This anonymous FTSE50 HR Director tells us why corporate intolerance of mental health must change

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This is an interview with a FTSE50 HR Director who is on a campaign to tackle corporate intolerance of mental health. Boy, are there are some stories - read on to find out more, and why our HR Director feels the need to discuss them anonymously.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What is your viewpoint on mental health in corporates? What are the biggest problems?

FTSE50 HR Director: There is a very general problem in business nowadays - certainly the big corporates - where the pressure to deliver superior returns to large, powerful shareholder groups creates a work climate which has become toxic for many employees.

There are a few things to consider here I think:

  • the impact of technology and the potential cost savings it can deliver
  • digital disruption in many markets, especially traditional ones like insurance and financial services
  • the rise of the finance function with its often limited, short-term approach

These have all contributed to creating a climate which is erratic and reactive, and increasingly based on hard financial metrics only.

Employees who are perceived to struggle coping with stress - often exhibited through inconsistent/poor behaviour - are often targeted for redundancy.

This is a vicious circle. Whilst some smaller, more agile businesses have shaped themselves - culturally and structurally - to thrive in a digital world, many larger corporates, being typically more risk averse, have waited too long to deal with this. Many of them are now reacting through cost savings and short-term planning (back to the vicious circle). 

I include stress (or lack of ability to cope with it) on the broad spectrum of mental illness at work, and whilst C-level executives often have external coaches to work with to help them, the other 90% of the workforce are left to their own devices largely.

Employees who are perceived to struggle coping with stress - often exhibited through inconsistent/poor behaviour - are often targeted for redundancy, or moved aside to make room for someone else.

So I see the biggest problem with mental health in corporates is the lack of appetite to deal with it in a proper way.

Gallup, among others have released good research supporting the view that corporates simply rolling out another 'wellbeing programme' doesn't work.

Most wellbeing programmes are well-intentioned of course, but they are primarily designed to tackle the effects of stress, not the causes of it. This is too little too late.

Telling someone to exercise more often is obviously good - we all know that we should exercise regularly and there are clear links between physical and mental wellbeing.

Most employees would be reluctant to open up about their mental health to their manager

However, I think this is about helping employees make the most of the situation they are already in - it does not tackle the underlying causes of the stress, and of course stress can lead to depression, anxiety and other more serious conditions.

Add to this the reality that most employees would be reluctant to open up about their mental health to their manager (and let’s not forget that mental health does not discriminate so many senior managers also suffer), gives you a really toxic problem for employees who are expected to do more with less, are unwilling to speak up until it's too late, and a C-level attitude of 'we dont have the time to deal with this properly'.

It's a big systemic issue.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Do you have any particular bad examples or stories that have stuck with you?

FTSE50 HR Director: Lots - and there are positive stories of course - but I'm happy to share an example of a conversation I was having with a FTSE 100 CFO.

We were meeting to discuss how we could redesign parts of the organisation to increase efficiency and remove duplicated effort within the business.

Employee engagement scores were down and employee feedback was consistently pointing to increased work pressures (caused by duplication), and uncertainty around ownership and responsibility as a key driver of this score.

I see this a lot and typically look at organisation design first:

  • Is work getting done in the right place, by the right teams?
  • Are people clear on ownership, and interfaces with other teams? This is often a cause of this type of stress.

The CFO however immediately rounded on one senior manager and started talking about his inability to cope with stress, his history of stress-related absence and suggested - quite genuinely I think - that maybe we should make this person redundant and 'get someone stronger in'.

This struck me for two reasons.

Firstly, I think the CFO actually believed they were suggesting we do the right, compassionate thing for the employee. After all, by taking him out of the equation, we would remove a cause of stress for him. So the problem rested with the employee, rather than the climate the employee worked in.

Secondly, I wasn't shocked by the question as I had heard it so many times before! When did it become the norm to treat mental illness as an employee's own problem to deal with, rather than take responsibility as an employer for it?

Another example was a female employee who was struggling to return back to work after maternity leave, which can sometimes be a big transition back for the employee.

This particular employee had postnatal depression and was very poorly treated by her line management who had changed the structure and reporting lines for the employee when she was off. In the end she resigned, as she was made to feel that she was responsible for her lack of ability to cope with a new role and manager.

Her behaviour (crying, being upset and frustrated) resulted in a perception that she was a 'problem employee'.

She resigned as she wanted to 'not make a fuss', but left with a cloud hanging over her. I didn't hear about this until after the event, and regardless of the legal risk associated with this, there was an ethical one also.

Her behaviour (crying, being upset and frustrated) resulted in a perception that she was a 'problem employee'. I know in the end she believed the problem was hers, not anyone else's.

Another slightly different, but no less damaging example was my own line manager, a Group HR Director in the FSTE 50 who wanted to hire in a senior interim to run a business transformation programme.

I had worked with this interim executive before and she was known for not taking prisoners, being tough and even reduced a senior manager to tears with her behaviour. The Group HRD felt this was exactly the reason to hire her: essentially, that she would “cut through all the politics and drive this through.”.

There was no consideration of the fact that this blunt instrument might not be the solution, or whether the solution would be found through better stakeholder engagement, increasing alignment on the purpose of the integration and so on.

We hired this person, and she bombed, causing considerable damage. I am not convinced senior HR executives take their employee advocacy as seriously as they need to, maybe because this is not always a popular voice at the executive table.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What needs to be done in corporates to address the mental health stigma?

FTSE50 HR Director: Well we need to start taking more responsibility for a start, and I mean we need to stop pretending that wellbeing programmes are a satisfactory solution to this problem.

There should be more collective responsibility at the executive level specifically for mental health at work, and that doesn't mean leaving it to the HRD to own.

I am not convinced senior HR executives take their employee advocacy as seriously as they need to

That silo approach means the HRD is often the 'dissenting' voice against corporate groupthink which I've mentioned is increasingly focused on short term reporting. We need to continue to promote the excellent work which is trying to raise awareness around the stigma of mental health, such as @timetochange.

As HR Directors we need to be better at diagnosing the causes rather than throwing money at the effects. For example, we should look at organisation design rather than giving employees free fruit or telling them how good exercise is.

Josh Bersin released some interesting work recently sharing how important OD is now and i would agree with that.

The problem is, changing the design of organisations is hard - people, power and politics all impede the best OD efforts, but sometimes that nettle needs to be grabbed.

Finally - I do wonder if HR functions have lost their way around being employee advocates in their search for a seat at the top table....

There are genuinely not enough role models in senior corporate positions who are willing to stand up and say it is ok to have mental illness (and be effective at the same time). I wish there were. Where I work, I do talk about that fact that I suffer from anxiety and at times depression, but as my blog specifically gives examples I write it under a pseudonym.

However, I do see some excellent campaigns such as #timetochange (www.time-to-change.org.uk) which have excellent supporting materials to help people with mental illness, and educate those without.

I'm not a big fan of corporate wellbeing programmes personally as they are often the ONLY thing businesses do to 'tackle' mental health stigma, and I’m not sure this has been successful. In fact, I think is is lazy.

Wellness programmes have a place in terms of building awareness of course, but to be effective, employers should be bolder, and explicitly partner with an external organisation and make a real commitment to their employees, and shareholders that they are serious about this issue.

Time To Change have an excellent resource to help HR teams do this step-by-step.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Is the current crop of leadership the problem? Do we just need them to leave the workplace?

FTSE50 HR Director: I'm not sure if I would blame the current crop of leadership although I would struggle to find many role models around mental health who are currently employed in a PLC as a senior executive.

There is a role for braver, bolder leadership at the top of companies I think. More individuals who are prepared to talk and campaign regularly on this topic inside their own organisations would certainly help - not accepting lazy redundancies, or 'cutting out' mental health is a good example.

I'm not a big fan of corporate wellbeing programmes personally as they are often the ONLY thing businesses do to 'tackle' mental health stigma.

A lot of people are not qualified or confident in talking about mental health at work - and that includes those in positions where they could positively impact it, so we need to help those telling their stories, but also help those who are listening to those stories.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Why do you need to say this stuff anonymously? Are corporate attitudes to mental health that bad?

FTSE50 HR Director: Good question! Well the short answer is because I am calling out behaviour at work which I have personally witnessed on my blog.

The FTSE isn't that big a place and if I said who I was, then the examples I give would be much easier to attribute to individuals, and I don't want to name and shame.

There is also a self-preservation element in this - how many people would hire a HR Director who is known for blogging about ignorance and intolerance of mental health?

People who work closely with me know that I live with anxiety myself, and at times suffer from depression and I'm comfortable talking about that on my blog - hrwolf.tumblr.com.

HRWolf allows me to fall just short of naming and shaming, and that is still a valuable contribution to the broader work being done now to help the workplace become more tolerant around mental health.

I can be contacted on twitter at: @cavedwellerhrd1

About Anonymous HR

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By donr1
18th Apr 2016 21:18

Greetings.......

I need to state right up front I have never worked with any "large corporates", but some experiences I have enjoyed might also help in this area of growing concern among HR folk............and others who feel for their Team.

One of the positives I have observed over the years is where organisations task their HR folk to focus totally on helping Managers at all levels to manage/lead their Teams. Quite often.............in fact too often......I see HR folk taking on roles such as being the trainer/being the recruiter/being the performance appraiser/etc. Remember I am talking about Teams right through the organization...........and oftentimes this is where things begin to fall apart, because senior Teams do not continue to train/appraise/recruit, in the same way they require Teams at lower levels. Well Helloooooo!!!!!!

So my suggestion to help reverse the issue raised in this article is to help managers manage in the entirety of that task; and require Teams at all levels to operate the same.

The main reason I promote this approach is that it means Managers make decisions about their Team members instead of passing the "unpleasant" bits to HR folk [and others]. In the process they are more keenly conscious of the feelings etc of others in the Team, so you remove the oftentimes destructive methods as explained above by the "take no prisoners" person. While some Managers may operate in this mode, at least the Team is used to them.

Interestingly, those who find this hardest are Managers at senior levels.

Cheers. DonR.

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By PCPaul
28th Apr 2016 20:50

Great article, thank you for sharing.

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