Five minutes with…Rob Stephenson, CEO of InsideOut

1st April 2020

At the start of March we partnered with mental health consultants, InsideOut and DLA Piper’s employment law team to launch our well-being survey.  The survey seeks to explore employees view of well-being and mental health when making career choices. In the latest edition of our ‘Five minutes with…’ series Tahira Raja, Associate Partner at Berwick Partners, talks to Rob Stephenson, CEO of InsideOut to find out why he set up InsideOut, the importance of well-being in an uncertain and turbulent global climate, as well as why he wanted to be involved in our well-being project.

Rob Stephenson is an international keynote speaker. He is a campaigner and a consultant who is on a mission to create happier, healthier and higher performing workplaces. He is the founder of InsideOut, a Social Enterprise. Its mission is to smash the stigma of mental ill-health in the workplace and by promoting best practice in relation to managing mental well-being.

Rob, you had a long and successful career in recruitment before you launched InsideOut. What was the motivation behind launching this initiative?

It was a personal mission. I experience bipolar disorder, I was diagnosed at age 30, only my close family and friends knew. In 2017 the world started to change, the Royal Princes William and Harry, told their story of seeing a therapist following the death of their mother. Following that, I decided to tell my story in a Facebook post, and it was the reaction to this post which changed my direction. Many people told me their own experiences and I decided I needed to do something about this. I met many stakeholders and asked how I could contribute. I heard the same message; not enough senior leaders from workplaces are open about their mental health challenges or share their stories. I thought I could use my executive search skillset to establish a network called the ‘InsideOut LeaderBoard’ – a published list of senior role models who would share their personal experiences of mental health challenges.

How are you working with companies to combat the stigma around mental ill-health in the workplace?

There are several ways I work with organisations. Firstly, with senior leaders, I work to include them in the LeaderBoard. When senior leaders share their stories, it accelerates the process of cultural change in organisations. It allows people to put their hands up and say they are struggling with mental health.

Secondly, I deliver a number of keynote talks. Albeit remotely now, given the current challenges surrounding COVID-19. I hold workshops and panel discussions at a leadership and companywide level. We discuss why we should invest in mental health and well-being as a strategic priority both as individuals and as an organisation.

Finally, I have an initiative called the ‘InsideOut Leadership Charter’. These are a set of principles which leaders and organisations can sign up to. They are based on a Stevenson-Farmer Core and Enhanced Standards which I believe, if implemented, will accelerate change.

Ultimately, I aim to influence organisations to appoint a board level sponsor for mental health. This individual will include mental health and well-being on board agendas bi-annually, reporting on the impact of their mental health and well-being initiatives.

You kindly agreed to partner with us on our Well-being and Mental Health Project, why is the project so important to you?

Your project of collecting data on attitudes to mental health in the workplace are extremely important.  There is not enough data around people’s attitudes around some of the issues you have asked in the survey; the provision of well-being initiatives, what is really driving mental health and well-being?  We need more data. We have some data coming from reports like the ‘Business and Community Report’, but I think this is a really interesting project particularly in respect to some of the recruitment issues as well.

Well-being and mental health are firmly creeping up employer’s agendas. What are the trends you are seeing from corporations around well-being?

Well-being and mental health are increasingly high on the agenda. Most employers are somewhere on the journey of improving the provision of mental health and well-being policies within their organisation. Some organisations treat it as a strategic priority with proper investment in dedicated ’heads of well-being’ as a role. Budgets are given to employees to prioritise well-being and focus on the promotion of positive well-being, as opposed to just supporting people when they are in distress or are struggling. Elsewhere, I see organisations just ticking the box because they feel they need to do the bare minimum. Generally, I feel we are in between these two views. The trend I am seeing is organisations starting to understand there is a real business case, as well as a moral case, for investing proactively in the mental health and well-being of employees.

Right now, many of us are being asked to work from our homes, social interactions have been reduced and we are increasingly looking to our leaders and experts for guidance. What can we be doing as individuals and collectively as organisations, to ensure we maintain our well-being and positive mental health?

We are living in a unique situation which can impact the mental health and well-being of employees. General levels of anxiety exist in our communities and our homes as a result of the immense uncertainty people are faced with around COVID-19. Even people who have good mental health will start to experience some of the symptoms of fear and anxiety. When this is combined with social distancing and the removal of the workplace daily support network this is exacerbated.  People are being isolated at a time when there are rising levels of anxiety, the feelings of loneliness and isolation can be akin to some of the symptoms of depression. Some people are going to experience mental health challenges for the first time. If you have never had a mental health challenge before, it can feel overwhelming and all consuming.

What can we do as both individuals and as organisations?

At an organisation level the first priority is leadership communication. People are expecting honest, authentic and vulnerable communication. The CEO of Marriot Hotels posted a very open and frank video to his people – a good example of how leaders can communicate.

Priority number two is reaching people on a well-being and mental health agenda even more so, as the challenges increase. Organisations must find new ways to deliver content, support and care for employees at a point when they are not in the office. The use of technology is important in communication. A platform like the ‘Big White Wall’ might be useful – it’s a scalable peer support system moderated by clinical experts. It is something which any size business can utilise. It is the job of the HR Director or the Wellness lead to deliver different types of content to the people.

There is also a piece around creating the face-to-face conversations where employees can put their hand up and say they are struggling. Senior leadership and line managers must set the tone and check in with people. Asking people how they are feeling, sharing their own vulnerability, so everyone feels that they can put their hand up and say they are struggling.

Providing a clear place where information is made available and where people can find out what support is in place is important. From Employee Assistance Programme schemes, the current benefits in place to what benefits can be bought in if the benefits provision isn’t adequate.

At an individual level, we have an opportunity to really focus on some of the pillars of well-being; sleep, exercise, social connections, management of stress, nutrition, sense of purpose and financial wellbeing. Social connections will obviously suffer so we need to look at how to maintain and make new connections with people at a time when we can’t do it physically. We can set a goal, such as making a new connection over a call or video chat or maintaining an existing connection by checking in on a friend or a relative you haven’t spoken to for a while. These can all give a good boost.

Having structure in our working days in terms of start and finish times and making sure we move every hour just to keep the blood flowing always helps. Many people also have their  children at home. This is also an opportunity. Alongside my wife, I have worked hard to ensure the children know what is happening each hour of the day, whether it is creative, academic or outside time. I know when I am delivering any of those hours. This puts in place boundaries between my work and home responsibilities. It is important to do this, otherwise we can feel guilty we are not doing the right things.

Putting structure in place, eating nutritious food, not resorting to sugar and sweet things, balancing energy levels are all important things.

Thank you Rob. Stay well in these surreal times and thank you for your wise words!

Click here to take part in the survey.