Introduced by Michael Cole-Fontayn, Executive Vice President and Chairman, EMEA for BNY Mellon, the main sponsor for the event, who spoke from the heart of BNY Mellon’s commitment to improving and protecting mental health, as well as his own personal lived experiences. This conference wasn’t about the case for change, but as he explained very simply, the need for forward thinking approaches to mental health, saying that ‘at work, we employ people for their minds, so we need to protect and nourish those minds’. Their total commitment to strengthening the conversation, both internally and externally was evident, and his concise summary of why this is important stayed at the front of my mind throughout the day.
Penny Mordaunt MP, Minister of State for Disabled People, Health and Work, shared the government’s perspective and the work they are doing to progress in this space. Currently, she explained, approximately 1.2 million people are out of work because of mental health issues, and while it is far from rare, in her view it is also ‘far from untreatable’. She spoke about the fact that promoting good business health should, in all cases, be enough of a business case for organisations to focus in this area, but that if it isn’t, then the long-debated benefits of a more diverse workforce and the more obvious bottom line, impacts of reduced attrition, sickness absence and workforce engagement should cement the argument. Ms Mordaunt talked about a number of government initiatives in her speech but I was most interested to hear that the ‘Access to Work Scheme’ (which facilitates workplace adjustments for disabled people to enable them to enter and remain in work) also has a specialist mental health support service in place, encouraging employers to focus on what people can do rather than any perceived limitations.
An academic perspective was shared by Dr Chiara Lombardo, a Research Fellow in Public Mental Health from the University of East London, and here are some key elements that stood out for me:
Notably, fellow speakers were in agreement with Dr. Lombardo that despite the weight of evidence that employment can improve mental health, the sheer fact of having a job should not take priority over the nature of that job, and care should be taken to design roles and delivery mechanisms to protect mental health. Vanessa Pinfold, of the McPin Foundation, shared her experience of running a small organisation which employs multiple people with mental health conditions, and how this has shaped her approach to role and organisation design, as well as workplace setting, noting that a ‘solution for one person is not always a positive for others.’
Chris O’Sullivan from the Mental Health Foundation was also a very compelling speaker, reinforcing that good work is great for mental health, but bad work is often ‘toxic’. Shockingly, their research suggests that almost 50% of those who have or had mental health problems have gone to work whilst experiencing suicidal thoughts.
He also shared the MHF experience of supporting people with mental health conditions in the workplace, noting that discrimination on the grounds of mental health appears less likely to be treated as severely in organisations as other types of discrimination. I would agree with his view that we clearly have work to do to align the mental health conversation with the disability agenda.
Later in the conference, Chris Murray from the Department of Work and Pensions shared his lived experience of depression, and his organisation’s approach to supporting him. The DWP’s ‘Stress Risk Assessment’ and ‘Mental Wellbeing Action Plans’ are designed to help managers and employees recognise triggers, as well as outline recovery tools, and seemed to have had an impact on keeping Chris both well, and at work. Chris reinforced the MHF’s view that work can often be the only social interaction for someone with a mental health condition, and so time away from work may not actually help recovery.
Amongst the wide variety of speakers, Mike Brian, from the British Antarctic Survey, landed the most alternative view of the day on the subject. Aside from coming up with creative ways of tackling the isolation that comes with working in such a remote location for months on end in reduced light, in close communal living arrangements, he offered advice on how his teams are advised to spread their energy: 1/3 to your job, 1/3 to those around you at work, and 1/3 to your support network at home. I suspect that adhering to his formula might offer an uptick in wellbeing in any workplace!
The final keynote speech was delivered by Rachel Kelly, who has published books on a variety of subjects linked to mental health, including gratitude and nutrition. It was unfortunate that she had only a short slot to cover such an important and interesting topic, but she certainly fired me up to explore the relationship between digestive health and mental wellbeing through her engaging session. In fact, her book is on my kitchen table already!
The conference was a fantastic way to connect with like-minded individuals across a variety of sectors, and hear some very diverse and captivating views on the issue of mental health at work. I’m confident that this year’s World Mental Health Day will be the most discussed ever – and hope that the resources on offer enable change to happen across industry.
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