Mad World Forum, held in London on October 9, the day before World Mental Health Day, was the first major exhibition and conference to address the issues of mental health and the workplace. According to one of its founders, Simon Berger, the aim was to eradicate the stigma of mental health problems in the workplace, and to see a big bultural shift towards talking frankly, and helpfully, about mental health.

Keynote speaker, Sir Ian Cheshire, chair of Barclays UK and campaign chair of the Heads Together charity, spoke forcefully about the need for businesses to look seriously at the subject. His own family experience – mental health had affected both his mother-in-law and his second son – had made him realise how difficult it was to deal with the problem, and led him to want to be part of the revolution.

“The workplace is a key force for good,” he said. "Stress is a problem at many people's jobs, but keeping people well and in the workforce is a massive contribution to the nation’s mental health. Mental health shouldn’t be a weird thing in the corner; there is a role for business here.”

He directed conference sattendees – many of whom were middle management or HR staff in large businesses — to target their CFO, so that line managers could be armed with the training to recognise problems before they erupt. “And then, your CEO's support is key, they need to know it's time for businesses to step into this space that government cannot fill. It’s not phailanthropy, it’s nothing to be shy about.”

Prof Cary Cooper (above right) is well-known as an academic and speaker on business and psychology. In a rollicking address which used Jsoeph Heller’s comic novel Something Happened as a touchstone, he urged business to look at how they treated their staff, and what it is about work that might cause mental health problems in the first place. “Mental health first aid is not the answer; the organisation is the answer … rarely does a boss manage workers with praise and reward. The right peole are not being chosen for management, there is no sensitivity, and staff are riven with job insecurity and worries about money.

“Sushi and mindfulness will not sort this out. NICE guidelines on work are there, but they are not being adopted. We need primary actions, and to use proper psychometric tools to really measure psychological wellbeing."

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, unveiled its report Mental Health at Work 2018.  As she said the future had never looked so auspicious in terms of getting peole to talk about mental health, but action is needed “right now, we mustn’t let this moment pass by”. The report had some shocking statistics taken from their research

  • three out of five employees have experienced mental health issues due to work, or where work is a related factor
  • 11% of respondents who disclosed a mental health issue subsequently faced disciplinary action, demotion or dismissal
  • just 16% of employees felt able to disclose a mental helaht issue to their manager.

Aston urged businesses to adopt a number of changes including: signpost external guidance and support; empower line managers through training; integrate financial wellbeing into Health and Wellbeing policy; be proactive, rather than reactive; help those affected by mental health issues to stay working or return to work.

The turnout at this well-organised forum — which many said would have been unthinkable only three or fours years ago – is a sign that businesses are starting to take mental health more seriously. But as many of the speakers said, it is what those businesses do next that will really make the difference, especially to the people they employ.