“I felt I had to work harder than everybody else because I was a female senior executive, with children and a commute. I had to be available at all times; that was my brand,” says Vanessa Bailey, Group Chief Credit Officer at RBS.  
Last year, Vanessa was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), a chronic, fluctuating, neurological condition that causes severe and persistent fatigue. It affects an estimated 250,000 people in the UK and around 17 million people worldwide.
Before her diagnosis, Vanessa was working evenings, weekends and even during her holidays. She believed that’s what her role demanded. “That type of set-up does not allow the brain to switch off; it’s part of the problem. It’s the pace of work and the fact there is no let up,” she explains. 
It never allowed Vanessa time to recover, and after a bout of illnesses, she was diagnosed with ME. She had to take a year off work, but is now back working part-time and is passionate about wellbeing in the workplace. 
“For a long while, I didn’t want to tell people what was wrong with me,” Vanessa admits. “But that’s no longer the case – if we’re all ashamed, mental and physical illnesses will never get the attention they need. 
“I have a town hall for my department coming up and I am going to get a specialist to talk to them about wellbeing. I want my leadership − when they are having their one-to-ones and team meetings − to be trained to identify those who are struggling, as well as some of the management techniques that can be put in place.” 
Technology – a blessing and a curse 
Digital technology is both an enabler and a burden for employees. While remote working can improve the work/life balance, it also means you’re contactable around the clock. 

A report, by The Mental Health Foundation, Oxford Economics and Unum, identified that 73 per cent of workers feel they are expected to be available for work at all times.
In a separate report, by the CIPD and Simplyhealth, nearly a third of organisations reported an increase in stress-related absence over the past year, while two-fifths saw a rise in mental health problems – it’s believed both were linked to a ‘long hours’ culture. 
With this in mind, there has been an interesting development in France. From the beginning of 2017, an employment law came into force that requires organisations with more than 50 employees to designate time to ‘switch off’ work-related communication, such as emails. 
So far, regulatory bodies in other countries have not taken up the idea, but various organisations are looking to adopt similar measures. Barbara Harvey, Mental Health Executive Sponsor at Accenture Research notes that Mind, the mental health charity in the UK, already has a policy on this.  

However, many feel that the employer and employee should reach a balance without a formal mandate and that relying on legislation shows a failure in leadership. “I would struggle to balance my life if there was a limit on when I could use technology. Actually, I think one of the things that has helped me as a Managing Director with two kids is the flexibility I’ve had,” Barbara adds. “It’s got to be something you manage and take control of – don’t let it control you.” 
Vanessa agrees: “The individual has a responsibility to push back, while leaders have a duty to appreciate that and recognise warning signs.”
The onus is on senior executives to lead by example. Kris Webb, Senior Vice President of HR for Global Pharma at GlaxoSmithKline, comments: “You need to tell people you want them to be happy, healthy and productive; outline the elements required of their role and give them the flexibility to manage their work and life in a way that suits them.
“People will often see me leave the office at 4:30pm. They’re not here when I arrive at 7am, but I’m okay with saying that I’m going home to have dinner with my kids, knowing that I can work later in the evening if I need to.” 
Senior executives also have a duty of care to recognise if peers or employees are working excessively, or if a change in behaviour is a cause for concern. “If I look at some of the big projects we’re working on – which include having to work long hours, six days a week, including public holidays – I need to make sure there are enough people on shift patterns to give everyone time out,” says Steven Cooper, CEO for Barclaycard Business Solutions at Barclays. 
“We’ve done a lot of work around being mindful of behaviour and looking for warning signs. If you don’t have a reputation for doing that, frankly you won’t attract or retain good people.” 
Steven does this by talking to people at all levels in the business to understand how they’re feeling. He also looks at data, such as employee surveys and email patterns to see if he can uncover a resource issue or determine if there was a crisis. 
You’re not alone  
Wellbeing training and internal programmes are crucial. However, Unum’s report found that only 10 per cent of managers felt they received sufficient training on mental health problems at work. 
“Organisations need adequate education and support mechanisms in place,” says Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director at Criticaleye. “It needs to be made clear that it’s okay to speak out and seek help when you’re struggling, in life or at work. Whether it’s a mental or physical illness taking its toll on an individual, these are sensitive issues; leaders and line managers need guidance.” 
A good example of such is Accenture’s mental health awareness programme. Over 1,000 ‘Mental Health Allies’ – that’s around 10 percent of the organisation from the most junior employees to managing directors – have been trained to raise awareness and recognise a change in colleagues’ behaviour. 
Barbara explains: “Our programme makes sure everyone knows that it’s okay to talk about mental health issues and where to go for help, both for themselves or a colleague. Our allies help us get messages out and direct people to our wide range of tools, advice and support."
E.ON UK has introduced similar initiatives, in part because the HR team recognised a poor attendance rate in contact centres. Dave Newborough, HR Director at the company, explains: “We know through our absence data that mental health is a business challenge.”
Two programmes have been launched − ‘Being Well, Being Here’ combats sick leave and has reduced that number close to five per cent. The other, called ‘It’s Good to Talk’, is dedicated specifically to mental health.
“One of the things we’re particularly proud of is our mental health initiative… This has created the space for leaders to talk with our colleagues. You need to have an open environment and remove stigma,” Dave says. “We’ve spent a lot of managerial and organisational time alongside mental health awareness groups and introduced preventative and supportive mechanisms. There’s always much more we can do.”
More businesses need to follow suit and ensure employees can balance work and life, and speak out about their wellbeing. After all, no one is invincible – not even leaders. 

By Dawn Murden, Editor, Advisory 

This week, from 8-14 May it's Mental Health Awareness Week. Get involved here

Accenture's Barbara Harvey is speaking at an upcoming Criticaleye event on mental health in the workplace. Find out more

By Dawn Murden, Editor, Advisory