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National Inclusion Week: Mental Health - One of the great business leadership opportunities of our time?

25 Sep 2019

Continuing the IoD’s commitment to the mental health of business leaders, Founder of the InsideOut LeaderBoard, Rob Stephenson provides this special report in time for National Inclusion Week.

Since Princes William and Harry spoke out in 2017 and launched the Heads Together campaign, mental health has been firmly on the business agenda.  But are we missing a great opportunity by not making the health and wellbeing of our employees a key strategic priority? Furthermore, as we celebrate National Inclusion Week, is neurodiversity the poor relation within the inclusion movement?

Smashing the stigma

We all agree that the stigma of mental ill health must be smashed.  This issue is personal to me, having managed my challenges of bipolar disorder under the radar for 15 years.  I owned my own business yet still felt the need to put “physio” in my diary every time I went to see my therapist.  My lightbulb moment came when I heard campaigner, Geoff McDonald, share his story of anxiety and depression and the loss of his friend to suicide.  My eyes were opened to the movement that was forming to create mentally healthy workplaces.  From that moment I decided to share my story and look for a way to contribute.

Senior Leader role models

We need more CEOs and those in positions of leadership come out and talk about their mental health.” The Duke of Cambridge, Davos 2019

As we reach adult life, our role models are predominantly drawn from the workplace.  Yes, we will look to our sporting heroes and celebrities, but we better relate to those that lead the organisations where we spend most of our time. The problem is that, because of the stigma of mental illness, we do not have enough of our workplace leaders who are leading on the mental health agenda.  This was the message that I heard consistently in 2017 and this was the problem that I decided to try and help address.

The InsideOut LeaderBoard


The concept of the power list has been well used in other areas of inclusion and diversity with the OUTstanding, EMpower, HERoes and the Power Part Time initiatives all having a significant impact in relation to showcasing diverse role models.  Could this be done for mental ill-health?  InsideOut is a social enterprise, formed to do just this.

Showcasing a list of role models is important for two main reasons:

It celebrates the work they are doing with their organisation; and

It inspires other leaders and their organisations to follow suit

The inaugural InsideOut LeaderBoard was published in the Sunday Times in March 2019 and featured 42 trailblazing role models from a range of industries and size of organisation with a significant impact from social media, in particular the #SmashingTheSigma campaign on LinkedIn.

Why are senior leader role models so important?

Anyone who speaks out and shares their story of mental ill-health is a role model and creates a ripple.  If we generate enough ripples, we have a wave and it is this wave that will smash the stigma.  Why, therefore, are senior leader role models so important?

When our leaders speak out and get behind the mental health agenda, they start the process of culture change. Initially, the culture shifts to one where it is OK to put your hand up and say that you are struggling with mental ill-health. It is OK to seek help and, in some cases, receive adjustments to your role.  However, the culture change does not end there as the emphasis expands outwards from the people who are struggling and need help to include everybody else in the workplace.  We end up creating cultures that encourage everyone to proactively manage their mental health and wellbeing.  We move to a culture of prevention and one that truly values the humans that are “the greatest assets” of the workplace.

We see this culture change happen almost overnight in smaller businesses.

A case study from the InsideOut LeaderBoard

Mark Twigg is one of the Founding Directors of Cicero, the UK’s leading financial PR business.  Mark shared his story of clinical depression with the whole business over 2 years ago. Immediately, 7 or 8 people shared details of their struggles and some received adjustments to their roles.  Mark believes that two people are still in post and thriving as a result as opposed to being lost to the business.

Rob Agnew had heard about the positive attitude towards mental health at Cicero before applying for a role.  He felt comfortable in disclosing that he experiences bipolar disorder in the interview process.  18 months after joining the firm, he has not had an episode of mania and puts this largely down to the fact that he can be open and himself at work.  Furthermore, Mark himself has not experienced an episode of depression in the same timescale. 

Valuing our employees

In his first month as HSBC’s Group CEO, John Flint announced the mission of “Creating the healthiest human system in financial services”.  The Environment Agency has a core value of work being a “life enhancing experience”.  We have seen a wellbeing budget in New Zealand and there are calls for measures of health and happiness to replace GDP growth as the measure of success of our economy.  If we prioritise the wellbeing of our employees, will this result in a reduction in the growth shareholder value?  Personally, I think that the reverse will be the case.

We need our leaders to get behind the mental health agenda to realise this opportunity. One way they can do this is by signing up to the InsideOut Leadership Charter, a set of 7 principles that will catalyse meaningful change.

Rob Stephenson is the Founder of the InsideOut LeaderBoard, Co-Founder of the InsideOut Mental Health Awards and Chief Catalyst of BetterSpace.

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