As a research lifer I love data; I love how a single figure, skilfully derived can tell a whole story: “66 per cent of those teaching computing in school would rather be teaching something else” tells us so much about why girls don’t want to study it. But some figures – even if they are right - hide the truth. Take the prevalence of mental health conditions ….
Back in 2001, the World Health Organisation reported that 450 million currently suffer from mental health disorders, around 1 in 4 in a lifetime
1 in 6 (17%) in the week prior to being interviewed was cited by the Mental Health Foundation in 2016 for the UK
1 in 4 is the figure you often see in the media; and was the figure found in a survey for the BBC also in 2016
If I apply those figures to our own team of 260 researchers then around 50 of us will experience mental ill health. But I don’t think that tells anything like the real story.
While 1 in 4 (or 1 in 6) might experience mental ill health, all of us are at risk – ok, some more than others because of where they live (areas of conflict or natural disaster), those who are LGBTQ, people who have experienced trauma or have a family history that makes them more vulnerable. But I have seen it impact the strongest, most resilient of people - caught unprepared at the wrong time by the unexpected.
And that ‘1’ doesn’t exist in isolation. Take my own situation; my younger daughter experienced a form of OCD - ‘Pure O’ - in her teens. The pain of not being able to help your child or ‘kiss it better’ was agony for us as parents. That’s three of us before we start to think about how it rippled out. Every ‘1’ has a colleague, a friend, a parent, a partner, a child, a sister, a brother.
Sometimes poor mental health is triggered by something that’s going on at home, sometimes it’s pressure at work, often it’s when the two collide. Research shows us how reluctant people are to talk about their mental state at work. Fear plays a large part in that: fear of what others will think, of being perceived as weak, that by talking out loud you can no longer pretend it’s not happening (or not serious), of not being given the chance to work on a great project, of not being promoted – even of losing your job. Fear stops people seeking help until it’s too late and they reach crisis point, often resulting in a longer path to recovery. Close colleagues worry that they should have spotted signs and intervened. Managers question how they could have missed it and whether they unwittingly contributed by adding another deadline. Virtual managers feel helpless – how could they ‘see’ a problem over the phone? And team mates step in to pick up the work that was abandoned. Adding to their own pressures.
And there are sometimes signs at work that we miss (or misinterpret); a change in the individual’s performance, energy or presence in the team are perhaps the most common. But I have come to understand that while raising awareness of the warning signs is important, the critical step is to make it safe for people to tell us what’s going on and to create an environment where people can be confident that an open conversation will result in support, empathy, guidance to the best sources of professional help and practical, sensitive interventions that will help the individual manage their situation. It’s creating a culture where people can be themselves at work and where we respect each person’s whole life (not just the bit we see in the office) that is the most important thing leaders can do.
I believe the power of our global team will be to provide a safe place to talk about mental health (or being gay or transgender or dyslexic or having a physical disability) regardless of the local taboos. Our CEO Pierre Nanterme aspires to make Accenture the most inclusive and diverse organization in the world by 2020. And I’m proud that Accenture Research can help make his vision a reality.