‘Leaders are meant to be strong, on mental health it’s better they’re honest’
By Laura Miller -
You will, in the coming weeks and months, hear a lot about ‘returning to normal’. It will be sold as a good thing; the pandemic was an aberration (it was) and because – in nothing short of a miracle of modern science and cross-border collaboration (true) – we (some of us) have access to vaccines to prevent the very worst effects of a virus that has killed 120,000 people in Britain alone, we should return to how we lived and worked pre-Covid. Some voices, quiet but getting louder, are asking, ‘do we want to?’
Back in May 2019, before anyone had heard of a virulent new strain of Sars coming out of Wuhan, the World Health Organisation had its sights on another killer – workplace stress. That month the international health body included ‘burnout’ in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. It describes burnout as: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterized by three dimensions: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy”. WHO was worried enough about burnout it was poised to develop evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace. We know what stopped it.
Kim McGinley, managing director of the award winning specialist mortgage broker VIBE Finance, isn’t about to wait for the WHO to get back on track. “Employers have full responsibility to provide an environment where wellbeing is at the core of what they do,” she says. “You need to truly put your staff wellbeing at the forefront of what you are doing and to truly live and breathe it – not just words.” Hers is more than the branch of virtue signalling so prevalent on social media these days. A quick scroll through McGinley’s LinkedIn timeline shows she puts her own pride on the line to publicly talk about her daily struggles with workloads and the fear that despite giving everything it’s not enough. Increasingly the professional platform, once dominated by #smashingit #winning #5amclub, is embracing the need for a more pastoral care approach to career success.
One such post begins: “Is there such a thing as being too honest?!” I’ve seen a lot of posts like this. They usually end up with the person explaining away some abhorrent rudeness in the tragically un-self aware guise of ‘just being honest’, as if existing as an unhypocritical horrorshow of a human is somehow inherently virtuous. But that’s not where McGinley’s post goes. “I don’t really have time for airy fairy. On that note, I’ve really really struggled in business recently to manage everything. Mind. Blown. I’ve spread myself as flat as a pancake. I feel I’m dropping plates, and I don’t like plates being dropped.” She ends the post with the point. “So if you’re scrolling through all of the ‘amazing’ posts of how ‘amazing’ business is right now and see this post and realise you’re not on your own….I hear you. Keep going.” Comments underneath are all close variations of, “I can totally relate to this right now.” Another of McGinley’s posts reads: “Some days you feel like you’re winning. Other days you feel like you’re sinking. Yesterday was a sinking day. Today feels like a treading water day/ going under but coming up again. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be surfing the waves.”
The messaging is deliberate; genuine but also confessional by design. “By being open and honest with the team about my own mental health, whilst it still feels taboo for many, including leaders who are supposed to be ‘strong’, I make sure I let them know how I’m feeling so they know they can talk to me anytime and I will do everything I can to help any one of them,” she says. Asked about the difference between tokenistic and real efforts by employers not to overload staff she makes the same point in a different way: “For me a lot comes down to communication – if you have poor communication that is the start of it.”
Workplace wellbeing had easily become corporate HR departments’ new favourite toy pre-pandemic. From yoga mornings to mindfulness workshops and a man in the office foyer at lunchtime selling books about walking in the woods and mugs with empowering quotes about doing the washing up. Employees, as far as I can tell, hadn’t asked for any of it, and none of it particularly helped. What they had often asked for was more flexible working arrangements, requests regularly denied by overzealous or untrusting line managers keen to keep a beady eye on how long employees spent at the tea point. “Prior to the pandemic, flexible working uptake was slow and it is generally considered that the overall demand for flexible working outstripped supply in the pre-COVID-19 world,” the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), an association for human resource management professionals, admitted in July 2021. Employers’ hands have been forced on the issue by the need to work from home during the pandemic. Research from the last 15 months repeatedly shows if anything staff worked more hours from home, a not insignificant problem that, now more companies have finally agreed to less rigid work structures as a feature of modern office life, and not a Covid-era bug, will also need to be solved.
At VIBE McGinley has tried harder than many much larger companies. She has processes in place, like mental health first aider courses, to raise understanding, awareness and spot warning signs early. Regular meetings with staff are used to discuss workloads but that includes space for talking about personal issues and general wellbeing. Perhaps most importantly, she lets staff know it’s OK to take time for themselves where needed. “I firmly believe the more colleagues and teammates understand it’s OK to talk about mental health and if they can do so in a safe and trusted way without fear of judgement, the better the workplace becomes,” McGinley says. She’s seen colleagues in the past suffer burn out and the general wellbeing of teams suffer with being overworked, she says. McGinley doesn’t elaborate, but hints at a personal source of her insight into what really works. “It’s difficult for those that have never been through mental health struggles to truly understand but by discussing it in an open and honest way creates an environment full of support,” she says.
Even if you don’t care much about your staff as an employer, messing with their mental health will cost you as a business owner by significantly hammering your bottom line, and as a taxpayer in the cost of public health. Shortly after the WHO addressed the damage caused by burnout, in December 2019 the Harvard Business Review ran an article pointing to research on the subject by prestigious American university Stamford. It found every year workplace stress in the United States (notorious for short holidays and competitively ruinous long work days) costs that country’s population nearly $190 billion – about 8% of national healthcare outlays – and causes nearly 120,000 deaths. That’s the UK’s Covid death toll every year from stress at work. Worldwide, 615 million suffer from depression and anxiety, which, according to a WHO study, costs businesses an estimated $1trillion in lost productivity each year.
Lest we think extreme working to the detriment of actual human health is a weird American phenomenon like cheese in a can and making someone who looks like cheese in a can President, in the UK the CIPD records that mental health was the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in workplaces pre-pandemic. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 54% of UK working days lost in 2018/19 (HSE, 2019). As well as sickness absence, the CIPD noted poor mental health at work can lead to increased staff turnover, reduced engagement and high presenteeism. None of which are exactly company moneyspinners. “Your staff are the ones that are going to keep your business going,” McGinley says, “for me, I’d rather that happens with happy and content staff where they know they are at the centre of it all”.
Most jobs require employers and colleagues to trust each other’s judgements and decision-making. Part of the problem with revealing mental health issues in the workplace is these are faculties that can be impaired by such difficulties. Most of us aren’t ready to open ourselves up to the assumption, or admit the truth, that we need to step away just now because we’re not up to the task. Likewise while no employer wants staff breaking down in front of clients, they have a job that needs doing. A culture of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ simultaneously keeps everyone and no-one safe. “That is the stigma surrounding mental health,” says McGinley, “it actually varies so greatly from person to person, so someone may be struggling with their own mental health issues but is still able to do their job efficiently and effectively”. Until of course, they can’t, as the CIPD and other figures inevitably show. McGinley says the answer is culture, harder to change and requiring regular maintenance, but more long lasting and effective than literally anything else (sticking plasters which have, anyway, already been tried and failed). “There is no magic cure, nor is there a quick fix,” she says, “it’s having the right support network around you to keep you going, or to help you when you need to take time off.”
It’s important to acknowledge the toll the pandemic has had on our mental health. Charity Mind has found more than half of adults (60%) and over two-thirds of young people (68%) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. Young people and those with pre-existing mental health conditions were particularly affected – and employees who had been furloughed also reported a slight decline in their wellbeing compared to others. Clearly for some colleagues the normalisation of reopening offices is a vital lifeline to the world, and an escape from cramped, noisy living conditions. Property finance, apart from a brief spell during the first lockdown more than a year ago, has continued operating throughout.
Bridging sector staff, often from whatever tabletop they could find at home, have worked under increased pressure to complete in time for clients to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday that has made that task all the more difficult by creating bottlenecks at banks and conveyancers, and which is only now coming to an end. “Workloads have been significantly higher of late with tight deadlines,” admits McGinley, “as a broker, trying to pull all parties together to get a transaction over the line when all of those parties are themselves, stressed, has been incredibly difficult”.
Like many brokers, McGinley is self-employed. While she is trying to create a support network for her team, for many small business owners trying to do-it-all can mean they lack their own safety net. “Being self-employed can be extremely lonely,” McGinley acknowledges. She launched VIBE in April 2018 and for the first year she worked alone. Not that long after Covid sent us into enforced isolation. “The last year has magnified that self-employed loneliness,” she says, “many advisers are struggling with juggling their own mental health alongside work volumes in a busy market”. Add on top of this home working and family commitments and it’s the perfect concoction for burn out. She is looking forward to the end of lockdowns, and is happy face-to-face meetings are now happening. She is also grateful for the sense of community created by the small world of bridging. “There are so many brokers who have offered their help and support over the last three years. We work in such a great industry where there is so much support out there for those who require it, sometimes you just have to learn to ask.”
As white collar Britain heads back to its desks (blue collar workers of course having never left their posts), the CIPD warns there will, despite whatever political protestations, not be much that is ‘normal’. “Measures will need to range from supporting employees to regain an effective work-life balance and addressing fears about a return to work, right through to support for severe mental health conditions,” it tells employers in its latest guidance. That will still be true even where the greater flexibility introduced as a result of pandemic homeworking is adopted permanently for some or all of the week. “It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel about the return to the workplace,” the CIPD urges, advising consultation with staff at a company level, and for line managers to understand the specific concerns of their individual team members so they can best support their mental wellbeing and future ways of working.
Reopening offices and only seeking a return to business as usual will increasingly look like what is often termed a ‘missed opportunity’. In truth it would be better branded a massive error borne out of a lack of ambition. McGinley is optimistic. “Covid has now made so many businesses aware of how much more they can be doing to support their staff on the subject of mental health, it’s made so many re-evaluate which can only be a good thing.” Empathy all around goes a long way, she points out. “If I’m honest,” McGinley says, which according to her LinkedIn posts she usually, involuntarily is, “we just need an understanding that we are all going through it in one way or another at the moment – and will be for a while to come”.
Laura Miller is a freelance journalist who writes about money and business. She regularly appears in UK national and trade newspapers and magazines, and has previously worked for ITV News and the Telegraph among others. Find her on twitter @thatlaurawrites