Paul Farmer: Good leadership is key to top mental health in the workplace

In the latest in our series of articles about mental health in charity workplaces, the chief executive of Mind says that sector leaders must acknowledge their own limitations and set a good example

Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer

The importance of workplace mental wellbeing is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. At Mind, we know from our Workplace Wellbeing Index that four in five employees with poor mental health say their workplace is a contributory factor, whereas valued and supported staff are far more likely to perform to their full potential.

When discussing workplace mental health we often see the debate framed around the private and public sectors, but as charity workers we face – by the very nature of the causes we champion – unique stresses that are bound to affect us emotionally. Third Sector is right to use this year’s World Mental Health Day to ask whether a sector that does a tremendous job of looking after others does enough to look after its own staff when it comes to mental wellbeing.

The question is timely. Across the sector we know that there are factors making the challenges around workplace mental health more pressing. With an increased demand for different kinds of support services, particularly in mental health, we’re seeing front-line workers put under all sorts of extra pressures. Meanwhile, at a time of changes to fundraising practice and the introduction of the new General Data Protection Regulation, our staff are having to manage new and increased pressures.

About one in six people experience some kind of mental health problem such as depression or anxiety in the workplace. At Mind, more than half our staff have mental health problems and, as an employer, we work hard to make sure that the entire workforce, whether they have a diagnosis or not, is well supported. Like any organisation, we know that we don’t get it right every single time, but we have put in place various – often simple and inexpensive – measures that most charities could implement without much difficulty.

This includes signing the Time to Change employer pledge – which organisations can sign up to via the Time to Change website – and encouraging all staff to develop wellness action plans with their line managers. These are a simple method of facilitating conversations about mental health that are constructive and lead to agreed practical support. We offer a 24-hour employee assistance helpline for work or personal issues, flexible working hours, and subsidised yoga and pilates sessions. We also survey our staff regularly to find out how we are doing and how we can continue to improve.

The most crucial thing is leadership. Despite what we might like to believe, senior leaders are not immune to stress and mental health problems at work, and only by acknowledging that can we set the best example. Taking responsibility for our own mental wellbeing, being honest with ourselves about what our limitations are and doing our best to maintain a good work-life balance are the only ways to make sure our staff do the same. We are surrounded by people who are passionate about their work and who will happily go the extra mile, but if we set the wrong example we can’t expect our teams not to repeat our own bad habits.

The national conversation about mental health is changing, thankfully. This week Heads Together, the campaign spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, published new research that found 2.1 million more people are talking about mental health since the campaign began in May 2016. Significant progress has been made, but we must not get complacent and it’s more important than ever that we don’t forget to look inward. It’s in all of our interests to take workplace wellbeing seriously, not least because if we do we will find that we have more engaged, productive and loyal employees who are properly supported to give their all to the charities for which they work.

Paul Farmer is chief executive of Mind

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