The theme ‘Challenging the Mindset’ could have easily referred to the gender pay gap and sexual harassment of women which have hit the headlines recently. But it was the taboo subject of mental health at work which was the key topic of debate.
It’s easy to talk about mental health in a theoretical way. To reference suicide attempts. To mention bullying. To discuss sexual abuse. To comment on incidents such as the acid attack on a London nightclub last year. It’s easy to talk about the importance of looking after our mental health in something of a vacuum, until you come face-to-face with people and hear from people who have lived the reality.
The first speaker sharing her very personal story was Bianca Angelico from Sodexo, who caused a stunned silence to descend on the packed room when she said she was there to talk about how the sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child, by someone she knew, had impacted on her mental health, and continued to do so 13 years later. She urged the audience to be open if someone shares their hidden struggle with you. Ask simple questions such as: How are you feeling? How can I help you? Just by listening means the world, she said. Sexual abuse is awkward and taboo. Seeing the #metoo hashtag had given her the confidence to share her experiences. “Vulnerability is a strength not a weakness,” she emphasised. “Struggles make your stronger they do not define you.”
Bianca was the first of four speakers talking through their personal struggle with mental health. Lauren Trent, a recruitment consultant at Trust in SODA, bought many of the audience to tears describing her experience last April when, on her 22nd birthday, she was hit by acid thrown by Arthur Collins in a random attack at a London nightclub. What touched many was not just her own injuries, but her concern for her best friend who was more seriously injured and the closer bond that had developed as a result.
Lucy Jeynes, MD of Larch Consulting and no stranger to the conference platform, talked about an aspect of her life that few appreciated: her youngest daughter Emily’s mental health battles after being cyber-bullied. Emily attempted suicide after being mercilessly hounded for years, and Lucy talked frankly about the impact this had had on her own mental health and the importance of reaching out for help among friends (and being there as a friend if you are asked.)
Finally it was the turn of Owen Gower, a BIFM Awards finalist and winner of the RICS Matrics Young Surveyor of the year, to talk through his story. Owen gave a graphic account of slipping into depression, before his eventual bipolar diagnosis, which led to him trying to take his own life – which was only saved by his wife waking up and finding him. The graphic nature of the description was intentional, he said. Too often mental health is talked about in theoretical terms. But it can end with someone in a bath using a blade to bleed to death.
These inspirational, emotional talks were interspersed by a series of experts in mental health and wellbeing giving the group practical advice on how to support themselves, and their people, in developing and maintaining good mental health.
Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, reminded the audience that wellbeing is not gym memberships and fruity Fridays. “Wellbeing is interconnected between physical, mental and emotional. It’s a whole person approach. There is no health without mental health.” She came up with the quote of the day: “If you go into the workplace you don’t expect to by physically injured. You shouldn’t expect to be mentally injured.”
Karen Shaw from Time to change compared our reaction to talking to a friend about their cancer treatment with how uncomfortable we could well feel talking about their treatment for mental health problems. “There is still such a disparity between the two. Talking about mental health should be as common as talking about physical health”, she said.
Nicola Lovett, divisional CEO at Engie, and a WIFM sponsor, talked about how she balanced being a single mum to two teenage boys with a demanding job and her own wellbeing. “You can’t do a good job if your job is all you do,” she said citing how she prioritises herself and her children on Fridays (while also working) and practises boundary management when it comes to her diary so she doesn’t feel overloaded.
An even more taboo subject than mental health is the menopause. But Kathryn Colas from Simply Hormones smashed through that taboo by talking about her 10-year battle to survive the menopause and gave advice on how employers can start conversations at work. Testament to her success was that a man was the first person to ask a question!
If there is one legacy to this conference it’s that it started so many conversations about mental health. In the breaks, people were sharing their own stories, or those of family and friends. I talked about how my daughter is bullied for being dyslexic and how my son had regularly used a psychotherapist for various issues. There was no embarrassment, but just a willingness to talk about what had previously been hidden, taboo. The WIFM conference succeeded in #ChallengingtheMindset. I’ll bring more tissues next year.