It's time to end the workplace taboo around mental health | António Horta-Osório

At Lloyds, where I’m CEO, we’ve seen how a change in attitudes has helped staff – and our business – to thrive

British society has made huge strides in recent years in its willingness to acknowledge, confront and treat mental health, but the workplace remains an area where we continue to struggle with its impacts: and the costs are devastating.

Despite the fundamental changes to our working lives during the past decade – flexible working, the end of the nine-to-five working day, an “always on” culture and the rapid evolution of technology – there is one troubling constant: declining UK productivity since 2007. As far as productivity is concerned, the past decade has been the worst since the late 18th century, around the time of the industrial revolution, according to research by the Bank of England released last week.

While there are several economic factors that have caused this decline, it is time to acknowledge a less visible yet more pervasive factor: mental health and attitudes to it in the workplace. Mental health is a UK-wide issue, which impacts the economy each year through costs to employers (lower productivity, sickness absence, staff turnover), and to government (health and welfare benefits, reduced tax revenue). But tackling this issue is not just about increasing our prosperity. Crucially, it will make a big difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.

I have made mental health a big focus for my company as a result of my personal experience. It is clear to me that the most important change needed is one of mindset. We must move to a way of thinking that recognises that we all have mental health just as we all have physical health. As with our physical health, all of us can experience periods of mental ill health when immediate treatment is needed, or we run the risk of developing long-term conditions that will need continuing support.

When an employee breaks a leg or suffers an infection, we know how to respond. Mental health should be dealt with in the same way. With a culture of adequate support and sufficient time off, an employee can return to work with confidence and without embarrassment.

This is the mindset we are adopting and embedding at Lloyds. The action we have taken in recent years has been based on talking to our colleagues. We have learned lessons along the way, which I believe can be adopted by any employer, of any size.

We share our personal experiences, and our culture is one of mutual support. During 2016 and 2017, we published stories on our intra-group website of colleagues who have experienced poor mental health. These were often deeply personal, like that of P, one of our managers, who experienced crippling anxiety to the extent that his performance at work, and his relationship with colleagues, friends and family, was impacted.

He felt he had nowhere to turn. P felt that speaking up at work would be detrimental to the perception of his performance – and so he said nothing to colleagues and continued to lose confidence in himself. But after taking part in a disability-focused development programme offered by Lloyds, P eventually felt able to share how he was feeling with his line manager, and together they worked on a recovery plan. They discussed workloads and pressure points, and met regularly to keep on top of things.

Workers making the daily commute back home at the end of the working day
‘Changing the corporate mindset on mental health is, I believe, the most fundamental step towards changing things for the better.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

P also used our employee assistance programme helpline, to provide him with advice on coping with anxiety, mindfulness and dealing with self-control. With the help of professionals, and the knowledge that he is fully supported by his manager and his team, P is now genuinely excelling in his role. His story inspired many others to share their experience on the group site. This has created a positive culture within the group to inspire open conversations about mental health. Of course, P wasn’t on his own, but his honesty allowed many other colleagues to share their own problems, which of course is the first step to rectifying them.

The approach we have taken focuses on the spectrum of mental health, from everyday wellbeing through to clinically diagnosed conditions, and looks at prevention as well as support. What has been most powerful for many colleagues has been the simple step of enabling people to talk openly about their experiences without fear of judgement.

Changing the corporate mindset on mental health is, I believe, the most fundamental step towards changing things for the better. We need to remove any trace of stigma. Last year we launched a competition on social media for colleagues to share their top tips for improving mental wellbeing at work, which continues to be a live conversation today. More than 2,000 colleagues shared entries, which included simple tips such as understanding nutrition, getting enough sleep, or simply having a walk during lunch breaks.

Leadership is, of course, vital and we have spent time raising awareness among our senior management, giving them the tools to respond sensitively when an employee declares a mental health condition, and helping them provide the right supportive environment when an employee returns to work.

I personally have been involved in a ground-breaking programme which we called “optimal leadership resilience”. This is designed to help senior leaders at Lloyds to think about and put in place actions that help them build personal resilience and positive wellbeing.

The programme covers nutrition, heart monitoring, sleep management, mindfulness, psychological testing and analysis. After the group executive committee and our top 200 senior leaders, the programme is now being extended to the next 2,000 group leaders, which means they can support their own teams when they see signs that someone may be struggling.

All this is backed up, of course, by specific support for mental health conditions (including our employee support line), so colleagues can be referred to the relevant professional help.

At the start of 2018, we also increased the amount of cover available to colleagues through private medical benefit for mental health conditions, to be equal to that for physical conditions. The fact that it hadn’t been in the past is a sign of how mental health has been typically viewed.

There is still much more to do – but I am delighted that our efforts so far have led to real, measurable progress at Lloyds Banking Group. We have seen a significant increase in the number of colleagues happy to tell us they have a mental health issue, and a step change in the response of colleagues to our annual engagement surveys over the past three years.

I am extremely proud that at Lloyds Banking Group we have built a leading-edge approach to mental health support for our colleagues, and I only hope that many other companies will join us to help make the stigma of mental health a thing of the past.

• António Horta-Osório is chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group


António Horta-Osório

The GuardianTramp

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