Episode 12

Changing Attitudes To Mental Health At Work

We turn to employee wellbeing and mental health which is high on the agenda of many organisations. Events at this summer’s Olympic games has again highlighted the importance of an individuals mental health in terms of performance following the brave decision of superstar American gymnast Simon Biles to retire from competition to concentrate on her own mental wellbeing.

The events of the past 18 months have also brought wellbeing and mental health into stark relief with home working becoming the default for millions. So what can employers and in particular HR professionals do to ensure a happy, mentally healthy and engaged workforce?

About my guest

Paola Carr-Walker is a chartered Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and has spent two decades working across in-patient and community mental health services, including 10 years at Broadmoor Hospital and in the prison service. She also holds a postgraduate qualification in clinical neuropsychology and is the co-founder of HeadForwards a specialist consultancy business that combines leadership, culture, and people transformation expertise with scientific rigour.


Welcome to the Oven Ready HR podcast. We tell compelling stories from the world of work to bring you captivating and thought provoking conversations with expert analysis and insights. To find out more about your show host Chris Taylor, visit oven-readyhr.com and please do remember to rate and review us. You can also follow us too on Twitter at oven HR. Thanks,
[00:00:29] Employee wellbeing. And in particular mental health is high on the agenda of many organizations. The upheaval of the past year has brought with it unprecedented changes, particularly on how and where we work leaving many employees, feeling anxious and uncertain. For organizations there’ve been reports of issues with levels of employee engagement, organizational culture, and creativity, particularly with a large percentage of the workforce working from home. So if hybrid working that split between working from home, another venue and the office is to become the norm. What kind of organizations and in particular HR professionals do to ensure a happy, engaged, and productive environment? Joining me to discuss is Dr. Paula Carr Walker. She’s a chartered clinical and forensic psychologist, and has spent two decades working across inpatient and community mental health services, and also for the prison service where she spent 10 years at Broadmoor hospital.
[00:01:24] She also holds a postgraduate qualification in clinical neuro-psychology and is the co-founder of Heads Forward,a specialist consultancy business that combines leadership culture and people transformation expertise with scientific rigor. Welcome toOven ready. HR Dr Carr-Walker the past year has really pushed the importance of employee wellbeing up the agenda. But I was wondering in the absence of a global health crisis, would organizations have focused as much on wellbeing as they do now?
[00:01:53] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:01:53] Hi, Chris. I think that’s a really good question. One in which our clients are already asking as well, because they’re wondering with this current feel-good factor around with positive things like vaccinations and case numbers dropping in terms of the pandemic people are starting to feel good. And I think they are wondering whether do we need to have this intervention around mental health because do we let it ride out? And people are feeling better. But I think the main point here is that mental health problems were already on the increase before the pandemic struck. So we already had increasing levels of anxiety, depression, stress and they were increasing worldwide really to the point where by 2030, the World Health Organization forecasted that depression alone is going to be the world’s single biggest burden of disease, which means it’s the biggest prevalence morbidity, mortality rates combined. And that is above any kind of physical health condition or any other psychological conditions. So it’s already on the increase, but I think what the pandemic has done is increase those rates of depression, anxiety out there, and probably maybe slightly enhanced the focus on mental health and wellbeing at the moment.
[00:03:10] Chris: [00:03:10] Okay. I was very interested to learn of your experience working across community mental health services and the prison system. How are you using this insights that you gained there to work in the corporate world?
[00:03:22] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:03:22] Working in the community and prison service has been a great place to get a lot of experience with some of some individuals with some very sort of severe mental health, difficulties and complex what we call presentations, so naturally there’ll be people in the prison service and Broadmoor hospital who do have anxiety or, symptoms of depression, but also they might have other more severe mental health disorders such as type of psychosis, for example learning disability. So it’s a broad range of skills that you need to work in those kinds of environments. And also say some of the more severe presentations and complex ones are there as well. So taking out out of that to organizations these days it might feel a lot more straightforward in terms of the kind of people I’ve met who are going about their normal lives and working for their organization, but nevertheless, the need and the sometimes there’s a distress for the individual can be just as prevalent as for somebody who’s in a mental health hospital, for example,
[00:04:30] Chris: [00:04:30] Okay. We seem as a world to be much more willing to discuss our mental health. But I was wondering if we can, at times focus a little bit too much on ourselves, can it be sometimes quicker and in the long run, easier to accept that occasionally bad things happen to us, such as a redundancy or a missed promotion and sort of just pick things up and get on with our life. Do you think that sometimes we are a little bit you know navel gazing?
[00:04:55] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:04:55] I think its I don’t think we could ignore mental health. And I think while, we’re more used to talking about mental health at the moment and thinking about ourselves in that respect, I think it’s still something important for all of us, because we can all be stronger in our mental health and we can all use strategies and skills that support ourselves to feel better, to think more productively, for example, and to connect with others better. But is it a bit too much navel gazing? I would say, not in the same way if you use this analogy, is it navel gazing, for example, to think about what you eat, because you want to be physically healthy to think about your exercise. So we think about that as a sort of parallel comparison. Everybody is encouraged to think about their physical health and in the same way I think we should all be encouraged to think about our mental health. And yeah, I would say it’s not just a self-indulgent way of going about things. I think it’s very important.
[00:05:52] Chris: [00:05:52] Okay, I mean, obviously lots of organizations now advertisements for sort of employee wellbeing coordinators and I think a lot of HR roles in particular now have employee wellbeing as really high up on their agenda. What do you think has created this movement? Obviously this was happening, as you said before the pandemic, perhaps the pandemic has just shortened the length of when things were going to happen, but it’s been on the agenda for some time, hasn’t it?
[00:06:23] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:06:23] Absolutely. It has been on the agenda for some time from clients I’ve been speaking to, I think what’s happened is organizations are realizing actually the support that needs to be provided for employees and perhaps the cultural or structural changes in organizations is a bit more complicated or requires more input than perhaps was assumed before and requiring a bit more of somebody’s role to implement it. And also, I think it’s a bit more specialist than people might have realized as well not to understand what are the mental health needs of individuals, but it’s not just that it’s how do you actually bring a huge change to a lots thousands of people within an organization in a relatively simple and cost-effective way it’s quite a challenge.
[00:07:16] Chris: [00:07:16] Okay. In the Heads Forward’s manifesto you mentioned that progressive organizations prioritize mental fitness and it’s not uncommon, for example, for hedge funds to have a sort of an in-house psychologist to help with people’s stress or mental fitness. Are you seeing that a little bit more now in terms of across different sectors, not just financial services where it’s very high pressured?
[00:07:38] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:07:38] Yeah, absolutely. So we have clients who work in different spaces. And I would say including smaller organizations as well, and now recognizing that they need that sort of specialism whether its psychological psychiatrists, occupational psychologists input into their organization. So it might not necessarily be employing a psychologist themselves. But for example, we, at Heads Forward get approached by organizations to come in, review their strategies and offer or provide a solution for their mental wellbeing for their workforce. I think it will vary on the size and structure of the organization as to how they’re implemented, but nevertheless, feel completely that the there’s a much broader range of organizations now that really focusing on this in a specialist kind of way like that.
[00:08:30] Chris: [00:08:30] Okay. So not just the large organizations, but you’re saying that also that many smaller organizations are also you know focusing very much on mental wellbeing in terms of their teams.
[00:08:40] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:08:40] Yeah, absolutely. And I was finding this even before the pandemic as well. Yeah so organizations of all sizes.
[00:08:47] Chris: [00:08:47] Ok you also say that great leaders build mental fitness into their organization’s culture so therefore it must be true that a poor leader has the opposite effect. How important is the role of the leader in the overall mental health of a firm or an organization?
[00:09:02] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:09:02] A leader is quite crucial, really in changing that culture around mental health. So there is a some of the problems that organizations are finding, oh, that people don’t want to talk about mental health or the stigma around mental health. There’s many statistics for example, that when you have people taking off days for stress, for example only maybe 5%, 10% of employees have actually admitted that’s the reason that they’ve needed to take a day off because it might be fear over being perceived that they can’t do their role or that kind of reason. So the, I think the leaders need to lead from the top in terms of role modeling, the conversations, the discussions around mental wellbeing to bring them out into the open and also to just acknowledge that the changes that will need to be made in the organizations are going to run right through from the top.
[00:10:00] Chris: [00:10:00] Okay. According to the World Health Organization, the stress that long working hours has on an individual’s mental and physical health has been reported to of caused, the deaths of 745,000 people in 2016. What steps as a minimum do you think employers should do to monitor the, sort of the stress and resilience levels of their employees?
[00:10:22] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:10:22] I think at a minimum hearing from the employees themselves about their experiences of current stress, and they’re feelings of wellbeing would be absolutely important. So taking stock as a snapshot right now, but I think regular monitoring of that over time is really essential. So whether that’s six monthly yearly onwards, for example, I also think they should be encouraging open conversations around this with teams and individuals as well. Whilst you might get different information from a more anonymized survey. I think the information somebody as an individual will give you is can be quite rich, but also can help you understand some of the processes or some of the factors that contribute towards that person’s experience of stress in the workplace..
[00:11:13] Chris: [00:11:13] Okay, and you stress the importance of scientific evidence to support the interventions that you know, that Heads Forward would make. NLP neuro-linguistic programming, I think is the term is often cited as a tool to boost productivity. Yet NLP has many critics who accuse it of being rather a sort of a pseudo science. What’s your opinion on that?
[00:11:36] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:11:36] I think there are other approaches that have a stronger evidence base in terms of the effectiveness in supporting somebody around their mental health and mental wellness than NLP does. So in the program that we have, we use mixture of approaches, but for example, cognitive behavior therapy techniques are in our program. These have been established over decades in terms of improving somebody’s mental health and when I’ve been helping people understand and use some of these strategies for everyday kind of difficulties, they might come across. These are not necessarily people, that would fall under a diagnostic criteria of anxiety or depression for example, there are many techniques that they find very useful and things that sound relatively simple are having a really big effect on how they’re feeling and their mental health more generally.
[00:12:33] Chris: [00:12:33] Okay and do you think this sort of this hybrid model of working so some of us will be working part-time in the office, some of us will be working more at home, some of us will be choosing a different venue altogether in which to organize our work. Is that presenting a lot of challenges do you think in terms of wellbeing and productivity?
[00:12:53] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:12:53] I think at the moment, the challenge around hybrid working is that it’s a relatively new idea at the moment in terms of the scale that people are talking about it right now and with the organizational change, that is going along with that so obviously any organizational change can be quite stressful to do with the uncertainty that comes along with it and I think hybrid working is no exception there really. Surveys are currently showing that individuals are very anxious about how their new working life will look under sort of a format of hybrid working but their pro hybrid working, and people have seen the benefits they’ll be able to, for example, not commute every day. But because at this point, many or most organizations don’t have a specific and clear hybrid working plan or policy. The uncertainty around those details is what’s causing current anxiety. So my hope is that once the plans are embedded, and people have got into their new routines the anxiety around the hybrid working itself will decrease.
[00:14:00] Chris: [00:14:00] Do you think that obviously there are some industries, I think Goldman Sachs in particular sort of said everyone’s got to come back to the office and where there are other sort of financial services for them. I think the Nationwide, for example, have said, look, you know to 13,000 people if you want to work from home you can do it. Do you think there’s going to continue to be some disparity between those two opposite views and most people probably fall somewhere in the middle?
[00:14:24] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:14:24] Yeah. So a survey, I read recently shows that most people feel they would like a mixture of both so hybrid working model to take advantage of the connection with other people when they’re in the office and the creativity that generates and things. But also to have the advantages of, like I said not having to commute and be able to create a differently balanced work home life. Assuming the organization has created the support around that because there needs to be quite a few things in place to make hybrid working really effective such as they need to be supported by the technology appropriate for that. Yeah, connections with colleagues still need to be maintained somehow or there’s a reformatting of the working week and some sort of planning around what happens on days in the office and what happens at days at home for example,
[00:15:17] Chris: [00:15:17] A lot of the work that you’re doing at Heads Forward is also though isn’t it very much focused on how this approach to wellbeing is a good, it’s a boost for productivity, it’s a boost for engagement it’s a boost for creativity and to generally to provide a happier, more healthy working environment. Is that true?
[00:15:36] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:15:36] Yeah, absolutely. So we believe that by taking these particular psychological approaches and strategies that we’re helping people understand and use that yeah, they will be happier, healthier, and more productive. So we know from scientific research that’s the case. So we’re not waiting for people to become mentally unwell and then helping them with these strategies, the therapy, but actually anyone can benefit from this to, to feel a lot better and be more productive. So our idea is that everybody’s a winner.
[00:16:10] Chris: [00:16:10] Okay. Brilliant!. Dr Carr-Walker thats fantastic. Thank you very much for speaking to Oven Ready today. Now, if people want to find out more about you and find out more about Heads Forward, how do they get in touch with you?
[00:16:23] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:16:23] The best way is probably through our website. So the address is head – forwards.com. And you can contact us through the website.
[00:16:33]Chris: [00:16:33] Brilliant. Thank you very much, indeed for your time.
[00:16:35] Paola Carr-Walker: [00:16:35] Thanks very much, Chris.

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