Lead From The Top Or Lose The Race

By Terry Streather | Mental Health

Jun 07

Mental Health Awareness Week ran from 14th to 20th May. And the subject at the heart of this year’s event – stress, a hot topic or passion of mine if you will. 

So, leading on from my last missive, part of which focused on how science is shining a light on the body’s response to stress, I thought I’d share another of my strongly-held views on one of the most influential forces on organisational stress – the board. Yes, that’s right, as in The Board of Directors.

Lead from the top. That’s the executive summary.

Have you noticed that whenever senior management decide to make something a priority, change happens (whether you like it or not)? 

So here’s a question for you… where does the issue of mental health and wellbeing sit within your organisation? Who has overall responsibility for this rather pivotal aspect of business life?

Ignoring the very rare corporate examples of truly ‘flat’ organisational hierarchies, I think it’s true to say that staff typically look to supervisors, supervisors to managers, and managers to directors for leadership – in whatever form that leadership takes: instructions, advice, directives, guidelines, edicts, action plans, etc. That’s the way business works. And the board is pretty much as high as it gets. (Yes, the board of directors of a PLC reports to shareholders, in theory, but I imagine shareholders are unlikely to put employee wellbeing at the top of their agenda, more’s the pity).

So the buck stops with the board. That’s why initiatives adopted at board-level, or better yet driven by the board, have a meaningful impact. It’s no different with a commitment to stress and mental health in the workplace. Directors are responsible for that workplace, and all the people who operate within it.

Historically, ownership of “wellbeing” is passed between or shared by the HR and H&S departments. It seems to be the portfolio nobody really wants. A ‘nice to have’ if there’s any budget left at the end of the financial year.

Someone needs to grip it, and Directors are best placed.

A renowned organisation that looks after directors thinks so too. Last year the Institute of Directors gave this recommendation:

“Boards should appoint a non-executive director to work with the executive team to ensure mental health openness is culturally installed across an organisation.

It continues...

"...consideration should be given to appointing a specific individual director to monitor the work of the executive team in ensuring that the organisation is open to discussions around mental health. This non-binding responsibility is a key element in ensuring that cultural change is led from the top. Alternative methods which may work for other businesses could mean that ‘cultural mental health’ is added as a standing point on board meeting agendas.”

Here’s the report if you want to take a further look.

Responsibility is a key element in ensuring that cultural change is led from the top – I like that bit!

Earlier this year I delivered a bespoke Mental Health Awareness course for Directors of a large High Street retailer. As we’ve discussed, retailing is a classically stressful environment, and we work with many large organisations across all sectors and all over the UK, delivering bespoke training as well as advising on Policies and Charters.

So what made this course stand out for me? 

The fact that the CEO was there and actively took part in the training alongside Directors and Senior Managers. Now we’re talking!

If an organisation is truly serious about improving its Mental Health Awareness, that cultural change must be led from the top. This particular retailer is doing exactly that… and it’s great to see.

Not convinced? Let me take you overseas...

To illustrate my ‘Stuff Works When You Lead From the Top’ point further we are off to another country; Norway.

This beautiful Scandinavian country has an ambitious target. It wants new vehicles sales to be exclusively zero-emission models by 2025. Countries like France and the UK hope to achieve the same by 2040. 

You can’t deny that this is a significant cultural shift. And there’s evidence to support that it is working.

Regular Oakwood blog readers may recall that I visited Norway recently. What I haven’t revealed, until now, is that I survived a near-death experience in this place: one of the happiest countries in the world. My fault entirely of course, I’d stepped out into the road forgetting they drive on the other side in Norway. And to be fair I didn’t look both ways either.

But in my defence, I couldn’t hear the car approaching. It was a Tesla electric car, you see. From that close call, my brain, now highly tuned to the threat of these silent pedestrian tormentors, was on high alert.

It seemed every other car in Norway was a Tesla. And that got me thinking. Was my mind playing tricks on me or were there really more of these vehicles on the road? And if so, how could that be? They are not exactly cheap and in a country where a bottle of water costs over five pounds, I could only imagine how much a Tesla might set you back. 

I did some digging.

Turns out there really are more of them on the road…more than anywhere in the world in fact (per 100,000 population). 

How did they do it? Top level buy in…

For the past few years now, the Norwegian government has offered subsides and a variety of other perks to get people away from gas guzzlers and into electric cars. For example: Free charging- (Norway has nearly six times as many Tesla charging stations than anywhere else in the world – and that includes the USA, where they are made); free parking, permission to drive in bus lanes and no tolls/congestion style charges. 

The point is that even seismic cultural change can be achieved when it comes from the top, from the government of Norway in this example. But it doesn’t require government policy to change the way responsibility for mental health and workplace wellbeing is embraced. It just takes the company’s directors.

Before I sum up, let’s grab a few statistics from the Institute of Directors’ 2017 report. Key findings include these alarming gems:

Poor mental health costs the UK some 5 per cent of GDP

54% of IoD members have been approached by staff suffering mental ill health.

Although more than 80 per cent of IoD members believe good workplace mental health is very important, only 14% have a formal mental health policy in place and fewer than one in five offer line management training

To sum this all up then…

Are you discussing this at board level? Yes? Well, that's fantastic, your organisation and employees with both benefit enormously. No? Oh dear, taking mental health awareness seriously is crucial for your business and is probably having a detrimental impact on your bottom line. 

I think it’s fairly safe to conclude two things: that mental health is a mission-critical aspect of business (and business performance); and that to truly embed wellbeing and mental health openness within an organisation, change has to come from the top.

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About the Author

Terry is Director and Head of Training at Oakwood. He helps clients promote a proactive, rather than reactive approach to both personal safety and the positive mental health of their staff. He has over 12 years teaching experience in these areas, and advises organisations in the development of appropriate risk assessment and policy.