Eradicating exclusive cultures when it comes to mental health - NABS
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Eradicating exclusive cultures when it comes to mental health

by Sue Todds, NABS CEO

When I first started in our industry nearly 25 years ago, I knew of at least one manager whose mantra was as explicit and excluding as ‘fit in or @#!$ off’. That was kind of the point.

There was a way of doing things and it was important that people knew this to ensure there was no misunderstanding or time wasted on trying to do things another way (or with the wrong people). It was a gang. There were rules. Certain types of people suited the environment. And it wasn’t up for debate.

Although I don’t think these managers intended to run teams that were closed to certain groups, the very fact the norms were created and supported by the individuals or groups who were the most represented, did, I strongly suspect, mean that less represented groups knew that this wasn’t a team for them.

It was the opposite of diversity. Uniformity. Conformity. God, it sounds so hideous now, but clubs of like-minded people were comforting and easy and, let’s be honest, in some sections of society, are still very popular.

I didn’t think at the time about how this sort of proclamation must have made lots of people feel. From my position of privilege, I sensed some of these teams or cultures weren’t for me but hey, no biggie as, overall, I had plenty of places where I felt included and welcomed. I can’t believe I had such a narrow perspective.

On World Mental Health Day

We’ve come a long way since then, thankfully, but Global World Mental Health Day is a perfect time to ask ourselves, as leaders and potential allies, critically and honestly:

Have we fully grasped how a lack of inclusion feels for individuals? Can we question whether we’re doing enough to re-educate ourselves, and eradicate exclusive cultures?

This year’s theme ‘make mental health and well-being for all a global priority’, is a statement with inclusion at its heart. A clarion call for mental health irrespective of location or background.

The link between positive mental health and inclusion has become clearer to see and more urgent to address in the past few years. Marginalised groups have felt more empowered to speak up about how their well-being has been affected by years of exclusion and discrimination. NABS’ recent research ‘Diversity in Focus‘ makes clear how a lack of belonging in our industry can have terrible effects on well-being and mental health.

We gathered heart-breaking stories of solitude and weariness. Stories of people not filling their potential, but instead being consumed by anxiety, and others that spoke about changing aspects of their personalities, just to fit in. Some ‘covered’ themselves while battling microaggressions daily. The exhaustion of this is palpable.

What can we do to help

Varied support and changes are available and much needed, like one-to-one individual mental health advice, access to both central (at work) and independent (outside of one’s employer) sources of information, representation, relatable line managers, and access to relevant mentors.

We also need to be flexible and agile in our approach as our ways of working collectively evolve. Recent reports suggest that those from marginalised groups are often happier working from home, where they have fewer microaggressions to contend with. We know that life’s unpredictable challenges can have a significant effect on anyone’s mental health but creating a more inclusive culture at work is within our gift to fix.

Managers must lead with empathy

A key element in creating safety and community at work is, of course, management. Trust and empathy are vital to inclusion and mental health. Let’s be honest, not everybody has the same innate ability to engender trust, or to lead with empathy. But these qualities can be taught and mastered. We developed our new learning programme in inclusive leadership in direct response to this need. The days of one size fits all management have long gone, happy to be replaced by a genuine focus on tailored guidance with mental health at its heart.

I have reflected over the past few years about whether without ever saying ‘fit in or *@?* off’ I had supported an attitude or ways of doing things that excluded certain people?

I’m ashamed to say that I have. Pace, pressure, and pitches can all mean that doing the right thing can be forgotten, but in truth, this is when it’s needed the most. Like all behaviour that I’ve looked to change, I had to be more mindful and deliberate. Have clear intentions around the times and places where old habits can re-emerge. Read, listen, pause to think rather than just always act and most importantly have friends and colleagues who will hold me to account if I drop below the standards I am setting. I have to do the work.

We have some pretty strong economic headwinds circling us all right now and uncertainty is prevalent. Pressure and harder times often mean a return to old default behaviour. But we need to push on. With energy. With urgency. Social changes hit media and advertising first and we’re more than capable of collectively modelling the right way forward.

Leadership is, of course, about taking personal responsibility for our actions and impact. However, the vision of a more inclusive and successful future for our sector is one that we need to move on together. Everyone’s individual challenges are different. But it’s our ability to respond collectively that will drive the change we all want to see and create greater mental wellness for everyone.

This was originally published in Campaign.

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