Poorna Bell Tackles Workplace Mental Health

Award-winning journalist and author Poorna Bell was one of the first speakers confirmed for This Can Happen. As former UK Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head for HuffPost she has written extensively about mental wellbeing in the workplace and is a mental health activist. Her area of specialism is the mental health of men and she has started running workshops called FML: Fix My Life. Poorna spoke to us about her involvement in our event.

Q. What appealed to you about joining the speaking roster of This Can Happen?

A. I felt that what TCH was trying to achieve - creating a bold conversation around mental health in the workplace - was much needed. Despite the conversations we're having around mental health generally, there is still so much that needs to be done in terms of preparing workplaces to deal with mental health issues better, but also understanding the huge role that people and organisations can play in prevention. We are really behind where we need to be, and I hope this event contributes towards getting us closer to that goal.

Q. Have your own experiences of mental health challenges impacted the course of your career or the way you work?

A. I haven't suffered from mental health issues as a result of illness, but as a result of bereavement - my husband passed away three years ago. I was extremely lucky to have a workplace that understood and supported me, but it was clear that outside of where I worked, not everyone else was as lucky. It also struck me that despite being someone who had witnessed first-hand how mental illness can impact a person - my late husband struggled with chronic depression and addiction issues - there was still so much I needed to learn about how to handle people struggling with their mental health in the workplace. Overall, it has taught me how to be more empathetic and to look beneath the surface of what might be going on with a person. That has led to asking more questions that I may not have done, had I not been operating from a place of experience.

Q. What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing workers with mental health issues?

A. I think the biggest challenge is not feeling able to signal to their workplace when they are ill, and being able to communicate that effectively and feeling they will be met with understanding. A lot of people don't feel they can do that, and so try and manage their illness and their workload, which may impact how they are perceived at work, whether that is taking a lot of time off work, or inconsistencies in work. It is incredibly hard for someone to work effectively while ill, and if managers knew what was going on, they could make allowances and incorporate more flexible working. But it's a catch 22 that hinders workers because they don't feel comfortable coming forward in the first place. So we have to change that culture. I think the other thing is that managers just don't know how to handle a situation when it arises, and that signals an urgent need for training around such things.

Q. Do you feel that UK businesses are doing enough to combat mental health problems within their workforce?

A. I don't think they are. I think some companies are better than others, but it takes more than just putting on mental health talks at work. It has to be an integrated approach so making sure that new line managers for instance, understand how to deal with mental health in the work place as well as understanding how the printer works. In the same way that we have running clubs or people going to the pub after work, every company needs to ask what they are doing around mental health. If the answer is nothing, then that needs to be remedied quickly. Wellbeing often falls by the wayside when companies are struggling to hit profits and so on, but actually that's when you need to double down on wellbeing because it means people will be more productive.

Q. How do you feel you can help businesses prioritise this critical issue?

A. I've started running workshops called FML: Fix My Life, which as well as looking at handling BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities in the workplace - also cuts across mental wellbeing as a whole. The idea is to get companies thinking, opening up conversations and creating grassroots movements within teams to get them to look out for each other, as well as under-pinning that with support from senior management and HR. Stress costs our economy billions. It is completely preventable and the fact that these figures rise every year - whether it's absenteeism or people suffering from stress - shows we must work harder to address it.  

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This Can Happen was a game changer for me. I left feeling inspired and energised, armed with practical advice and best-in-class case studies about how to create mentally healthy workplaces.

Nick Jemetta, Chair – Mental Health & Wellbeing Group, Sainsburys