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Guest Blog: Five Years Later - Mental Health in Professional Services

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Andy Salkeld is a Chartered Accountant and member of the ICAEW. He is the Finance Director of Leeds-based tech company, dscvr.

On World Mental Health Day in 2018, Andy gave a keynote speech about his struggles with his own mental health, named Breaking the Stigma. The success of this speech led to many speaking engagements across the UK. In 2020, his debut book, Life Is A Four Letter Word, was published by Practical Inspiration Publishing.

Andy recently completed a Master's degree in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, during which he conducted research alongside Dr. Chanki Moon into mental health stigma within Professional Services. Here, he talks about the research and what he discovered.

​Our human stress responses hasn’t changed that much through our evolution.

The stress response we once experienced whilst trying to survive in the wilderness from violent predators is still largely present in our bodies. We now experience that same stress response, the fight or flight response, when an e-mail arrives in our inbox. Stress isn’t always a bad thing. Stress in short amounts (acute stress) can boost bodily performance in several ways.

The problem comes when stress becomes permanent (chronic). Here our bodies stop responding in the ways we want and expect. Our recovery takes longer. Our immune systems weaken. We become susceptible to illness. Stress has a huge impact on our health and yet we have almost welcomed and accepted it into our lives with open arms as if an old friend.

I come from the world of professional services where exceptional quality in tight time frames was the expectation. This is commonplace in most industries nowadays. My problem was one of individual difference. I, like many others, suffer from depression and anxiety and this made me experience this normal everyday stress much worse. Five years on since my life fell apart and having pulled some semblance of life back together, I now sit here writing this piece having completed a master’s degree in psychology to understand better what happened to myself, but also to help support those in a similar position to where I was once.

As part of this course, I conducted a research project into mental illness stigma within the professional services workplace. I have campaigned about ‘breaking the stigma’ for many years now and I wanted to capstone that by investigating it scientifically to see how we can improve it for all of us. From working with organisations, I had seen a disconnect between what employees felt and what leadership teams were doing. I wanted to explore whether this difference existed and if so, how do we begin to address it?

The Research

My first step was understanding that stigma comes in three primary forms, each with several subcomponents. The first form contains the three primary subcomponents of stigma. These are stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. These loosely translate to stigma deriving from thought, emotion and action. The second category, which I had never considered, relates to the individual and contains experienced, internalised, and anticipated stigma. These are loosely connected to past, present, and future stigma. Finally, there was perceived stigma, that which is cultural/societal and is contributed to by all. It’s important to note that whilst I am talking about mental illness stigma, these hold true for many other forms of stigma connected to other attributes such as sex, race and religion.

Next, I wanted to connect this to professional services and the workplace. This is where stress comes in. Stress has become synonymous with professional services. Many reports and charities all focus on increasing stress within the workplace and particularly within professional services. Stress has been shown to be predict mental illness development and has also shown to be co-morbid (exist simultaneously). In my opinion, if an organisation accepts that stress is part of their workplace in any form, they owe their employees a duty of care to support their mental health as they are putting their employees at health risk every day.

Finally, I tried to connect workplace interventions to support mental health. I wanted to know if what we’re doing is helpful. All workplace interventions (MHFA training, education, talks etc) cost money and for my research to be taken seriously, I wanted to be able to have a ‘bottom line’ impact. Most workplace interventions are what is referred to as ‘help seeking’. They put the onus on the individual to seek help and support. This is already a disengagement as people who are struggling often find it harder to take actions. Also, most workplace interventions are educationally led, whereby they address a lack of knowledge about mental illness. These are most effective at addressing stereotyping and the following discriminatory action but are less successful at addressing prejudice. We’ll come on to this later!

The Results

I was not able to recruit enough people to be able to generalise the results of my study to the entire UK professional services workplace. This is a harsh reality of conducting a study like this in such a short time frame during the middle of a global pandemic! With more time and resources, I would hope to expand this, but for now we must settle on just an indication of what might be true. You can read the full paper on my website hereor can read an abridged version here. I will try and summarise the important bits below!

Firstly, people’s attitudes and their perception of other people’s attitudes towards individuals within their organisation displaying symptoms of anxiety and stress are independent of a diagnosis. Or simply, people do not think, feel or act differently towards a person based on a diagnosis. They also disagree to somewhat disagree with statements of stigma within their organisation. This is good! You can tell your boss and colleagues you are struggling with your mental health and they won’t treat your differently!

However, the perception of stigma is significantly worse than the reality of stigma within an organisation and in all cases, the stigma present is mostly prejudice, not stereotyping.

This is a lot to unpack, so we’ll take it slowly.

Perception is worse than reality. We believe things are worse than they are. This is pretty much the human condition in 2021. I refer to this as “everyone else is an asshole”. This matches up with my experience from working with organisations, but it also aligns with the common self-serving and social acceptability biases whereby people typically view themselves positively and want to portray more positive social attributes.

Here’s the important one though, what stigma towards mental illness is present within an organisation is mainly prejudice (driven by emotion/affection). Organisations have done a great job in reducing stigma towards mental illness within their people, but the emotional side of things (typically driven by uncertainty/fear) remains. To address this requires a different approach. This requires cultural change, which can take a long time and can be costly. The simplest, and cheapest, way of doing this is to show employees present and future that mental ill health is acceptable within the organisation. Have those people brave enough to stand up and share their experiences highlighted and promoted. Show that people who have experienced mental ill health or are experiencing mental ill health are accepted and can succeed and flourish within an organisation. Slowly culture will change around them.

Next steps

I am currently looking at ways to further support professional services employees and organisations. I believe in creating a symbiosis between people and business and that through supporting the individual you can support the organisation. I still haven’t figured out the destination, but it’s a journey I’m excited to undertake and one I look forward to sharing with people as I slowly move forward into the unknown.

You can find out more about Andy and his research by visiting his website, or following him on LinkedIn. His book, Life is a Four Letter Word, is available now, and he is available for speaking engagements across the UK.

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