The scene: a beautiful room of the Devonshire Club, Devonshire Square in the heart of London. A very well dressed group of HR professionals from eminent legal firms around the city, joined together to learn about the hot topic currently facing most organisations – how to support mental health in the workplace and specifically, how to make their workforce more resilient in a high performing law firm culture.
The breakfast seminar was organised and hosted by Owen Reed – the top specialist recruitment company supporting legal firms throughout London and the home counties. Approximately 50 individuals settled down (in the comfortable chairs and sofas festooned with plump cushions) for very interesting talks delivered by Kelly Leslie, Senior Human Resources Manager at Farrers & Co. and Richard Dorner from Strongmind Resiliency.
My interest in attending this event went back a quarter of a century to the mid-90s. Twenty-five years ago, my team at Blue Arrow Maidstone put on a breakfast seminar called ‘Stress in the Workplace’. We invited 30 existing and potential clients along for two hours, where we listened to a spokesperson from the charity Mind, which offers information and advice to people with mental health problems and lobbies government and local authorities on their behalf.
There was also an occupational therapist to talk about the impact on work and finally, the third speaker, was a doctor who specialised in this area to share the physiological impact that stress can bring. In 1994, none of us realised that stress actually created physical problems; this was a revelation to the room.
So, it’s 25 years later and have we moved on?
Owen Reed has taken up the baton to share information with their clients and the legal profession as a whole, on a range of topics over the coming year. I’m glad to say that in the case of stress or health & wellbeing, there have been huge strides forward in the way that we approach the topic as well as the number of ways that a company can help.
Kelly presented two sides to her story – the personal and the professional – with humour and humility. A high achiever throughout her life, with no mental health issues in her past at any point. Her experience started five days after giving birth to her son Jack. If you’ve watched the Louis Theroux documentary ‘Mothers on the edge’, you may have an idea of what Kelly went through. From being a happy new mother to incarceration in a mother and baby unit within 24 hours, suicidal thoughts every day for the next three months added to worries of killing her own baby. Horrific!
It took 15 months for Kelly to feel ready to go back to work, then ten weeks before Jack’s second birthday, the same symptoms returned… another four months away from work. There was no indication that this may happen and therefore, it was very scary for all concerned. Being more prepared with the birth of her second child, Millie, she now knew to look for the signs, and again at five days, they returned. It took 12 months to get back to something nearing normal this time and after working with her company, thought that would be the end of it…
… unfortunately not! At exactly the same timeframe (10 weeks from Millie’s second birthday) that feeling of being totally debilitated returned. One example was that she couldn’t even have a shower, because her brain couldn’t focus on remembering the four things she’d need to take into the shower with her. This was a hyper-intelligent and capable woman.
So, what did her company, Farrers & Co do to help her back to full fitness and a much wanted and effective member of their team? Here are the four main points; –
Supporting a return to work and beyond…
- Occupational health meetings – an opportunity to talk with a professional who understands the impact of poor mental health. Kelly’s recommendation was to have both a male and female on your books; therefore, they can be consultants that you use on a regular basis, rather than a permanent employee.
- Phased return – a four day week was a great option for her situation, and I myself went back to work on a three day week for three months and then a four day week for another three months when returning to work after having my daughter.
- Regular dialogue with managers – having the opportunity to discuss issues (if required) before the return, made for a much easier transition period.
- Empower the individual – giving the individual the flexibility to design their own recovery schedule and what that entails from the business point of view. It was important for Kelly to feel that she was in control of her destiny again.
Kelly also gave us some further reading in the Stephenson/Farmer review – which details what employers can do for mental health, including analysis from Deloitte and a range of interviews and case studies. The report shows that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year, and around 15% of people at work have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.
Our second speaker, Richard Dorner from Strongmind Resiliency served more than 38 years in the British Army, where he was the non-clinical subject matter expert in Trauma Risk Management. To him, workplace wellbeing is about culture and appreciating that your culture can add to the stress your employees are experiencing.
Leadership + Management + Environment = Workplace culture
Key causes of stress in the workplace:
- Overload of work
- Long hours
- Lack of control
- Working in isolation at home
- Uncertainty of the future
- Lack of managerial support
- Unsupportive culture
- Poor communication from employer i.e. changes
Have a look at the list and see how well you are looking after your workforce. When identifying that your culture could be causing problems, Richard’s advice is “address the causes… not the symptoms”. If you perpetuate a negative culture, then it won’t be surprising when your staff members start to ‘Burnout’ – a term that describes extreme stress, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, which we’ve all felt at some point in our lives.
So, it’s great to see that we are all talking more about mental health, that companies have strategies to help people and hopefully, the stigma of admitting that we need help sometimes, is diminishing every day.
Director, Connemara UK. Experienced trainer, management consultant, coach, NED, mentor and performance specialist with 30 years experience within the recruitment industry.