Businesses urged to help break the taboos around mental health

A number of leading organisations in the private and public sectors gathered in Leeds last week to discuss how employers could encourage a culture of greater openness and awareness of mental health in the workplace.

Hosted by Leeds law firm Clarion and organisational change experts Q5, key speakers at the event included Lord Dennis Stevenson, a long-time campaigner for greater understanding and treatment of mental illness; and Tom Riordan, chief executive of Leeds City Council, who also feels strongly about the issue. It was attended by HR directors and CEOs of Yorkshire businesses from the world of education, financial services and utilities to the food sector and councils. The need for all businesses, from large corporates through to SMEs, to have a mental health plan in place, was a central theme of the discussion.

Lord Stevenson, the founding chair of mental health research charity MQ and co-author of the Government Independent Review Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers , highlighted both the human and the financial cost to the UK of failing to tackle the issue. It is estimated that businesses are losing billions of pounds because employees are less productive as a result of mental health issues and this also has an impact on society, the economy and Government. Interestingly, he said that some sectors, such as construction, experienced higher numbers of mental health problems, while, generally, the public sector was in many areas leading the field.

Lord Stevenson said: “I’m delighted to have been asked to mark Q5’s first anniversary in Leeds by speaking with a group of the city’s senior business leaders about mental health in the workplace. This is a fundamentally important topic and one which is at long last coming out into the open.  It is my great hope that across the country we work together to ensure the UK becomes a leading nation, in relation to mental health. Together, by prioritising mental health at work, we can become global leaders in reducing stigma, improving the mental health of the population and in the process the UK’s productivity.”

Lord Stevenson stressed the importance of encouraging people to talk and be aware of their own mental health, including senior business leaders, in order to normalise the conversation. He suggested that this should start with parents explaining to children at a young age that everyone has mental health and there are positive techniques that can help to manage it. The need to embed training across organisations is also vital, and mental health first aiders have a key role to play.

The use of analytics to predict potential future behaviour was discussed, along with the pros and cons of mindfulness apps which can form part of a toolkit, although, without conversation, there is a  challenge in ensuring those in need utilise that tool.

Tom Riordan commented: “Mental health has always been an issue close to my heart having grown up with it as part of everyday life in my family. The more we can all talk about it, the more people will feel confident in opening up about issues that affect so many people and organisations in the city.”

Sarah Tahamtani, partner and head of Clarion’s employment team said: “In recent years, we have all become more aware of the need for good mental as well as physical health and to see leaders of businesses which employ literally thousands of people across the region, so engaged in this issue, was really encouraging.

“At Clarion, mental wellbeing underpins our culture – we nurture honest conversations about mental health and stress, and do all we can to offer support for colleagues, for example, by providing trained mental health first aiders. Looking after each other results in a happy, engaged team which, in turn, is more likely to result in happy, well-serviced clients. At its simplest, being kind to one another makes perfect business sense.”

Iain Anstess, managing director of Q5 in Leeds, added: “As a leading organisational design and development specialist firm, Q5 recognises the fundamental and critical importance of mental health for individuals, organisational and society well-being. We opened our sixth office, located in Leeds, just one year ago and since then have enjoyed a warm welcome from the Leeds business community. We, therefore, felt it fitting to mark our first year anniversary by co-hosting an evening conversation with Q5’s senior adviser Lord Stevenson, a leading authority on mental wellbeing in the workplace, and law firm Clarion.”


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