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20th May, 2020 Heather Kelly

Exclusive Interview - Professor Dame Carol Black DBE, FRCP, FMEDSCI Expert Adviser on Health and Work to NHS Improvement and Public Health England and Chair, Ageing Better

It’s fair to say that Dame Carol Black’s work has helped lay the foundation for the powerful movement in workplace mental health growing rapidly across the UK today and gaining momentum globally. Dame Carol shared her thoughts on what we can learn from the crisis, how workplaces and society can nurture more kindness, and her advice on how to stay resilient through these times: welcome wisdom from someone who’s thrived on the other side of past national and global crises.

In her 2008 review Working for a Healthier Tomorrow she wrote: “Mental health conditions are an important cause of absence, both work-related and non-work-related, and of worklessness due to ill-health.   There is also evidence to suggest that they are one of the main causes of lower productivity due to illness while in work.”

Part of the problem lies with the stigma and discrimination attached to mental health conditions.   Many people go to great lengths to prevent colleagues and managers from knowing that they are unwell.   Moreover, the managers are often ill-equipped to recognise early signs of mental illness.

A pioneering physician; government advisor on the relationship between work and health; former Principal of Newnham College in the University of Cambridge; and past President of the Royal College of Physicians—Dame Carol’s career in UK public service has spanned 50 years.

As many start their return to the workplace this Mental Health Awareness Week, it was my great honour to share a conversation with Dame Carol Black.

She took the call from her home, where she’s enjoying spending more time than usual these days, slowing down—a bit. She reflected that it’s been a welcome interruption of her normally quite busy schedule of speaking events and Board meetings, most of which she chairs (such as the British Library,  Centre for Ageing Better & Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace). Hers is a most fitting voice to lean into during this historical Mental Health Awareness Week.

In light of the theme, kindness, for MHAW this year, how do you think workplaces can nurture more kindness?

Post Covid, many people’s mental health will be fragile. The process of people going back to work confidently asks a lot of an employee.

One helpful thing will be if there’s a sense of kindness and compassion towards each other. It’s about the way people talk to each other. The tone of voice. The way you open a discussion. It’s about human interaction.

Good managers should have extra tolerance about situations people will be going back to and how it will impact them.

What do you think employers should be thinking of in terms of workplace mental health and wellbeing as a result of the crisis?

I expect that presenteeism will go up and production will go down. In order to do the right thing you need to know the risks in your own workforce.

It is certainly important to use data to help ensure health, safety and wellbeing as we move into the post-Covid period.   I would like to see a more scientific approach adopted, and I can put this no better than the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty who has said: “If we can take the same scientific approach to testing interventions to promote health at work as we do to reducing injury, this could be a key area for advances over the next decade.”

Companies should take the opportunity to re-evaluate their wellbeing programmes, see what opportunities there are to do things differently—better – and measure their effect. We should also be taking an ‘across the pond’ view.   If there’s relevant Covid information and advice from other countries further along on the curve, it can help us.

I hope that this shutdown will have shown employers that they can trust employees to work at home, to be more in charge of their own schedule, and to be given a sense of autonomy. People flourish when they have a sense of autonomy.

In your personal life, what has kindness meant to you during the crisis?

The most vivid example is when my husband was sick with the virus. It was like looking down a big dark hole. We could talk on the phone or What’s App but I could not hold his hand or give him a hug. I was fearful he’d be ventilated. It does make you think a lot about life.

The kindness shown to me was incredible. Many colleagues who knew my husband was in hospital bent over backwards to show me kindness, sending texts, ringing me, and doing my shopping!

People are more aware of other people now, even though there’s social isolation and distancing. I think that we’re all listening better.

As we talked about her personal experience through the coronavirus pandemic and her own wellbeing, Dame Carol shared how she’s enjoying daily walks in Regents Park, near her home in London. And she’s tending regularly to her flower boxes outside the house: “I wanted there to be life growing.”

She said that this crisis has also allowed her more time to have some fun experimenting with cooking and to rediscover her music collection. She prefers a random sampling of music, picking a CD from one end of the shelf and then playing each one next in line, moving down the many disks.

How much of this kindness do you think will remain when we get back to ‘normal’?

A lot I hope, but what is equally important is addressing inequalities.  I think that the virus has exposed what we already knew—there are big inequalities in our society.   We must do more about care homes, protecting vulnerable groups, and repairing the social framework. I think that kindness needs to continue as we move forward, but also resolve to flatten out the inequalities that are so palpable.

I also hope that we’ll continue to see more cooperation and collaboration.

You’ve lived through several other serious national and global crises, what’s helped you in the past to get through the most difficult times?

I’ve learned through prior crises to be patient and resilient, and to live with and accept disappointment. But not to wallow in it. The glass is always half full.

At a personal level everyone will have crises of different magnitudes. What life’s taught me is that there will be another day. I believe that tomorrow will be better (even if that may take time).

Resilience is so important—it’s an approach to life. The going will be tough in all sorts of ways. You must believe there will be something better, and resilience can support the journey.

In terms of kindness or giving, what do you think is important for us to remember as professionals?

For someone who’s been fortunate to have had an accomplished professional life, I think it’s really important to be kind to the younger people coming after us. Some people are better at this than others.

I’ve always tried to be kind and supportive to the people further down the career ladder, to encourage them to reach their full capacity.

It requires time and commitment, but it’s our responsibility if already blessed with a good career.

What would you say to younger people inexperienced at surviving a crisis; what can we learn through this experience?

Don’t give up, life’s a long game. Don’t let this crisis dismay you—it will pass.

If there are things you wish to be part of, go for it with as much energy and determination as you can. Know you may fail, but don’t let it dent you.

I most regret when I haven’t tried something. I’ve learned you do live with failure. Keep having a go.

The most important thing in life is to have purpose. To have something to get up for in the morning.

I think on a personal level this crisis has made people think about what stage of life they’re at. Do they want to make changes? Are they already making changes?

Everyone will find something in work, or on a personal level, that can make them more fulfilled – something that makes life a worthwhile experience.

I think it’s important to remember, don’t waste a good crisis. Where are the opportunities here to do things differently?

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