I’ve long felt that mental health is something which business directors, owners and boards should take more seriously. In my 15 years in business, three times I’ve had to deal with people (two were clients) who have had issues with mental health, addiction and suicidal thoughts. It was not something I expected and I was not prepared for it in any way.
Then when a crisis like this comes along, you suddenly can find you are at the centre of a storm and you have no idea how to navigate it, who to call, what to do and you wonder if you’ve done the right thing. You also ask yourself over and over again, what did I miss? Why didn’t I notice?
If that could happen to me, as a solo entrepreneur, it must be happening over and over again. As a result I put myself through a Mental Health First Aid Course to try to become more educated and informed around mental illness and distress. Therefore to have the opportunity to interview the man who heads up the social enterprise Mental Health First Aid England was an opportunity worth taking – meet Simon Blake OBE…
What is Mental Health First Aid England?
MHFA England is a social enterprise which is a training organisation and consultancy. Our mission is to train one in 10 adults in England in mental health to build their knowledge, awareness and skills. We deliver consultancy and support with a network of instructor members. So, we work with instructors who are either working in big organisations who train mental health first aiders or instructors who are independent.
How did the organisation begin?
The concept of mental health first aid was developed in Australia and it was something that the Scottish Government brought over and trialled in Scotland and then the English government brought it into England. Sixteen years ago we became a social enterprise. The founder was a woman called Poppy Jaman OBE who was the chief executive right up until 2018 when I took over. I think it’s fair to say that during that time, we have been part of a real significant shift in the way that society thinks about mental health more broadly.
We have focused on workplace mental health because we spend an enormous amount of time at work and work designed well is good for our mental health. It gives that sense of purpose, connection, and supports our well-being. On the flip side of that, we know that work that isn’t designed well can be overwhelming and can cause stress and anxiety.
What’s your background before taking on this important role?
I should have been an educational psychologist. I went to university. I did my undergrad, and then I was having a year out, fell in love, went to America for a while, came back and then had missed the application deadline to go back and do that course. I got a job as a sex education youth worker in the South Wales Valleys. I then worked in sex education, sexual health and then mental health and well-being. For a time I went to Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity and was chief exec there for nine years.
When you’re working around sexual health with young people, you’re also working around well-being and mental health and while I was there, we very much broadened that sort of holistic view around sexual health and well-being. I was at the National Union of Students for a few years and then came into MHFA England. I started in 2018, when we were looking at our strategy and as a social enterprise, pre-COVID we were in profit and we were aligning resources and then we had COVID.
Before COVID, very little of our training was delivered online, so we had to pivot very quickly to be able to deliver training. Of course, some people didn’t want to provide training in that manner because they thought you shouldn’t do mental health training online and none of us knew how long COVID was going to impact on us, but we did it anyway.
Today, we’re clear that we’ve got to make sure that managers are trained and skilled, we’ve got to make sure that senior leaders are supporting mental health and well-being and crucially, that people recognize the fact that mental health and productivity fuel one another. It doesn’t matter if you run a tiny business or a global corporation the value of investing in relationships, and investing in the skills to understand mental health are key to business success.
What impact do you think the pandemic had when it comes to mental health?
I think there’s absolutely no doubt that the pandemic has shone a light on mental health. Our responses during the pandemic were logical, sensible responses to unknown, difficult, yet often life changing situations. Whether that was about the certainty of employment, whether that was about closeness to death and grief, whether that was about not being able to exercise, whatever it was around our circumstances.
Anxiety and stress increased during the pandemic and the Centre for Mental Health estimates that 10 million more people will need help as a direct result. I think there is now another bit to this which is – as we develop new ways of working – taking us to a new dimension around the workplace. Lots of our ways of doing things have changed such as the office Friday evening get-togethers. For better or for worse, these moments previously forged relationships and helped us metabolise the everyday wear and tear of work.
Now, we might be having really difficult conversations in our kitchen and instead of being able to go out and leave it in the office, it’s in our home. That will have an impact and that impact will continue. Line managers need to be trained to ensure people have the right tools to get balance in life and that’s a core part of good business and being a good employer. Deloitte shows that for every pound you spend on investing in supporting people’s mental health you get £5.30 in return, so there’s both a human, moral and a financial case.
I think underpinning that, and this is a bit which I feel very passionately about – is this isn’t just about preventing the bad, it’s actually about creating ‘good work’. It feels really important to me that our starting point is work ‘designed well’. It’s how we manage our relationship with our e-mail and our phones and create a balanced life not a work/life balance.
And since that time?
We had the pandemic and it felt like we emerged to a place of stability only to be thrown into instability from a cost-of-living crisis and then of course you know, global events such as the murder of George Floyd, which put a spotlight on global systemic racism and then the murder of Sarah Everard about violence against women.
Then you’ve got the war in the Middle East – we’ve had Russia and Ukraine, and we’ve got the constant absorption of all of this. Sometimes I have conversations with my dad about the news we’re exposed to today. If you look back through most of his life (he’s 80) there have been lots of things going on, but he never had was access to that information on a global scale and also then on a micro-scale.
On the one hand, you’re looking at the news and seeing, the awful things going on in Israel and Palestine. You’ve then got your Facebook telling you the impact that people are feeling about that locally and then you’ve got that worry for somebody who has lost their dog. This download of information has consequences that we all need to be aware of.
My view is that it’s brilliant we are talking about mental health and it’s brilliant that we’ve got mental health first aiders in organizations and that we’ve got organizations who’ve got their well-being strategies sorted. Now we’ve got to get a little bit more sophisticated about it: we’ve got to recognise when we’re talking about well-being, when we’re talking about mental health, when we’re talking about mental illness.
Is there a mind/body link when it comes to mental health?
I think our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. When I get acutely stressed, I will get some kind of skin condition. I believe your mind and your body work together to tell you something, to give you a set of signals and of course, that will then go through into physical illnesses as well. But also, if you think about what we know about alcohol consumption and it will often increase at times when people are more stressed. People will smoke and will often say it’s about stress responses and will often binge eat when we are feeling unhappy. We are just one.
Do you think then paying attention to well-being of staff helps with recruitment and retention?
Absolutely. This is about people and people need to feel connected, people need to feel valued, people need to feel that they belong, that they can be their whole self at work, that they believe that they will get valued for who they are and what they deliver.
We know women, people of colour, and disabled people often don’t get the recognition they deserve. We know that sometimes people don’t feel they can wear traditional dress or speak a first language on the phone at work because they believe that people will judge them.
So how do you create psychological safety? How do you create cultures where everybody feels like they belong? And how do you make sure line managers embody that culture and that sense of community?
Share some tips on how to measure the mental wellbeing of a team:
The first thing I would be saying to a company director: “talk to me about how your work is organised? What does it feel like to work in your organisation? Does it have a culture where people will be feeling like they belong, they’re valued, they’re seen and heard?
The second bit then would be how do you make sure work is organised to be as rewarding as possible for people? Have they got the time and the tools to do the job properly? If you’ve got line managers, have they got the tools to have conversations with their staff?
Another would be training specific to mental health that’s commensurate with the size of the organization. If a company had ten people, I would be saying getting one person trained in mental health first aid is important, but also then thinking “what does everybody need to know?” There needs to be enough awareness that all people within an organisation know this important and then how do you as the business leader communicate to people their well-being is important? It’s both as simple and complicated as that.
What are some red flags to demonstrate that a company is not getting this ‘right’?
The first is to look at the data from a staff survey if your company has this kind of data. What does it tell you about engagement and pride in the company? A red flag here should be obvious.
Your second red flag could be your sickness and absence rates – are they high or have they got higher for no reason you can pinpoint? Then look at your recruitment and retention rates. This is not just looking at how many but who? There might be particular groups of people who might feel disadvantaged within an organisation, whether that’s parents or more mature people or neurodiverse people.
Look for patterns in the data.
Yes, people can perform but most organisations don’t perform as well as they could if that sense of well-being is not present. Wellbeing and productivity go hand in hand. I guess the other the other bit in all of this is that just making sure that, as a leader, you are walking the floor, you’re asking people how they are and you are actually listening to your team.
Do you think paying attention to mental health will ever become law in the way that physical health and safety is controlled by legislation?
My view is that it’s probably a ‘when’ not an ‘if’. At the moment the health and safety executive guidance talks about stress risk assessments. Recently there was a woman who was successful in litigation against her employer because she was discriminated against because of menopause.
I think we will get more case law around this and ultimately there will be, it may not be in our lifetime, more explicit legislation about addressing the mental health needs of the population.
What does the CEO of an organization like yours do to look after your own mental health?
I have a horse called Boris and a dog (Dolly after Dolly Parton) and I event and compete with the horse. So that’s my love and joy. I do a lot of dog walking and generally, a lot of exercise, but if I had to take one of those, it would be my horse and my dog, the two of them go hand in hand together.
When you work on an issue which you feel passionately about, there isn’t a clear dividing line between work and pleasure because it is about passion and purpose. Having those times of closing down, being really clear that you can’t concentrate on anything other than the dressage test or the jump in front of you is really important for me.
There is no silver bullet, there is no one-size-fits-all, there is no single answer. Starting and continually looking at what we’re doing, will reap dividends. This isn’t an optional extra – mental health is core to the workplace of the future.