to tick along at a 2.5% sickness rate at any one point - that’s dropped all the way down to less than 0.5 percent. And that makes a meaningful impact on your resource.”

Keating attributes the stable productivity figures, and the drop in both ‘duvet days’ and sick days driven by work-related stress, to the company’s efforts to accommodate a more flexible working day.

“So, for example, with the home-schooling we recognised that you need to be more flexible in when you start work, take longer breaks through the day to support your family, and maybe then restart work,” he explains.

“A by-product of that is it has also opened the door for folks to say ‘I just don’t feel like going into work this morning’. Maybe just have that couple of hours [off] and then they turn their laptop on and switch their phone on.”

Richard Dudley is chief executive officer, Global Broking Centre, Commercial Risk Solutions at Aon, and has a long-standing personal interest in the topic, having seen the effect of mental health issues in his own family.

When approached some years ago by his firm’s head of diversity and inclusion to become an executive sponsor of one of Aon’s business resource groups, he decided he wanted to engage on the mental health front.

His approach was to go the board and leaders of other business units to persuade them to commit to resources to help drive action on the issue.

“At the time, we didn’t have a large enough central budget, so I wanted to make sure the businesses themselves would contribute so we could actually do more on the mental health side,” he says.

“We made an investment, and I described it as an investment very deliberately, because we went back 12 months later and if you looked at the reduction in absenteeism and made an assumption on presenteeism, then the return on investment was something like 6-9 times. For me [that was] a very obvious reason why this was [not only] the right thing but actually had a tangible effect on productivity.”

Andrew Ross is global markets vice president at Acrisure. When a friend’s father was driven by his struggle with depression to take his own life, Ross says that he and his friendship group not only had difficulty in coming to terms with the loss but also in finding the best way to support their bereaved friend.

In June last year, he and three friends undertook a 240-mile run from Liverpool to London in eight days, to raise money for James’ Place Charity, a charity that provides support to men in suicidal crisis. The original plan – to run six marathons in six days on six continents, ending at the London Marathon in April 2020 - was scotched by the pandemic. For him, raising awareness around mental health is a key factor in tackling the issue.

“There’s a lot of nervousness around speaking about male mental health because people think that it shows weakness. And certainly, when you transfer that to the work environment, you start to get multiples of this sort of thing. People displaying any form of vulnerability, particularly when you’ve got a position of responsibility within the workplace, is all too often viewed pejoratively,” he says.

Tough at the top

No discussion of workplace mental health would be complete without consideration of how the pressures of a changing economic cycle and the impact of a pandemic take their toll on the mental health of the people leading organisations.

“The more advanced you get in an organisation in terms of how high up you go, the less people think you’re human. The fact is, whatever level you are at, you are going to suffer from some form of mental stress or anxiety at some point,” says Dudley.

Gallagher Bassett’s Keating says there is an enduring perception that for senior leaders to ask for help is a sign of weakness – a perception that he argues is typically self-imposed.

“You’re working with hundreds of people and there can be a sense of isolation. And when you interrogate that it’s really because a lot of the people around you are relying on you to make the right decisions.”

He says leaders need to know who their “go-to people are when you need advice and counsel”. “We are human, we should be able to admit we make mistakes – and having the right support network can sometimes crystallise your thinking,” he says.

Aon's Dudley says that one consequence of “sprinting around like mad things” at the beginning of lockdown was that he - like other leaders – inevitably ended up in front of their laptop for 12 hours plus at a time – “and every single one of those hours was a Webex meeting”.

“It meant I had almost no time to think. I became quite anxious about that, because I felt I was losing perspective - my width of vision was becoming narrower.”

Acrisure’s Ross suggests that the work ethic in financial services can be one of the strengths of the sector, but also its biggest area of vulnerability when it comes to mental health.

“So much importance is placed on your ability to deal with high workloads and heavy stress in environments of bravado, where your capability is being able to go into those environments with utmost confidence.”

“In these professional environments, confidence and bravado are really valuable currency and, don’t get me wrong, that’s part of what I love about the insurance industry. However, I think significant attention should be paid to those environments where you’re enhancing the capacity for people to build up this façade, but where that sort of uber-confident individual can also become incredibly vulnerable to the depressive issues that we are talking about.”

It’s good to talk

All of the people that Insider Engage spoke to on the issue of mental health agree that having a more open discussion around the subject is the key to tackling it in real terms.

However, it is clear that the insurance industry still has a lot of work to do in terms of creating that environment of transparency.

In McKenzie’s view, the next big issue to be tackled by the financial service sector “has got to be mental health and resilience in the workplace”. “It shouldn’t be lip-service,” he adds.

He cites the experience of the UK military, which in the early 2000s introduced the concept of Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) assessments for personnel coming off tours of duty, as a preventative measure against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I think that’s what the military did wrong to start with. They had some flag-wavers saying ‘This has been fixed’ but there was no cultural change. The idea of TRiM was seen as a bit of tick box exercise.”

Keating says that when it comes to mental health, it is important to challenge the culture of your organisation and, crucially, to lead by example.

“Try and create the right kind of culture and environment where our folks think, ‘If Craig says he’s not OK, maybe I should be OK with saying I’m not OK’.”

“One of the most important things is that people are able to show that vulnerability - that if they are having those sort of issues it is OK for them to share them,” agrees Ross. “And one of the biggest displays of strength as a leader is to display that vulnerability.”

Dudley says one significant practical step taken by Aon in recent years was investing in a UK-wide training programme for mental health first aiders.

“A very big part of this whole notion of mental health is to make it completely normal to talk about it. The amount of interactions those people have has climbed every year, once people know they are a mental health first aider,” he says.

“This is a concept that I think is really productive. It’s the start of getting the general population of a company involved in mental health,” says Ross.

“It moves away from the structured channels of dealing with mental health – because that in itself can scare people away from talking about it.”

Psychological safety and resilience

Returning to that concept of ‘psychological safety’ introduced at the beginning of this article - while not a new idea, it could prove to be an important tool in companies’ efforts to improve their operational resilience in future.

For Catherine de la Poer, Chief Growth Officer at Sheridan Resolutions, the question for companies should be ‘How do we operationalise psychological safety?’

“The workplace is finally opening up to this idea that humans are not just automatons,” she says. “The analogy a lot of people like to use is this idea of a ‘corporate athlete’ – if you want somebody to perform at their best then you have to look after them.”

MIS’s McKenzie said the firm “went back to the drawing board” with its staff, by outlining what the company was looking to achieve, and consulting with employees on how to achieve it. He says together they came up with the following mission statement:

“We have learnt from experience that freedom breeds innovation, and want our team to be empowered to trust in diligent agency. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so humility is also critical, as is striving together as a team community to progress. Anyone is capable of greatness, and transparency is key - we know that shared intelligence is shared success"

However, says Aon's Dudley, enshrining concepts like psychological safety in company culture is only one part of improving overall wellbeing.

“This isn’t one ‘Big Bang’ strategy for me,” says Dudley. “It’s just another little brick in the wall that should enable you to just be yourself; to express your opinions and your concerns about anything. I’m not sure any firm has got all the way there and it’s one of those things where I don’t think you’ll ever stop.”