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This is a series where I explore what a HR leader should be looking for when they seek to bring an external keynote speaker or training partner to address mental health. It seeks to define what mental health is (as opposed to resilience, burnout, well being) and what great looks like in this space.


The pandemic has brought mental health into a much sharper focus, with multiple disruptions compounding the challenges we already face in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. Despite demarcating significant budgets to tackle mental health, there isn’t a clear sense of what the sequence of steps are to take an organisation on from relatively poor to strong mental health. 


At Tough Cookie, when we work with clients, the first question we ask is: where are you on your mental health journey? Just like individuals are on a mental health journey, so too are organisations. The departure point for this journey is usually a crisis moment of some kind: a senior colleague taking a mental health related absence, a tragic suicide, or an internal survey that reveals how much people are struggling to cope. The first step, always, is to destigmatise mental health. Time to Change, and other campaigns, have done excellent work in encouraging people to come out of the closet. Even though a lot of stigma has been removed, we should not overestimate just how much pressure there is to appear invulnerable. It’s also an ongoing risk that senior leadership won’t unconsciously be biased against you if you acknowledge that you are struggling in a significant way, particularly if you are in line for a promotion six months down the line.  


When bringing in a mental health keynote speaker, it’s important to work with someone who has powerful lived experiences of facing up to and overcoming a mental health challenge. This can help open up a conversation space about the struggles we all face in our lives. Ideally, this would also be championed by a senior person internally who can give further cultural permission for people to speak up. The most powerful way of doing this is to model vulnerable sharing. You don’t have to disclose having a mental health issue, but rather begin by inviting people into the burdens that are present in your life, despite having the appearances of having it all together.  The ideal format is a panel where an inspiring keynote speaker and a senior employee will share their stories and be in dialogue.


Once the mental health journey is underway, Organisations will inevitably seek to pick the low hanging fruit. Mental Health First Aid is now an established measure when colleagues are in a mental health crisis. However, a study by the HSE  {} has found that this isn’t very effective at preventing the occurrence of mental health crises. This is because it centralises mental health in the HR function and leaves it to a few enthusiastic mental health first aiders to solve. What we need is to integrate mental health leadership training into the continuous professional development of all line managers. People’s experience of an organisation is essentially their experience of their line manager. Having a line manager that is not only more empathetic but equipped to discuss mental health, signpost people in difficult, and create a healthy, high performance culture has a dramatic effect on the culture at large. 


Once the safety net is decentralised, it’s time to consider proactive psycho-education. As a mental health keynote speaker, one of the things I remind participants of in is that we were never given a user manual for how our mind’s work. At Tough Cookie, where I work as a resilience specialist, we takes people through six core modules that teach people how the thinking mind works, and how it can turn against you; how to soothe stress by down-regulating the autonomic nervous system, how to ‘catch’ and change toxic internal narratives we have about ourselves, how to feel and release emotions, and how to induce deep states of physiological rest, and how to cultivate a more buoyant state through gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness. Together, these Mixed Mental Arts modules form the behavioural foundations of a mentally healthy person. The crucial insight here is that for the majority, mental health is not a static thing, with some having good mental health and others have bad mental health. Rather it’s a state of being that is influenced by the degree to which we have integrated specific tools and practices that help us cope with life better. Practices like mindfulness and diagphramatic breathing, but also relational skills like boundary setting and candour. If you are bringing in a mental health keynote speaker, make sure at least 50% of the content is practice based. 


The other big mistake organisations make when addressing mental health is trying to equip people in one-off events. One-off events are very appealing because of how constrained our diaries and cognitive bandwidths are. You’ll see many organisations opt for a Weds ‘Lunch and learn’ format or have seasonal wellness weeks. Some education is better than none, and there is a place for one-off sessions. However, mental health is a behavioural challenge. It requires us to overcome a lot of learnt and deeply engrained behaviours. When something challenges arises, do I automatically go into catastrophising, or do I pay attention to my whole body and allow the interpretations about my situation to simply be there while I intentionally slow my breathing down? This only comes with repeat practice. 


When Tough Cookie trainers teach in organisations, they will often ask: who here knows about mindfulness? 95% of people put up their hands. Then they ask: how here has a regular mindfulness practice? This time, only about 10% will put up their hands. There is a difference between knowing that you should do something, and actually engaging in the difficult task of doing it on a regular basis. This is why when Tough Cookie does mental health training, the six modules are spaced out over six weeks. Every module has a practice component and the cohort is split into smaller crews which meet for 30 mins to discuss what they have learnt and hold each other to account on practicing the techniques. So if you’re thinking about working with a provider, beware of those that promise transformational change in one day workshops.


To win an audience over you need to do three things: show that you’re an expert on the topic, show that you’re likeable, and show that you’re like them. The final point is most important when bringing in a mental health keynote speaker. You must choose someone with a demographic and professional profile that fits the audience they are speaking to. In my case, I’ve been blessed to wear many hats, studying at Oxford University (Academic), working as a futurist to the British Foreign Office (Government), head of culture change in a city law firm (corporate) and leading the political strategy for Extinction Rebellion (activism and politics). I talk about the unique leadership challenges of these roles, so people know that I understand the unique pressures of their working lives. 


From here, it’s all about bringing it back to the very human struggles we all face. As the 20th century psychologist Carl Rogers said, ‘what’s most personal, is most universal’. By inviting people inside my leadership challenges, they can see with the aspects of their own experience that need care and attention. This is the best medicine of all.