Lorna Gavin, Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility reports:
We were fairly early in our journey when we joined CMHA in 2014. We were conscious both that mental health was a big issue and that it was hard to tackle because of the associated stigma. We needed all the help we could get, and I have found the peer learning, networking and best practice sharing invaluable. We had set up a ‘disability network’ but quickly realised that mental health took up most of the airtime, so it became a disability and wellbeing network, and we put in place an action plan to start encouraging people to open up about their mental health and come to us for help if they needed to.
It’s a work in progress, and the most difficult nut to crack is having the time and resource to train all our line managers face to face. We hope to have done that by the end of 2017, but in the meantime we are appointing and training about 15 mental health champions, who are approachable and trusted by their colleagues and, therefore, well placed to spot and address signs of mental ill health in people.
Critical to our success so far is that we engaged with the board at the outset. We’ve had board attention from an early stage, which has allowed us to give mental health this focus.
For us, prevention is absolutely key. We want to create a culture where people can 1) be themselves, and 2) feel safe about putting up their hand up and saying they are struggling without damaging their career prospects.
People who speak out about their own stories do a fantastic job. At one CMHA event I was particularly struck by a presentation from a KPMG partner, who related the wave of positive support he had received from others in the firm when he admitted that he had battled depression for 15 years. Time and again the response, apparently, was: ‘I thought it was only me’. That sent a tingle down my spine and made me realise how many people there must be in our firm who were struggling in silence.
There is a way to go to break down stigma. For the first time this year we marked Mental Health Awareness Week in May with a number of events. They were poorly attended – one person actually admitted she was afraid of being seen in that environment.
I spoke about my personal experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a senior client lawyer spoke about his depression, and a colleague talked about how a problem with her eyesight affects her mental health. It made a huge impression on the 30 people who did attend the session, and sparked all sorts of conversations afterwards. I describe it as ‘the snowball of destigmatisation’. But our challenge is how we reach 300 people, and the next 300 people, and so on.
It is easier in some parts of the business – where there is a supportive team or an enlightened line manager, for example. But in other parts there may be a much more macho culture and people feel they need to plough on through a personal crisis.
We plan to bring domestic violence into our wellbeing agenda, because, apart from anything else, there is a strong overlap with mental health. Around 75% of people who present with domestic violence also present with depression, and 95% of cases involve some form of control and/or coercion – as in the long-running Helen Titchener story in the BBC Radio 4 serial The Archers. One in four women and one in seven men suffer from domestic violence, statistics that most people find quite shocking because, as with mental health more generally, there is such a stigma attached to it that sufferers are reluctant to talk.
We’ve just launched a campaign with posters behind toilet doors, explaining what domestic violence constitutes, featuring short case studies and signposting people to help. We ran a similar campaign two years ago, and 12 people came forward and admitted this had happened to them, and dozens of others visited the intranet page. In the second quarter of next year we will run a similar poster campaign on mental health more generally, again encouraging people to seek help. We take the view not everyone will read their emails or text alerts, but everyone will go to the loo at some stage.
We are normalising mental health, getting it onto the agenda, getting more air time at board and partner level than ever before. Our challenge is to reach more and more people to let them know they are not alone and we are there to help, and encourage them to come forward.
It is really hard to measure mental-health-related absence. We can only work with what people tell us, but I suspect that many of the reported causes of absence, such as back pain or migraine, are in fact masking underlying mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. Our EAP gives us broad information: I want more detail. It would be really helpful if the CMHA ran a session on how organisations can obtain more meaningful data.
I report directly to the chairman; I sit in the leadership team. My role allows me to penetrate further into the business than I ever could have done when I was a partner. It is a privilege to do it.