On Aon’s Better Being Series: Mental Health and Creating Kinder Cultures

On Aon’s Better Being Series: Mental Health and Creating Kinder Cultures
Aon's Better Being Podcast

03 of 07

This insight is part 03 of 07 in this Collection.

November 17, 2023 29 mins

On Aon’s Better Being Series: Mental Health and Creating Kinder Cultures

On Aon Podcast Hero Image

Rachel Fellowes, Aon Chief Wellbeing Officer, and guest David Beeney, mental health advocate and founder of Breaking The Silence, discuss mental health and why creating a kinder work culture is so important.

Key Takeaways
  1. This episode discusses defining and overcoming the stigma around mental health in the workplace.
  2. They also explain gender role statistics and stigmas.
  3. A five year look at the future of wellbeing in the workplace.

Intro:
Welcome to “On Aon,” an award-winning podcast featuring conversations between colleagues and their guests on, well, Aon. This week, in part 5 of a special series on resilience called Better Being, we hear from Rachel Fellowes, Aon’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, with her guest, David Beeney, as they talk about the stigma of mental ill-health and why creating a kinder work culture is so important.

Rachel Fellowes:
Hello and welcome to Better Being with me, Rachel Fellowes. I'm the Chief Wellbeing Officer here at Aon, and I'm passionate about resilience in the workplace, and it's linked with performance and wellbeing. So, today, only around 30 percent of us globally identify as resilient. This has a huge impact on our mental and physical health, as well as organizational productivity, agility, innovation, and workforce engagement. So, in this series, I discuss what can be done about the issue with thought leaders and subject matter experts. And we all dive into what actions we can take to build and support resilience at the individual, team, and organizational level in the modern workplace.

In this episode, I'm going to be talking very specifically about mental health in the workplace and how to tackle the stigma that's still associated with this area of ill health. And we know that companies more and more are talking about this and taking it seriously. And I've even come off a meeting today with a CEO asking, "I'm really keen to do something, but how do I get there? What does it mean?" Et cetera. So, we're going to dive into all of that. So, Aon's wellbeing survey released earlier this year showed that 83 percent of employers now have a wellbeing strategy, up by 25 percent from 2020. However, the problem is far from solved.

So, if we take a step back and look at things like the World Health Organization, they estimate that at least 15 percent of employees or colleagues are experiencing symptoms of mental health conditions. If you then place this in the context of a specific country, maybe look at the statistics of the American Psychiatric Association reports; that's a long title, employees with unresolved experiences such as depression now escalate up to about 35 percent, and their impact on the economy can be framed as at least 200 billion a year.

And having said all this, this is based on statistics that we know. And I'm about to introduce a guest, David Beeney. David is a mental health advocate, an expert, and a campaigner and founder of Breaking The Silence. So, even within that title, Breaking The Silence, is data therefore we don't yet know because people are hiding this issue. David has a business dedicated to helping others consider, including businesses, how better to understand the issue of mental health and what to do about it. So, I am really looking forward to this conversation because it's so timely and so needed, and I'm especially looking forward to David's view because his insights are so unique on this particular topic.

So, David, I'm so delighted to have you. Thank you very much for being here. Would you like to start by doing an even better introduction about yourself than I can ever do?

David Beeney:
Thank you, Rachel. It really is great to be here today. Yeah, for those who don't know me, my name is David Beeney. I spent 36 years working in magazines and newspapers in the UK. But throughout that 36 years, I had a big secret, a really, really big secret. And what was my secret? My secret was I was battling in private with my mental health. Even I'm surprised when I look back at my life, Rachel, that nobody knew about it, nobody. I'm sad to admit that includes my ex-wife for 28 years, my mates down at the pub, and certainly nobody I worked with knew about my constant battles with panic attacks and anxiety. But back in May 2016, my life changed forever when I outed myself for the very first time about my mental health, and it's proved to be one of the best things I've ever done in my life.

When I first shared my story, it resonated with more people and at a deeper level than anything I've ever done before. However, Rachel, a number of people came up to me and said, "Can I be honest with you too?" And I said, "Yes." And they said things to me like they would never ever share with their employer their true mental health because they felt it would impact on their career. And the more and more people I spoke to about my mental health, the more people basically said to me they didn't trust their employers. So, I made a big decision back at the beginning of 2017 that where I wanted to focus my energy was on helping employers to become kinder. I wanted to help employers to create cultures in their workplaces where every single employee would feel really safe to be honest about their mental health.

And that decision back in 2017 has led me on a hell of a journey since then. And I feel very lucky and privileged to do the sort of work that I do. Within the UK, I work with the Royal Military, I'm helping the Navy to get rid of their macho culture, to make it easier for our sailors to be honest about their mental health. And I'm lucky enough to work with some huge brands like Google, like McDonald's, like Samsung, like Sainsbury's, and it's great to be with yourself here today at Aon. And thank you very much today for inviting me to come along to this podcast. Thank you.

Rachel Fellowes:
Well, of course, and it's a pleasure, and there's so much richness even in what you've just said, David. So, a couple of words that spring to mind, like courage. I imagine many people will be hearing you, and we'll come onto the personal side of your story, but the courage to even begin to want to explore that and view yourself and actually even put a label, a category to it that you can then start to articulate to other people –quite phenomenal. And then, you marry that experience with the uniqueness of a media background.

Oh, okay. So you start to say, "I wonder what David is going to do with this combination." How does it translate into something of a unique perspective? And I know you talk about, when we were chatting ahead of today's call, about having this unique perspective and there being three parts of that. So, can we start there? And then, I'll definitely want to come back to the personal story as well.

David Beeney:
Thank you, Rachel. Where I believe I'm very lucky, it's like I've worked all of my life to do what I do now because I certainly never set out to do this. And I wear three different hats, and I think my work's quite impactful because I bring those three hats together. And what I mean by that, firstly, because I'm someone who's suffered for nearly four decades in silence with my mental health, I think it makes me very authentic when I'm talking about challenges with a stigma in the workplace because I know what it feels like to suffer in silence.

Secondly, I am a qualified mental health counselor. I qualified about 10 years ago now, and I still practice therapy every week. So, I guess that gives me the credibility to talk about mental health itself. And thirdly, when I look back at my media career, I wasn't a traditional sales director. I've always been somebody who's been passionate about creating cultures where people flourished. And as I say, I think I'm now bringing those three things together to try and help businesses to create cultures in their workplaces which are kind.

Rachel Fellowes:
So, you've mentioned kind and that's not the first time, and I'm going to just park it for a couple of questions because it's actually quite an interesting concept. Language is so important, but it's an interesting word that isn't necessarily used in the workplace. So, we'll come onto that. But just to build on then some of the elements you've been touching on around mental health and your unique perspective. And then, even some of the theory about how does that help us flourish? And in my language, I might say, be more resilient. And I think as you've hinted, that dialogue is quite mature. Some of the research there is quite mature. But again, the insight is only from the people that have been as bold as you. There's still this undertone of stigma that prevents people coming forward that we can really dive into.

So, can we dive into the word stigma? Can you help me understand how to unpack that, talk a little bit more about it, what it means, what it doesn't mean? Because I think people sort of just add it onto something. "Well, we can't do that because there's too much stigma around it." So, it can be quite positive and negative in its use, and love your view on that.

David Beeney:
This stigma, and I'll come on to what I think the stigma is in a moment, is still certainly alive and kicking. At least 1,000 people have contacted me over recent years to share with me that they suffer in silence, not just at work, from their families as well. And many of the men and very of them senior in their jobs. I still think the stigma with mental health is largely the wall of silence. We don't know how to talk about mental health without fear. And an example I always think about is when two people in the workplace go off sick, one with a physical health issue, one with a mental health issue, they tend to go in, well, they experience very different journeys. Let me give you an example. If you went away skiing, Rachel, and you broke your leg. When the office found out about that, as soon as you landed back in the UK, you'd received a lovely card and a huge bouquet of flowers, and we'd all keep in very regular contact with you.

At the same time, if one of your colleagues was signed off with work-related stress, they would experience very, very different things because they wouldn't receive a card, they wouldn't be sent a bouquet of flowers. In fact, we'd actually stop contacting them because we wouldn't know what to say to them. Yet, the person who goes off with the physical health issue gets so much more comfort and love and support. We care about both people the same, but we don't know how to deal with the person with mental health. And it's become evidence-based, the longer the silence with someone who goes off with some form of mental health challenge, the less likely that they ever will come back to work again. We've got to get better at treating people who go off with mental health far more similarly to the way we treat people who go off with physical health. We've got to get better at talking about this subject.

Rachel Fellowes:
We do. And look, David, we went in our prep call to a very personal space, didn't we? Because we ended up postponing this call for a personal reason on my part. And we were umming and ahhing about whether to mention it or not. But in light of what you just said, I think we should. So, a couple of weeks ago, I went through a miscarriage at 12 weeks, and it was a very physical process, and then it turned into an emotional process. And it was absolutely fascinating to see and observe how my husband and I went through the experience very differently. But then, even David, to your point around stigma, I'm the wellbeing officer. How do I begin to articulate that story in a way that's sort of understandable depending on that physical or emotional story?

And so, you encouraged me in the last couple of weeks that we've been getting to know each other to say, well, "A, wouldn't it be interesting if you start to open up the dialogue?" So, I've been incredibly open with those that I've come across. And I've also started to say there has been a physical and a mental recovery from that moment. And David, I can completely applaud your advice and see, therefore, the responses to both and they are actually different. But even just starting to try and articulate that, encourage people, coach people that we can be comfortable about both those things in equal measure, it was such a gift. So, I'm very grateful for you in supporting me in that way.

David Beeney:
Thank you. Yeah. Thank you, Rachel. It means a lot. Thank you.

Rachel Fellowes:
And maybe that can then lead on beautifully to the next conversation. I said I'd park that word kind or kinder. And I'd love to then, and we can use any of the examples that we've already spoken about, but I'd love to explore what a kinder culture actually means in practice. And maybe I can be a bit annoying, be a bit devil's advocate, and put it into the context within the world within which we're all in at the moment. It's not an easy world. There's cost-cutting going on, there's pressures, and yet, we're also asking to be kinder. How do we actually begin to navigate that? So, I'd love your thoughts.

David Beeney:
Without a doubt in my view, unless you create a kind culture in the workplace, you will never optimize the performance from your people because I believe we all give a lot more to organizations and to people when we feel that people are being kind to us. I don't think this is a fluffy subject, I really don't. I think it's the absolute key to optimizing performance. One of the largest global banks in the world, Rachel, they carried out a survey of thousands and thousands of staff, and they asked them lots of questions around wellbeing. And one of the questions was a very black and white question and it simply said, "Do we care about you, yes or no?" And they put that question in because they've got this great reputation for looking after their staff, but they got a big shock because 38,000 staff said no, 50 percent of their workforce.

And when they looked into the data, they're brilliant with their data analytics, they found the common denominator. And the common denominator was your line manager. Then, they looked further into the data to see what does that manager do or not do? And they found that whenever they started work conversations, they never started the conversation with, "How are you? How are you doing? How's the family?" They always dived into the work agenda. And I now call that the power of how are you, because it's simple things like that in a workplace that are being proven to drive greater energy and engagement through our staff. It's simple stuff in my view.

Rachel Fellowes:
So, David, in that context, what does a kinder culture actually mean?

David Beeney:
Being kind at work is not a fluffy subject. When you create a kinder culture at work, your best people are less likely to leave, less people go off sick, and I think we drive greater engagement and energy through our people. Being kinder at work is starting work conversations by not always talking about work, by literally saying to people, "How are you?" I think we over complicate it, Rachel. I'm sure we've all had kind managers in our time. And we know when we are treated well in the workplace, we will go the extra mile.

Rachel Fellowes:
I think that's absolutely brilliant. And even if you start to look at some of the more academic research, so there's a really interesting study out of the University of California, but it starts to actually quantify that there is a statistical correlation between a kinder culture and productivity, potentially by 12 percent. So, even backing up some of your comments, David, with meaty data, we've now got access to that start. I loved what you said. It's not soft, it's very, very real now. There is a business line to this. So, then, I'm sitting there, I'm hearing you and I'm going, "Yes," and I'm pretending I'm not a wellbeing advocate. And I'm saying, "Upfront, he mentioned a phenomenal list of clients," that clearly you're doing some magic around and say, I understand the concept of a kind of culture. What practically do I do? So, you've mentioned the idea that's a way to unlock the whole human, and those questions like, "How are you today?" But are there other things we should be thinking about?

David Beeney:
I think there's a few things, Rachel, that spring to mind. We all know culture comes top down. So, without doubt, the tone has to be set from the very top of the organization. We need to see senior leaders really embracing this subject and making wellbeing one of their strategic priorities, and regularly talking about it themselves. Ideally, we need to see senior leaders as sharing vulnerabilities. I absolutely believe that when we share vulnerabilities, we inspire other people to be their authentic selves too. You can imagine when I first started working with the military to get senior military figures to talk about challenges they've had in their life, it was really, really difficult to do. It was so alien to them. I believe it's even evidence-based now that a CEO is more likely to lose their job in a boardroom when they don't show vulnerability because to coin a sporting phrase, when we share vulnerability, we're more likely to take the dressing with us.

I believe every manager, every line manager plays a part in culture as well. It doesn't just come from the very top of the organization. Often, what we think of our manager is what we think of the organization. And most of us have had a bad line manager in our careers and we know what that feels like. And we know how much more we give when we feel cared for and respected. I also think the language we use around the workplace is very important in creating a kinder culture too.

One of the real ironies for me, Rachel, as a mental health consultant is I spend my life these days saying, "We've got to get better at talking about mental health," when probably the worst thing you can say to someone at work is, "I'm worried about your mental health." It's that word mental. It's too invasive. It's one of the best way to close people down. Simple things like saying to people, "How are you feeling today on a scale of one to 10?" Is a much easier way to check in with someone to see how they're doing. Because we all understand globally the language of one to 10. We all know seven's okay, eight or nine's really good, and if someone's a two or three, it could be an indication that someone's struggling.

We also need to have more conversations at work that are not about work generally. A great boss of mine once said to me, "How's Sally's dog?" And I started laughing and my boss said, "What's funny?" I said, "Why would I ask Sally about her dog if I didn't even know Sally had a dog?" And my boss looked at me so disappointed and said, "David, you've worked with Sally a long time now, and her dog is her life. Please, the next time you see Sally, ask her about her dog." So, I did do. And when I look back at my relationship with Sally, she became a real advocate of mine, a fantastic colleague, but our relationship only really connected the day I asked her about her dog, because at that point, we connected on a more humanistic level. And at that point, Sally became a better employee because I'd found time to have conversations with her that weren't just talking about work.

So, it's simple stuff, Rachel, let's share more vulnerability. Let's have the tone set from the top. Let's think about the language we use and let's have more conversations at work that are not about work. Thank you.

Rachel Fellowes:
I love that. So, at Aon, part of our business is a risk business. And the traditional mindset where I heard you starting at the top around the story that it's actually a risk that I share. It's a risk that I'm vulnerable. But what's fascinating, the data is actually showing complete opposite. It's a risk not to be vulnerable for the longevity of your career, for the social glue, for that human rich experience in and outside of the office. So, I think that's absolutely fantastic, and just reinforcing that message about what we now know, the real risk is not to be vulnerable. I think that's absolutely awesome.

David Beeney:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rachel Fellowes:
Can I throw a slightly provocative stat at you, David?

David Beeney:
Please do. Please do, Rachel.

Rachel Fellowes:
It's a recent survey and it says 71 percent of respondents report pushing through a difficult mental health struggle in the last three months to avoid taking time off work. So, what's going on there in my mind is almost like a bit of a seesaw of performance and mental health. And am I thinking about that in the right way? How do those things co-exist in your mind? Is it right that we push on through? I'd love your view on that.

David Beeney:
I think every human being's unique, and nobody knows ourselves like us. When people come to me for therapy, they often think they're coming to me for advice. But if I was counseling you, Rachel, I will never know you like you. I believe the answers lie within you and my job is to help you explore yourself to find a way forward. So, it's a case of being honest with ourselves. There's been times in my career where the best thing for my mental health is to carry on working, because when I'm working, it gives me purpose, it gives me structure, it gives me routine. And my work has always generally been very, very good for my mental health. You shared something just now, Rachel, I'm going to in the moment share this now. But I lost my mother a week ago today.

My mother passed away last Tuesday. And yes, I didn't work on the day the news came through and I've been selective in the work I've done since my mother passed away. But I have kept working because I get strength from my work and I think my work's cathartic and it's purposeful. And it's helped me get through the past week. For somebody else, Rachel, they would've had to have taken the whole week off and that would've been the right decision too. It's a case of being honest with ourselves when it comes to pressure at work and challenges with our mental health about what we decide to do. Hopefully, that answers your question.

Rachel Fellowes:
It does. Thank you for sharing that and I'm so sorry for your news. And in a way, I was also observing the conversations saying, isn't it interesting how vulnerability mirrors vulnerability and there's a ripple effect? And the power of the first person who dares to is courageously putting their story out first. And it's literally like this sort of heavy blanket is released from everybody else who then wants to get involved. So grateful that you shared that. And hopefully it feels appropriate to be a bit playful with it because I'm a woman, you're a man, and we both shared our things, and I'm really interested in the gender story. So, we would assume upfront, and I slightly implied that provocatively with my husband, and he'll challenge back on that, that maybe we cope in different ways. But is there something in the way that men and women cope differently with stigma? And I'm also really interested in some of your thoughts around how senior women find some of this in comparison to senior men. So, can we explore that a little bit as well?

David Beeney:
Yeah. I'm not a big fan of mental health statistics because, as you know, I believe so many people are out there still suffering in silence. But statistics around male suicide don't lie. Nearly eight out of 10 suicides are male. And just when we think there can't be a worse statistic than that for men, I believe there is. Because if we die before we're 50, the most likely way we're going to die is by taking our own life, and that is absolutely shocking. And it's because we can't talk about stuff like this. I've been lucky enough to work with one of the big international rugby teams. And at the time, they famously had a player, he was like nearly seven foot tall. And I went up to him quite aggressively and said, "Do you know what a real man is?" I said, "Do you know what a real man is?" And he smiled and said, "I've got the feeling you're about to tell me."

I said, "I am." I said, "A real man is not a nearly seven foot tall international rugby player. A real man is a man who can put his hand up and say, 'I need help.' A real man is a man who can say, 'I'm struggling.'" Rachel, in many countries in the world now, suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 50 because we struggle to talk about this subject. We are still generally too macho to admit when we're struggling with our emotions, and we've got to get better at talking about this topic.

You mentioned about females as well. I've been picked up a few times recently by successful senior females in business who have shared with me, "David, if you think it's tough for being a man, it's really tough for us too because if we show perceived weakness in the boardroom." They said, "Trust me, there is real stigma. People are more likely to see us as being weak than a man who goes off with some sort of emotional crisis." And so, I'm very careful these days when I talk about how men really struggle to open up and talk about mental health, that it's not exclusive to men. And I think senior females in business particularly have a tough time too because of the stigma.

Rachel Fellowes:
No, I think that's really, really helpful. And again, obviously for those listening, they might not have the tag of senior, and actually the same rules apply. And I think there's some really interesting data around. I know that we find this through some of the Human Sustainability Index work that we do, that women are trying to juggle all elements of their lives because they're quite rich in their skillset, but the challenge is the juggle. And then, men tend to focus on two or three skillsets, with mental health maybe not being their prime one, and therefore, it's kind of a wobbly three-legged table. And I think we've talked about that in previous podcasts, but it's just really nice to bring that to life. And we're kind of coming towards the end of the conversation. And I know shortly I'm going to ask about what's the one key takeaway, but I would like to just draw out maybe a vision from you. What are you are hoping for, say, in five years time that might have changed, that starts to help organizations move forward on this topic, or even societies?

David Beeney:
I think I heard you say earlier on that 83 percent of businesses now have a wellbeing strategy. From my own experience, there's still too much tick boxing out there. Many now say they have a wellbeing strategy, but have they addressed their culture? Many companies now have great employee assistance programs. They have teams of mental health first-aiders. And in many cases, they have world-class resource available for their staff. But the problem remains if you don't create a culture where people feel safe to put their hand up and say, "I need help," all that resource goes to waste. So, we still need to see more authentic role modeling at a very senior level, that senior leaders completely get that definite connection between business results and creating a culture where people feel really valued and cared for and kind. So, I think some really good work's gone on in recent years, but I think there's a lot more work still to be done to eradicate that stigma.

Rachel Fellowes:
I love that vision. Thank you very much. And so, if we were to reduce the conversation down to one final takeaway, which I know is often a really hard exercise, even if it's a thought that you've had or something like an analogy that best resonates with people that you've tried and tested, what would you like as a passing comment for us to hear?

David Beeney:
I'm really quite clear on this one. I spent 36 years doing everything possible to avoid public speaking because of panic attacks, and I now deliver talks almost every day. And not surprisingly, when I was first speaking at a conference, somebody said, "David, I'm really sorry to interrupt you, but if you spent all those years avoiding public speaking, how are you going to get through this conference talk today without having a panic attack?" And when they first asked me that question, I nearly had a panic attack. But I said three things. Firstly, I finally accepted it's okay not to be okay. So, for the first time in my life, I'm finally comfortable being me. Secondly, I've recognized that when we share vulnerability, we actually inspire people. It's no longer seen as a weakness. But most importantly of all, Rachel, is I discovered the true value of being self-compassionate.

These days I give myself permission to have panic attacks because the irony being, when I give myself permission to have one, I massively reduce the chances of them happening. I spent most of my life panicking about my panic attacks, getting anxious about my anxiety. I thought I had to be perfect every day. In our careers, we talk about raising the bar. Well, I've lowered the bar. I haven't lowered my standards, I haven't lowered my aspirations, I'm just being kinder to myself.

So, my, if you like, final message here today, my golden nugget, if you like, is I want everyone to reflect and think how they can become kinder to yourself. Because when you become kinder to yourself, two things should happen. One, you should bring down your levels of stress and anxiety. But very importantly, we become more effective too because when we function with a more relaxed state of mind, generally we get greater clarity of thought and we become more effective. So, that's a long way of saying, Rachel, I want everyone to think about how they can become kinder to themselves because that's the best way of improving your mental wellbeing. Thank you.

Rachel Fellowes:
Thank you so much, David. What a wonderful conversation to end off this podcast. I really appreciate you being yourself, sharing your story, and just being such an advocate for the bigger wellbeing cause, especially on a pillar that some people frame it as a topic such as mental health, where there is such a real risk. Suicide is a very real negative outcome that comes from it. So, the more Davids, the more we can champion you, the better. So, we appreciate you so much.

David Beeney:
Thank you, Rachel. Thank you.

Outro:
This has been a conversation “On Aon” and mental health at work and why creating kinder workplace cultures matters. Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, you can get more insights on wellbeing in the workplace and information on future podcasts by following Rachel Fellowes on LinkedIn. To learn more about Aon, its colleagues, solutions and news, check out our show notes, and visit our website at Aon.com.

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