Reflections on Mental Health Awareness Week


I thought that Mental Health Awareness Week received fantastic coverage across broadcast, print and social media this past few days. Is this topic finally being taken seriously?

The main stat that caught my eye was:

1 in 4 in the UK has or will have a mental health issue in their lifetime

Just think about that. That is alarming.

Much coverage has referenced how people are treated at work. A recent survey of the Royal College of Surgeons revealed that more than 54% were planning to retire early or change profession because of the stress and mental health challenges it was causing. This isn’t just a ‘millennials’ or ‘social media’ problem.

Many company leaders are rightly addressing this. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, has more than $6 trillion dollars in assets under his watch. He recently emphasised the importance of companies serving a social purpose as well as a financial one. Fink attracted a fair degree of opprobrium from many quarters and was accused of practising ‘corporate socialism’ i.e. allowing his own politics to blind him to what was best for his company and his investors. Interestingly, he also received a great deal of support, with many senior figures acknowledging that Fink’s view was actually a recognition of a growing body of evidence that long term economic success was inextricably linked to the way a company addressed social issues like employee wellbeing.

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Reflecting on the coverage of Mental Health Awareness Week, I have 3 thoughts:

  1. CEOs are rarely judged on long-term economic success: their average tenure is around 5 years and they judged on quick ‘turnarounds’ or fast ‘cost-savings’ or efficient ‘product innovation’  

  2. Mental health issues and wellbeing are still a taboo subject in numbers-obsessed board rooms

  3. Where they are discussed, mental health issues are so often ‘bundled into’ wellbeing, which is causing problems

Within the confines of this post, I can address only the 3rd point.

Organisations are absolutely responsible for their employees’ wellbeing. Wellbeing initiatives may be anything from providing breakfast at work, gym memberships and health insurance to more regular 1-2-1s with managers and coaches. A culture of wellbeing will help to reduce stress and improve mental health. However, most serious mental health cases - such as sustained anxiety or depression -  originate either in private lives or through a physiological disposition. A culture of wellbeing should allow the identification of mental health issues more readily, but it is not the role of line managers and or even HR teams manage these directly. It is their role to ensure those affected are referred to and treated by professional psychologists or counsellors, and to ensure work commitments are never a barrier to effective management of a condition that is not going to be solved quickly, if ever – contrary to the ‘instant results’ imperatives of many businesses.

In my work with RiddleBox, we speak regularly to HR directors. They all acknowledge that wellbeing is important but when I ask them how they measure it they rarely have a convincing answer. How can we manage what we cannot measure? How can this be taken seriously in the board rooms as a driver of financial performance when there are such intangible correlations? How can more CEOs feel comfortable in managing their businesses using wellbeing metrics, not financial ones? Because only then will we see more economic success founded on employee wellbeing, which will help to tackle mental health issues properly. 

I’d be interested to have some answers to these questions.

Jacinda Ardern, elephants and empathy

The world is rightly mightily impressed with the way Jacinda Ardern has navigated New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch terror attack with empathy, strength and focus.

Many column inches in business media in 2019 so far has been taken up with companies’ responses to the gender-pay gap saga. The recent Economist article on the progress of women in the workplace says the dial has not moved much in recent years in terms of breaking the glass ceiling. It has been recognised that looking at stats around pay gaps can be misleading in terms of understanding whether companies are doing enough to encourage women to take up senior positions.

More insightful than the pay gaps may be to understand better the experience of women in senior positions, and the teams they lead. RiddleBox’s RBX Index measures the experience of a leader’s team (to produce a score out of 100), and compares it to a self-assessment performed by the leader themselves. Recent data shows that female managers score themselves weaker than male counterparts, but their teams see them stronger:


We are in an age where soft skills and collaboration are the bedrocks of the economy. This needs more brain power than muscle power. Many people will have read Yuval Noah Harai’s bestseller Sapiens. In it he discusses how many of the most intelligent animal species - elephants, bonobos, killer whales, honey bees and lions - thrive in matriarchal communities where the female influences ensure security from tempestuous males and prosperity for the community as a whole.

The reference to Jacinda Ardern’s display of empathy is relevant because RiddleBox’s same recent data set exposes the fact that empathy is by far the most lacking construct among the core tenets of the employee experience, as scored by employees themselves:


Could a male leader have behaved like the New Zealand prime minister? Of course. Do many female leaders lack empathy? Of course. So rather than focus on who is filling what role and what they are being paid, let’s learn more from nature and from shining leadership examples in the news to bring more empathy back to work.

In a perverse way, the leader response to a terror attack lends itself to being empathetic. Most people might feel that day-to-day scenarios in business to do not lend themselves to focusing on feelings and emotions. We would disagree – this focus is needed more than ever. At RiddleBox we see a strong correlation between weak self-confidence in male and female managers and poor empathy scores. Psychology teaches that one can only be truly empathetic to the extent that one appreciates themselves first – and it is here that companies need to do more by giving their managers the right support and instilling in them the confidence to behave naturally (i.e. as a human being).

Anne Benischek is a friend of RiddleBox and is familiar with leading teams in a male dominated environment. Currently at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, she corroborates our message:

“At an individual level, becoming more self-aware and being more empathetic towards oneself has been shown to help people become more open-minded and psychologically flexible. Research suggest that this is at the heart of what makes people in today’s workplaces do well, and stay well. And just as Jacinda Ardern demonstrated so beautifully, this level of self-awareness and compassion (towards oneself and other people) is what allows her to effectively and sustainably relate to, collaborate with, and inspire other people.”  

To finish, based on the actions of our program participants,  here are top 3 popular empathy enhancers for the workplace:

  1. Taking 5 minutes at the start of a team meeting or 1-2-1 to “check in” about people’s health, family and anything that might be preventing them from being “present”.

  2. Introducing rewards that include an employee’s partner or family such as hotel or restaurant vouchers

  3. Promoting more face to face interactions in the office (not Skype/Slack/Email). When meeting someone face to face, keep all devices off the table. Give each other full attention.


The RBX Index Blog: February 2019

The RBX Index data collected in the last 3 months show service sectors scoring poorly because of poor trust levels.  In the cases where trust scores were higher, it is empathy - or the lack of it – which tends to be responsible for restricting overall scores.   

Companies that operate in every sector are well established brands and have been around for quite sometime. When it comes to customer experience, customers trust these brands and their ability to deliver.  

However, when it comes to employee experience, the brand image has no impact on trust levels and it directly is a result of the leader or manager who manages that team or individuals. When we look at healthcare in particular, the trust score is low - be it NHS or a private hospital.  

It would be natural to presume that patients would trust hospitals to treat them with care and sort their ailments with minimal disruption. However, looking at the comments and how that is impacting health care professionals there are a few themes that seem to be emerging.  

1. The proliferation of no-win no fee lawyers advertising seems to have an impact on patient expectations as patients seem to be less tolerant and seek guarantees about the procedure.  

2. When cash is tight and Brexit uncertainty looms over the horizon, people expect more value. These coupled with readily available information via Google has widened the trust gap between the providers and patients.  

Experience of healthcare workers has also been impacted significantly and the reasons they cite is the increase in the volume of paperwork, processes etc to avoid getting sued. This in turn has created a toxic culture and has impacted well being of health care workers.  

Another significant trend we observed was that leaders who were constantly achieving their goals and moving the organisation were extremely self-critical. When we spoke with them to understand why that was the case, they almost invariably suggested that it helps them constantly improve and look for newer and better ways to enhance the experience they create to their teams.  

And we also observed that women leaders/ managers were more self-aware and were more critical of themselves. They were not sure of their abilities whilst they were in fact more than ready to take on bigger and better challenges. Male leaders and managers on the other hand were less critical of themselves and in many cases overrated their ability to create and provide superior experiences for their team members. It demonstrates that organisations need to do more to encourage more women leaders come on board. 

RiddleBox’s RBX Index measures the experience leaders create for their teams. Using the Index develops managers into leaders who care, creating an inspiring, safe and fulfilling working environment. To find out more about RiddleBox, explore the rest of our site.