Louise’s lowdown: Mental health champions can help erode a ‘stiff upper lip attitude’ in the workplace

Louise Fordham Headshot 2016

According to research published by Bupa in August 2016, 68% of business leaders identify a ‘stiff upper lip attitude’ at executive level as a barrier to conversations around wellbeing in the workplace. Stiff upper lip is a phrase that is heard less often these day, and a concept that is especially unhelpful when viewed in the context of wellbeing. It is worrying then, that 62% of business leader respondents feel they need to show that they do not suffer from ill health, and 50% do not believe it is possible to be a good leader and vulnerable at the same time.

When it comes to employee wellbeing, leaders have a key role to play in driving engagement with health and wellbeing initiatives. This is particularly the case for mental wellbeing, where vocal support from senior management can help to open up the conversation around mental health, and raise awareness of the benefits and systems in place to support staff. With almost a third (30%) of employee respondents unsure of who to talk to or where to turn for support with mental health issues, according to research by Westfield Health, published in February 2016, any methods that increase awareness of support mechanisms are to be welcomed.

Of course, it is not just senior leaders who can boost understanding of mental health issues within an organisation; employees at all levels can play a part in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental ill health and help to signpost their colleagues to appropriate support services. Organisations across a variety of sectors are recognising the value of training staff as mental health first aiders and mental health champions, and the impact this can have on attitudes towards mental health in the workplace.

In January 2016, property and infrastructure organisation Lendlease introduced a mental health awareness training programme for all new staff, designed to help employees look after their own mental health, relate to others, identify early signs of mental ill health, and direct colleagues to relevant support services. In the media industry, ITN has appointed newsreader Sian Williams its first mental health champion. Employee volunteers will take part in a two-day mental health first aid training course from September 2016 as part of the news and content provider’s wider mental health strategy.

Meanwhile, at professional services organisation Accenture UK and Ireland, more than 700 mental health allies had undergone formal training as of June 2016 and plans are afoot to increase this number further over the course of the year. Accenture’s mental health allies span all career levels, from graduate joiners to managing directors.

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According to research by Axa PPP Healthcare, published in August 2016, more than half (51%) of bosses and managers in mid-to-large organisations see mental health as the biggest threat to employee health over the next five years, ahead of obesity/high body mass index (44%), and high blood pressure (30%).

Fostering an open and inclusive culture, which is underpinned by support systems such as employee assistance programmes, access to counselling services, and line manager training, could help employers take a more proactive approach to mental health. With Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research, published in July 2016, finding that 31% of employees have experienced a mental health problem at some point in their working life, compared to 26% in 2011, this is certainly not an issue that should slip off employers’ radars.