The Covid pandemic has brought staff wellbeing into focus to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a year ago, with more than 90 per cent of UK employers surveyed recently by Aon citing mental health initiatives as a top priority amid the continuing health crisis.
Widespread recognition of the steadfast link between a resilient workforce and profitability has been long overdue in UK plc, so in that sense it’s great to see this shift, even though it has taken a catastrophe to bring it about. But one of the barriers to meaningful change on attitudes towards mental health issues – the failure of top executives to lead by example – continues to persist.
Another survey at the end of last year by Bupa found that more than a third of business leaders in the UK have turned to alcohol or drugs to deal with mental distress during the pandemic, with the vast majority admitting they self-medicate because they can’t talk to anybody about their concerns. If those at the top feel constrained by the taboos around mental health, what chance is there for those further down the pecking order?
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A notable recent exception is Tom Blomfield, the former chief executive of digital bank Monzo, who parted ways earlier this month with the business he founded in 2015.
Admitting in an interview with TechCrunch that he had stopped enjoying his role about two years ago as the business evolved from “scrappy start-up” to serving millions of customers, it would have been easy for Mr Blomfield to camouflage his decision as a lack of passion for running a larger business. Instead, he chose to speak openly about his personal concerns, revealing that living through lockdown and the “isolation involved” had caused his mental health to suffer.
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As a result, he has been widely and rightly praised for helping to dismantle the notion that leaders must project a bulletproof image, particularly in these stressful times.
Those in senior roles have a lot of responsibilities resting on their shoulders, with many in the position of making tough calls on furlough and redundancy during the pandemic. At Monzo, Mr Blomfield was forced to cut 120 jobs in June of last year, which no doubt added to his stress levels.
Such choices are never taken lightly, and inevitably have a toll on those who must make them. Leaders are paid to make tough decisions, but that is no reason to overlook the stresses and anxieties they face.