How to harness the power of openness

Next week I will be speaking at the fourth John O’Halloran Symposium. This event – created after John took his own life in 2015 – supports good mental health in our industry, and I’m honoured to be included. 

When I arrived at British Land in 2009, I was impressed by the protection the company offered employees. Not only was the approach to safety first class, the health insurance was exceptional. Physically, our people were well looked after. 

But looking back 10 years, as with much of our industry, we hadn’t yet begun to grasp how corporate environment and behaviour could impact people’s mental well-being.

Nurturing the individual

We made it clear that we wanted to modernise our culture, to make it more open and supportive of diversity in every sense. Part of that journey has been to be explicit about our values, encouraging people to express their true selves, to listen to others and to work together. We are certainly by no means perfect in these areas, but equally, we have come a long way. 

This change in culture has also really helped our approach to mental well-being.

What we would now recognise as a mental health problem was often seen as a change in an employee’s performance, because that’s where managers felt comfortable. But there is a simple truth here – that people who are supported at work perform better. Helping our people make that connection and creating visible sources of meaningful support has improved things a great deal.

As a company, we are now more aware when individuals need support and are often able to help, because our people know they are not expected to deal with poor mental health on their own. They know that we provide tangible, holistic support. We’ve managed to shift our approach so that managers are now often the first to spot and raise emerging issues rather than being the last to know.

We now also have real examples of how a changed culture can help. One colleague told us they felt able to talk about being bipolar because another colleague spoke at our company conference about “coming out” at work as a gay man.

Yoga in the office

Reaching out

Managers naturally worry about what they should or shouldn’t say in the workplace. But giving our people the confidence to have open conversations and connect team members with professional support has made a big difference. 

More recently we have added specific training for our managers to equip them better, which is making a real difference, too. We don’t want them to become amateur psychologists, but hopefully to notice when something has changed, show their concern and help the person access the right help.

Mental health, of course, is a complex and difficult area unsuited to “quick fixes”. There are 5,000 suicides every year in the UK. Pressures in the workplace, around performance and behaviours, are unlikely to abate, while our own industry also faces far-reaching changes. All these things create different pressures for our people, as well as opportunities.

It is perhaps worth noting that this has been a personal journey for me. I certainly didn’t arrive at British Land with informed views on mental health and the workplace. Nor am I an expert today. But for any senior leader it’s vital to keep learning and adapting. Creating and maintaining an inclusive, supportive environment is no easy task, but it’s a vital part of making our company an attractive, productive and altogether happier place to work.

Chris Grigg is chief executive of British Land

Yoga photo: Shutterstock