Improving Mental Health

03 March 2021

Tags: Wellbeing

Read our latest guest blog by Lord Stevenson of Coddenham.

Two of the IBE’s major themes for 2021 are building ethical cultures and managing your people ethically. Both themes include creating workplaces where people can feel 100% human and feel they can bring their whole selves to work. This involves being open about mental health. IBE invited Lord Stevenson of Coddenham – co-author with Paul Farmer – of the groundbreaking 2017 report “Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers" – to reflect on progress since then.

I'm in no doubt that if you did a study of the top 250 companies, you would be pushed to find any of them that do not have mental health policies at work in place. Many of them will be inadequate but they will be dramatically better than they were a few years ago.

So is this entirely down to eureka moments of ethical obligation? Well no! I suggest there are three reasons as well as the very welcome fact that many human beings have always had a desire to help others.

The first - and perhaps the most surprising aspect of the report that Paul Farmer and I produced for Theresa May when she was PM - is our discovery that investment in mental health policies is genuinely profitable. If anyone reads this and is doubtful please go and look at our report. You will see the findings from the study that Deloitte's carried out independently at our suggestion; typically any employer can make a tangible contribution to their bottom line by bringing in mental health policies. Or to put it the other way round huge sums of money are wasted unnecessarily by, for example, investing heavily in training, only for people to have to leave or be away for long periods of time due to poor mental health. 

The second reason that large companies are paying more attention to mental health is linked to this. Simply that the costs of investing in employee mental health are very small indeed. Low fixed overheads, some basic internal communication, possibly a payment to outside sources of expertise, all of which in relation to the potential gains, are very minor. What we actually found is that one of the main obstacles to implementing mental health policies in major companies is senior management being not quite sure what to do about it, not a lack of willing but a lack of knowledge. Well, if anybody should read this and be at a loss as to what to do, please go to our report! That gives you a good start!

There is some very detailed stuff in our report of a pretty common sense and obvious kind but funnily enough missing from there - simply because it hadn't occurred to us as we wrote it - is probably the most important piece of advice to someone who wishes to improve the mental health in their organisation: it starts at the top. If the leader of any organisation talks openly about his or her mental health, it is astonishing how quickly it frees up and "permits" everyone else to do the same. When Sue Owen retired quite recently as Permanent Secretary at DCMS, the DCMS had very high ratings for internal mental health. When we enquired as to why, it boiled down to the fact that Sue Owen some years ago, at a town hall meeting of the DCMS, had explained to everyone working there that she had lost several years of her life as a result of problems with mental health. Unsurprisingly, if you were an ambitious 28 year-old suffering from depression or some other illness you would be much more likely to put up your hand, after that. When one talks about the person at the top, by the way, this doesn't have to be the big leader; it could be someone running a small, administrative or sales office with 5 or 6 people. What the IBE calls “tone from above.”

However, to put this in another way and a different context. If you go out to the street and ask the first person you meet how their mental health is, they will probably think you are talking about an illness! If you did the same for physical health, they wouldn't. I was unfortunately not brought up to believe we all have mental health and we need to learn how to cope with it. And I didn't bring up my children in that way... I wish I had. My grandchildren don't have a chance! What we need to achieve is for mental health to be regarded in exactly the same way as physical health.

There is no doubt that as a society we are moving in the right direction on mental health. It is much less taboo, more talked about, more large companies are doing things about it. Does that mean everything is perfect? No, not at all. I think it's fair comment that large employers whether they've been FTSE 250 companies or large concentrations in the public sector are moving very much in the right direction. The greatest gap however is in smaller outfits, SMEs and the emerging problem of the GIG economy. Although Paul Farmer and I acknowledged both, we didn't examine them to a great extent, in our report. On SMEs the way forward is clearly that of persuading large organisations to use the power of purchasing (as they are doing increasingly for example on other aspects of sustainability such as environmental performance) to incentivise SMEs to bring in enlightened mental health policies. Thames Water is an example of a company that is doing just that. The GIG economy is more difficult and needs some detailed examination. 


 Lord Dennis Stevenson
Lord Dennis Stevenson

Dennis has been a serial entrepreneur since leaving university. Most recently he has set up businesses as far afield as cloud computing, pop up shops and food waste management. He has also chaired some large companies (Pearson plc, GPA plc and HBOS plc). He chaired the House of Lords Appointments Commission and was Chancellor of the University of the Arts London. He sits on the cross-benches in the House of Lords.