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Friends Life and Chris Boardman – getting businesses to speak up, and act, on mental health

17 October 2014
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We had been working with Friends Life indirectly for the past two years in their capacity as a leading member of the Business in the Community (BITC) Workwell programme (see more on our work with BITC in this blog). Building on the huge success of launching BITC’s mental health campaign in April, which called for an end to the culture of silence around mental health in the workplace, Friends Life recently tasked us with helping them to drive the agenda further forward.

The resulting event, ‘Mental Health: Leading from the Boardroom’, took place on 7th October 2014, a few days ahead of World Mental Health Day. Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman MBE joined a distinguished panel and the event generated almost 60 pieces of media coverage – including BBC Radio 4, The Guardian and Metro – reaching almost 12 million people.

For a small project, we are delighted with the results. We advised on strategy, messaging and media relations for the event, coordinating research amongst employees and using this to leverage media interest. In developing our research, we worked with mental health charity Mind to ensure we explored issues that would meaningfully contribute to the dialogue in the eyes of key stakeholders and that would grab journalists’ attention.

Our work with BITC had already identified that businesses are losing £26bn a year by ignoring mental health issues; through absence, presenteeism and lack of productivity. Our new research with Friends Life identified how deeply these issues are affecting workers:

  • 10m UK employees have experienced stress, anxiety or depression in the past year and not told their employer
  • Over half of all workers believe being open about a common mental health problem would damage their career prospects
  • More than 7m employees have taken a sick day saying it was for a physical problem when it was actually because of a mental health issue

Chris Boardman told the audience that how you manage pressure and stress in the sporting world marked if you succeed or fail. So why should it be any different in business?

As well as flagging these issues, the event also provided free tools that Friends Life had produced, and proposed simple steps that every business can make to address mental wellbeing (see this blog providing practical tips from Friends Life group chief executive Andy Briggs). One of the most powerful aspects was hearing from an employee, who had herself experienced difficulties, about how her line manager had been invaluable in helping her to overcome the struggles and get back to work

The event represented a bold step for any business, to tackle the culture of silence so emphatically, and it has been received extremely well by Friend’s Life’s key audiences. It is planning on building on this success and more leading businesses are now speaking with Friends Life and BITC about how they can develop their own visible commitment to this agenda. Businesses that take a progressive, responsible approach to employee engagement and wellbeing – like Friends Life – benefit from substantial reputational gains.

The event also demonstrates the growing commitment and expertise of Forster Communications around mental health, having also previously worked with Time to Change and Mind Out for Mental Health.

If you want to develop your business’ approach to mental wellbeing or workplace engagement or you simply want to build a more meaningful dialogue with your employees, stakeholders and customers around your social purpose, please get in touch.