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This Can Happen speaker Paul Feeney's proactive stance on mental health in the workplace

This Can Happen is dedicated to improving mental health in the workplace and we’re on a mission to find out what businesses around the UK are doing to achieve this. We put some questions to Quilter CEO and confirmed This Can Happen '19 speaker Paul Feeney about his company's exemplary commitment to employee wellbeing. Quilter is a leading provider of advice, investments and wealth management in the UK and internationally.

Q. Why is workplace mental health so important to you as a business leader and CEO?
A. Five years before Quilter was listed, we imagined what we could be in our organisation. We wanted to be a wealth manager for people who needed help. But that alone won’t set us apart. We also had to imagine who we want to be – and that comes down to creating the environment where our people can thrive – to allow them to be at their best and to fulfil their potential. 

This is very much about creating the right kind of open and supportive culture. So we created our Thrive initiative, which is about supporting and enhancing the wellbeing of our people. We want to help them to be healthy, in their physical, social, financial, emotional and mental wellbeing. We provide information, services and tools to employees to enhance their awareness and personal well-being and mental health. We also have a network of Thrive Ambassadors operating across the business.

It was important for me to lead this issue, not only because it is personal to me, but also to demonstrate to people that it is ok to have these conversations. For many years I wasn’t able to talk in certain organisations I’ve worked in about my own mental health issues. Not because I felt they were uncaring, I just felt they wouldn’t understand it.  I don’t want that in my own organization; I want us to really be a place where our people feel that it is a safe and supportive culture.

Q. What do you think are the big issues in workplace mental health?
A. I've been in the City now for 30 years and I believe mental health is the City’s last great taboo.

Across the City I believe that employees still fear if they talk about their mental health then their boss will think that they are somehow damaged goods. Some may even fear losing their job. The stigma around mental health in big business is symptomatic of a macho culture where ignorance and bias still exist and although it is changing to some degree, it has to change more quickly.

Mental health difficulties are often related to workload, work-related stress and can be the product of a success-at-all-costs philosophy. But a culture of cut-throat competitiveness that views burnout as a benchmark of dedication is unsustainable and unacceptable. 

A workplace culture that pressures employees to hide mental health issues is toxic and has potential to do enormous damage not just to those employees but to the business itself. I have been lucky to work in high performance teams, full of highly intelligent people. They are driven and competitive, but the best performing teams I’ve worked in have also been open and supportive.

Q. Why do you think some companies are still unsure about addressing mental health in their place of work?
A. Put simply – it’s difficult. Culture change is not easy and the tendency of business leaders not to talk about the issue of mental health is clear. So while we refer to this as the ‘soft’ aspect of business, it is in fact very hard.

However, I believe that for businesses to flourish you have to let people know that it is ok to not be ok, and that admitting you need support won’t be held against you.

Fortunately, we are starting to see the change in attitudes as campaigners have begun discussing mental health issues in a curative and non-stigmatising light. Events like This Can Happen and Mental Health Awareness Week play a significant role in a world that is increasingly opening up to mental health issues.

Q. What strengths have you seen in your organisation since having an open workplace culture?
A. The response we have had has been tremendous – I’ve had more feedback from people on this than anything else we have done before. Some of my most accomplished managers have come forward about the issues they're dealing with and we have seen numerous colleagues creating their own ‘This is me’ videos, talking openly about their own issues.

The conversations at our senior leader gatherings are becoming noticeably more open and that can only serve to ensure we are calling out any issues within the business and tackling them. We are a business that has grown quickly and we need our culture to support our employees to come together and collaborate. I want our culture to facilitate social interaction and open communication, and that is happening more and more.

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This Can Happen plays a crucial role in bringing together businesses from different sectors to share best practice. It’s an inspirational event full of progressive thinking and practical case studies on all aspects of mental health.

Tim Skelter, Corporate Affairs, Quilter