Author: Maha Khan Phillips
Ahead of World Mental Health Day, Alison Unsted, UK Chief Executive Officer and Global Strategy Director at the City Mental Health Alliance, talks to Professional Investor about the role that businesses and individuals, can play in supporting the development of mentally healthy workplaces.
PI: Tell us about the work of CHMA and some of its areas of focus?
Alison Unsted: The City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA) is about celebrate its ten-year anniversary. We were set up in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Senior leaders were seeing more issues in their organisations around mental health, and a lot of our early focus was on challenging stigma, developing the language and literacy around mental health [discourse].
In the early days, sharing stories, getting leaders to talk about their own experiences of mental health, for example, was very important. A primary mission was to get businesses to prioritise employee mental health. We wanted them to make this a boardroom agenda and position this as a critical business priority. We think this is a fundamental issue for business success.
Our role as CMHA is to help businesses create mentally healthy workplaces. We have developed a framework around three key pillars; culture, workplace and support. A culture that prioritises wellbeing requires a top-down approach. Leaders need to be engaged and prioritise mental health across the whole organisation. Line managers and key personnel need to have the right training to have a better understanding of mental health and be able to spot signs and symptoms when someone may be struggling and have the confidence to talk to people and signpost them to the right help.
We then look at the workplace itself, whether workloads are sustainable, and whether there is an open environment where people feel that they can talk openly and safely about concerns they may have about their mental health, without negative consequences.
One key focus for us at CMHA is intersectionality. We want businesses to think about mental health and wellbeing as integral to the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies and vice versa. There is no wellbeing without inclusion. It is important, that strategies and interventions that are put in place are relevant and meet the needs of different groups. For example, the experiences and needs of a person from a black or ethnic minority background, or someone who has a neurodivergent condition may be different. We’ve seen a lot more discussion about fertility and menopause and the impact that can have on mental health which is great. Mental health is also impacting parents in the workplace, who are concerned about the mental health of their children, particularly after the pandemic. This is an area we’re looking into, and we’ve put together a toolkit for parents to support children and young people with their mental health.
PI: You’ve also launched a report about mental health and ESG. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Unsted: The MindForward Alliance, which is our global chapter have produced a paper on how mental health should fit into the ‘S’ of ESG. The ‘S’ is often outward focused, but we believe if you have a flourishing, productive workforce, then surely that’s an indication of your sustainability and ability to perform well as a business. If people in your organisation are not well, how well is your business going to perform in the longer term? It’s a challenge for businesses because measurement and data in this area is complex. Whilst it’s not easy, there are different data metrics that can be used to help organisations get a sense or indication of the state of wellness across their employee population.
PI: Why is it so important to address mental health in the workplace, specifically?
Unsted: The workplace is increasingly becoming a place where people access support if they need it. Most workplaces offer some sort of counselling or EAP. A lot of organisations have done mental health first aid training or similar and have ambassadors or allies who are given training to have good conversations and help people find appropriate support.
Anecdotally, we heard during the pandemic that some GP’s were signposting people to look at what support their workplaces were providing, because the wait on the NHS would be quite significant. Workplaces have a very important role to play in keeping people well. For example, I get a lot of value from my work. I receive recognition, I create social connections and feel I am contributing towards something meaningful.
Interestingly when we did research on mental health and race it revealed that a high proportion of respondents from black and ethnic minority groups would be willing to access support through work, even those who experienced high levels of stigma within their communities. This shows the opportunity employers have to provide access to support.
PI: The last two years have brought many uncertainties. Have these events shifted the discourse around mental health in the workplace, and if so, how?
Unsted: There was a global health crisis before the pandemic, but the pandemic led to a 25% increase in anxiety and depressive disorders globally. That’s a huge increase in people experiencing mental ill health symptoms. If you look at a country like the UK, we probably have reasonably good health infrastructure compared to a lot of other countries, but our infrastructure is not coping with the need for mental health support. This is not just a responsibility for governments and health services to address, there is a role (and need) for businesses to contribute to solving the crisis.
There’s been a shift post the pandemic in terms of thinking around this, an increasing focus and prioritisation of mental health at work. Those businesses that were already looking at mental health before the pandemic did quite well in supporting their staff because they were set up and had systems in place. Others had to do a lot of work very quickly. If there was one good thing to come out of the pandemic it was the increased focus and attention on mental health in the workplace.
PI: There is a great deal that businesses can do in this space, but what about individuals?
Unsted: It is important to understand a bit more about our own mental health. There’s a lot of information out there that can help individuals understand some of the signs of when they are not coping well or experiencing mental ill health. Being mindful of this and what keeps you well is important. If you are aware of how to keep yourself well, you will be able to better support other people. In others, it’s about learning about the signs and symptoms, about noticing behavioural, emotional or physical changes. If you spot some of these signs in friends or colleagues, even if you haven’t had the training, ask someone if they are okay. Ask them twice. They may want to talk, or they may not, but it’s important to know you are there to support them if they need it.
Alison Unsted, UK Chief Executive Officer and Global Strategy Director, City Mental Health Alliance