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Mental Health Leadership: The tone from the top is critical

Mental Health Leadership: The tone from the top is critical
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Kevin Hogarth, Chief People Officer at KPMG UK, shares how business leaders can build a mentally healthy culture.

There are very few good things to have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, but one aspect I am encouraged by is the increased openness and discussion of mental health and its impact.

From the relentless monotony of home working and days spent on never-ending virtual meetings, to the added anxiety around the health and well-being of loved ones, it is clear that the pandemic has had very real mental health consequences for all of us.


I am immensely proud of the support our firm has provided its people with during this incredibly challenging and uncertain period. We won’t have got it right on every occasion but our leaders – be it our Leadership, Partners, Director or Managers – have remained committed to the health and well-being of their teams throughout.


Our firm offers a wide variety of support services, including counselling through our Employee Assistance Programme, Occupational Health services and Employee Networks, to name just a few. Beyond that though, what people really need when they are experiencing mental health issues is to know that they have the support of their immediate manager.


Everyone is different, of course. For some, issues are quickly apparent and evident to those they work with. Others however, may mask their illness being reluctant to discuss it openly. It is vital therefore, for managers to create an environment where people are comfortable and able discuss any mental health issues they have or are experiencing.


Through our masterclasses and training sessions we aim to support and educate our team leaders. We recognise that the pastoral aspect of leading a team has been elevated significantly during the pandemic. The information resources and training we provide are designed to increase the confidence of our team leaders, so they can have conversations about health, well-being and any mental health issues, including where to find help in the more serious cases. We don’t expect team leaders to become medical experts. We want them to be able to recognise typical symptoms, know how to engage in a discussion and be able to direct an individual to the right resources for further support.


The tone from the top is critical in giving people permission to spend time on these discussions. At the height of the pandemic, there was rarely a meeting I attended where the well-being of our people and the support we are offering wasn’t the order of the day. All our leadership communications referred to the importance of keeping our people safe and healthy.

Our team leaders have been actively encouraged to engage with everyone in their teams, having regular conversations about how they are – asking explicitly about their well-being. Similarly, our formal performance reviews were structured to start with a conversation about well-being, to allow any issues that might have affected performance to be aired openly. This commitment to the well-being of our people has been noticed, with many long serving ‘KPMG-ers’ telling me about the refreshingly open culture we have been progressively developing as a result.


In recent years - thanks to the pandemic - there are many more colleagues who are willing to share their stories with others and opening up the conversation. Those who do are wonderful examples of ‘Courage’ – one of our firm’ five values. It’s this bravery that paves the way for others to follow and bit by bit we build greater understanding and acceptance of mental health issues in all its guises.