There isn’t a clear sense of the sequence of steps an organisation must take to go from relatively poor to strong mental health.
The departure point is usually a crisis moment of some kind: senior colleagues taking mental health related absence, or an internal survey that reveals how much people are struggling to cope. It's important to use these moments to raise awareness about the consequences of poor mental health, and galvanise commitment, in time and money, to address it.
The first step, always, is to de-stigmatise mental health. Time to Change, and ambassadors like Prince Harry, 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.
A mental health keynote speaker is a good opening and inspiring gambit. It’s important to work with someone who has a powerful lived experience of facing up to and overcoming a mental health challenge. In the video above you can see I'm honest about how poorly I coped with the pressure of senior leadership. This modelling of vulnerability 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. They don’t have to disclose having a mental health issue, but rather begin by inviting people into the burdens that are present in their 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. We need to integrate mental health training into the continuous professional development of all people 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 and signpost people in difficulty, has a dramatic effect on the culture at large.
Once the safety net is decentralised, it’s time to consider proactive capacity building. As a mental health keynote speaker, one of the things I remind participants of is that depression and anxiety are the outputs of many inputs that range from our socio-economic position, our diet (food and media), the pressures we are under, and whether we have strong, nourishing relationships. Rather than wrestle with the output, see how you can change the inputs you have agency over.
In my True Resilience Training, I take people through six core modules that teach people how to avoid common causes of overwhelm, form healthy habits, soothe stress, prime the brain for optimism; feel and release emotions, bounce back from difficulty, and induce deep states of physiological rest. Together, these 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.
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 allow the interpretations about my situation to simply be there while I intentionally slow my breathing down? This only comes with repeat practice.
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 I do my resilience training, people are given a 21 day habit formation protocol from the Stanford School of Medicine, and are invited to self organise into resilience crews of 5 people, where they can commit to new habits and hold each other to account.
So if you’re thinking about working with a keynote speaker or trainer, beware of those that promise transformational change in one day workshops. This is a slow gradual journey.