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9 key takeaways from the Mad World Summit 2019

4th November, 2019

Claire Farrow




With a focus on promoting best practice and showcasing practical solutions that enable employers to embed sustainable mental health and wellbeing strategies, the second Mad World Summit was packed with content.

The TechTalk, Think Tank and roundtable summaries, are on the Mad World website. You’ll also find links to reports created at the event by BBC World Service, CNBC, London Live, C-Suite Podcast, Benevolent Health and our own “2020 Vision” show opener. This includes wise words from Sir Ian Cheshire among others. Please make time to tune in and review all of these materials – it really is worth it.

For those of you looking for a quick read, I’ve summed up some of my key takeaways from the day:

Takeaway #1: There’s no doubt that employers have a key role to play

The rallying call of Dr Nick Taylor, CEO and Co-Founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind in the 2020 Vision show opener set the scene perfectly: “Organisations are in a great place to be leaders in this space, to start looking after the mental health of their employees in a really proactive ways and become champions of the subject”.

The doyenne of workplace mental health and wellbeing, Professor Dame Carol Black, added context in her keynote. She gave us the stark reminder that: “Over a third of total productivity loss of UK employees is attributable to mental health issues”.

And Wellbeing Director of Business in the Community, Louise Aston, revealed the shocking fact that, according to the BITC’s 2019 Mental Health at Work Report, 39% (ie, 2 in 5) of people develop a mental health condition where work was a contributory factor.

In the “Thriving at Work: the now and next” panel, Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind recognised the key role employers have to play. He stated that the quiet mental health revolution that has taken place over the last ten years is: “Increasingly being driven by employers who have taken the baton of mental health and are really running with it”. He added: “The challenge is to go from good to great…to get to a point where our conversation around the water cooler about our mental health is as common as the water cooler itself”.

Takeaway #2: Measure impact but don’t make it just about the numbers

Dame Carol Black urged attendees to “collect data and evaluate” the impact of their mental health and wellbeing strategies - reminding us that often employers put initiatives in place, without asking employees what they want and without really knowing who needs them the most.

Louise Aston reiterated this, pointing out that there is a disconnect between how bosses think they are doing and the reality on the ground. She reminded us that: “What gets measured gets managed” and suggested that organisations start to publicly report their wellbeing.

This echoed the point that Dame Carol’s had made in her keynote: reporting on employee mental health and wellbeing ought to be considered as important as financial reporting.

The Think Tank session, facilitated by Richard Heron, Vice-President Health & Chief Medical Officer, BP was focused on how to make the business case for investment in mental health and wellbeing strategies. Picking up the data theme, which Dr Heron said is essential for winning over the C-Suite, he said: “You have to ask what the data is telling you and why should it keep you up at night?”

He stressed that getting buy-in wasn’t about ROI. When approaching the C-Suite, what is key is knowing what’s on their mind, the business’s objectives and be clear why focusing on mental health will help them to achieve them. He also reminded attendees that more data doesn’t mean better, using the example of Christopher Columbus (“one of the best influencers I’ve ever known of”) who managed to convince royalty to back his expedition to North America based on “only three pieces of data and two tools at any one time”.

A word of caution around driving strategies with data was raised during the “The Disruptors” panel. Alastair Gill, Head of People, giffgaff explained that he has a love hate relationship with data. Both he and Helen Verwoert, Global HR Director, Dr Martens – Airwair International mentioned that data shouldn’t drive every initiative – sometimes what’s intuitive and feels right is right, but that data can and should be used to back up ideas once they have been tested.

In the same panel, Julian Hitch, Director of Wellbeing, Leon Restaurants warned that there is a trap of getting too hooked into the data explaining: “Look at what you are using the data for and why you are measuring”. He stressed that mental health and wellbeing programmes should be put into place because you genuinely care about your employees.

The onstage conversation between Kelly Steckleberg, CFO, Zoom and Kristoff DuBose, Founder of trailblazing workplace design company Ciurklaris8 reiterated this. They emphasised the business benefits that flow naturally when employee happiness and wellbeing are a strategic priority and central ethos of the organisation.

Takeaway #3: Good work and safe workplace cultures underpin prevention

This was a recurring theme of the content. Dame Carol Black reminded us that: “The essentials are about culture and whether you’ve got that organisational culture right”. One of Louise Aston’s key calls to action was: “Create good work that enhances mental health for everyone”.

In the “Thriving at work: now and next” panel, Peter Cheese, CEO, CIPD explained: “The idea of good work is key to the future of work. The outcome of good work should be good for people. Wellbeing is not a fanciful fad or trend - it is a fundamental human right. We need employers to think about their duty of care to people and make sure they are all focused on these issues”. He went on to outline that a good job is:

1)     A job that pays me fairly

2)     A job where I have my voice heard

3)     A job where my skills are being used effectively and I’m being developed

4)     A job where people care about me and wellbeing is an absolute elemental construct, as is work life balance, with flexible working being a really important part of this

Flexible working was a strategy that cropped up in many sessions, from Ian Stuart, Group Managing Director and CEO, HSBC UK Bank plc’s opening keynote, right through to the roundtable discussions.

An interesting fact that balanced the speakers’ enthusiasm for flexible working was included in the notes from the roundtable that Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health facilitated. These indicated that: “The benefits derived from home working plateau after 2.5 days. After this, the impact of home working is detrimental”.

Takeaway #4: Technology – friend or foe?

The impact (as well as the potential) of technology was another recurring theme of the event. As Peter Cheese said: “Technology seems to be stressing us more and more” reflecting: “What happened to the 15 hour week? We seem to be working 15 hour days”.

The Comedian, Author, Campaigner and Founder, Frazzled Café, Ruby Wax also had thoughts to share on the topic of technology: “Everyone’s bitching about technology – but look, we put it there and it’s not going away”. In other words, it is our responsibility to find a way to make it work for us, not against us.

TextHelp’s roundtable takeaways also shed an interesting light on whether tech holds the key to future proofing workplace wellbeing. Comments ranged from: “Tech has created or at least exacerbated burnout” to “Tech should be a tool, not a replacement of human experience” and “Tech should be used to limit tech” to “It would be good to see more voice technology and AI embedded in mental health solutions”.

The benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) were also reflected in other sessions. MyEva’s roundtable was focused on whether it is possible to meet the financial wellbeing needs of every individual employee. A key takeaway from this session was that whilst it is important to have a mixture of digital and human solutions, AI removes unconscious bias and helps individuals.

The potential benefits of AI were also outlined by Professor Peter Francis, Vice Chancellor, Northumbria University, in his presentation as part of the “Meeting the university challenge” workshop. In this, Professor Francis explained how big data and sophisticated algorithms are nudging students into communicating about their mental health and wellbeing before problems escalate. In this way technology is being used in a preventative way and is nurturing the human relationships at the heart of good mental health.

Takeaway #5: You don’t need a big budget to get started, but be prepared to invest

Jane Austin, HR Director, Wave Utilities, speaking as part of the SMEs Stepping Up track, highlighted that effective wellbeing strategies have been implemented without needing significant investment. This was thanks, in part, to the help of an insurance broker who listened and then took the time to source a cost-effective health insurance product that met their needs. At Wave Utilities, initial low-cost strategies have however been a good way to embed a culture that prioritises mental health and wellbeing, making it easier for more budget to be made available further down the road.

This thinking was echoed by Amanda Lambert, People Director, Three UK as part of the keynote panel session “Harnessing the power of business”. Lambert explained that many of the most effective strategies that they have put in place at Three have not cost the company anything including: changing compassionate leave; introducing personal days for life moments; reviewing the time off policy.

In the same panel, Tony Bickerstaff, Chief Financial Officer, Costain explained that in many cases they have supported mental health and wellbeing by accessing existing budgets, such as the learning and development budget.

As part of the same discussion, Rob Stephenson, Founder, InsideOut pointed out that, whilst it makes sense to start with free or low-cost initiatives, it is important to make budget available. He summed up: “Let’s build from the ground up but let’s go there with a big vision”.

Ian Stuart, Group Managing Director and CEO, HSBC UK Bank plc echoed this point in his opening keynote, stressing the need to invest in healthcare that supports those speaking up about their mental health. He said: “You can’t turn around at a big event like this and say we’re really keen to help this and not back it up with some investment”. Stuart illustrated his point referencing the company’s significant investment in Bupa insurance that also covers mental health.

Takeaway #6: Leadership and the notion of no policy

The important role that leadership has to play leading by example was referenced throughout the day in the keynotes, tracks, panels, workshops and roundtables. Some of the key points made were:

·       Lead from the top but don’t try to hold the reins too tightly

·       To get line manager buy-in, avoid ivory tower initiatives and ‘them and us’ environments. Create a vision but then immediately empower teams locally to act on this

·       Encourage flexible working but don’t have a policy on it. Give management local flexibility to adapt and work out what’s needed. If you put in a policy, you’ll be crushed by bureaucracy

·       Leaders need to add context and boundaries but employees should be encouraged to pilot initiatives from the ground up. The more freedom you give people, the more responsibility they take.

·       Set the tone from the top that it is safe to speak up and set the example by speaking up too

·       Leadership has an obligation to role model healthy behaviours

·       Develop your leaders; good leaders have more engaged employees

·       Consider development plans for employees that are linked to wellbeing – not just a development plan about your skills, your knowledge or your behaviours, but why not have a development plan that is going to enhance the wellbeing, the energy and therefore the performance of individuals in workplaces

·       If you don’t have a CEO that is driving this agenda, that doesn’t have to be the end of your mental health strategy. The practical and pragmatic approach of designing a mental health pathway for an organisation can be a very effective way to drill down into root causes of issues as well as to break down stigma.

·       If you don’t have leadership buy-in, it’s really helpful to be able to put forward a solid business case for supporting mental health and wellbeing

·       As leaders, don’t underestimate the importance of active listening. The thing that we can all do is listen to our colleagues without judgement.

Takeaway #7: Think about how you can encourage your supply chain to support their employees

Several sessions touched on this key point moving forward. To really build momentum behind this movement, organisations can go a long way to encourage their supply chains to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees. Interesting initiatives were mentioned that are encouraging supply chains to prioritise mental health and wellbeing, such as the Mindful Business Charter and the Mindful Investment Charter.

Organisations can encourage supply chains to support this agenda by providing access to relevant training and guidance, echoing their strategies, or it could be giving suppliers access to your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

Alternatively, as some large public funded organisations are doing, suppliers can be encouraged to support this agenda by writing a mental health and wellbeing programme requirement into the procurement process - requiring suppliers to demonstrate that they comply when tendering for work.

Paul Farmer said in his keynote panel “We’re nearly half way there” in terms of achieving the vision set out in the Thriving at Work Stevenson Farmer review of mental health and employers. Encouraging suppliers to support the mental health and wellbeing of their employees will surely turbo charge progress.

Takeaway #8: Focus on the organisation but also the needs of the individual – including mental, physical and financial health

The importance of recognising the role of the organisation but taking a personal approach were also mentioned on many occasions. “Focus on organisational issues rather than focusing on the individual” said Peter Kelly, Senior Psychologist, Health and Safety Executive in the 2020 Vision show opener. Meanwhile, in the same video, Stacy Thomson, Founder, The Performance Group said her vision for 2020 and beyond is that employers will be looking at mental health and wellbeing from an organisation perspective but also looking at education and self-awareness.

Meghan McCarthy, Director of Human Resources, SAP UK & I emphasised the need for flexibility and making sure programmes are in place to meet the changing needs of employees at different life stages.

Meanwhile, The Disruptors panel stressed the importance of looking at people as individuals, rather than representatives of different generations, emphasising that whilst its challenging to make sure you provide for everybody’s needs, the more you label, the more you create division.

Dr Shaun Davis, Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing & Sustainability, Royal Mail Group and Chair, Financial Wellbeing Workstream, BITC also urged attendees to remember that mental health is intrinsically linked to financial and physical health, so programmes need to reflect this.

Takeaway #9: Employers’ needs are evolving

My final conclusion was drawn more from side conversations rather than from the sessions. It seems that as more employees are coming forward needing support, and the importance of prevention, good work and workplace culture are also rising up the agenda, employers’ needs are evolving. Suppliers of mental health and wellbeing products and services need to ensure they understand employers’ evolving needs so that they can adapt accordingly

If you attended this year’s Mad World Summit, I’d love to hear what the key takeaways were for you. You can contact me at claire@madworldsummit.com.


Claire Farrow

Claire Farrow is the Conference Director for Mad World. She is responsible for the content of the Mad World Forum and also drives the content for Mad World News.


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