In Conversation With: Rob Stephenson - Mental Health Campaigner


Mental health in the workplace is something we hold to be of prime importance here at Raconteur. So important, in fact, that we couldn’t go through National Inclusion Week 2019 without dedicating some time to it – and to do that we needed an expert. So, to kick off the week, we had the honour of having the mental health influencer Rob Stephenson visit us to share his personal story. 

As a campaigner and public speaker, Rob focuses on helping organisations create mentally healthier workplaces. In 2017, he founded InsideOut, a social enterprise with the mission of smashing the stigma of mental ill health in the workplace by showcasing senior leader role models with lived experiences.

Rob spent many years hiding the fact that he suffered from bi-polar disorder. He recalls “coming out” and openly sharing with colleagues, friends and family that this was part of him. He now goes one step further by sharing his daily mental health score publicly on his email signature.

We had a frank and honest discussion with Rob. He shared his story and offered us tips and insights as to what we, as individuals and as a wider organisation, can do to help create a more inclusive workspace. 

When we opened the topic up to the floor, it was wonderful to hear personal experiences and insights from fellow colleagues. With more understanding we’re now on a quest to help support Rob on his campaign and start #SmashingTheStigma surrounding mental health. Here’s our talk: 

Q. What inspired you to set up InsideOut? Can you tell us more about the organisation?

A. I had spent many years suffering in silence. I was highly successful in my role and had a regular calendar meeting in the diary for “physio” that was actually for my therapist. I’m sure my colleagues must have thought I had the worst physio in the world as I had been going regularly for several years. However, I reached a point where I felt, as a leader and role model, it was important for me to open up and share my lived experience to allow others around me to feel that they too could bring their whole authentic self to work and help shed the stigma around mental ill health. So, I had my “coming out” and shared publicly that I have bipolar.  

In regards to setting up Inside-Out, I was truly inspired by the work of other campaigners, such as Suki Sandhu, who launched and runs the yearly lists - OUTstanding, EMpower and HERoes. I thought, why not have a list that highlighted senior business leaders who are open about their mental ill health? I was told it would not be possible due to the stigma and leaders wishing to be seen in a certain light. Nevertheless, in March 2019, we published our first LeaderBoard to rave reviews.

Q. How has having bipolar impacted your working life?

A. Having bipolar impacts my day-to-day immensely. Some days I am really happy and other days I can be in a real slump. That’s why it is important to me to share my daily mental health score. Each day I put a score out of 10 at the end of my email signature. This allows people to know how I am feeling and therefore be more understanding. It also helps to normalise it and reduce the stigma. Today I am an 8/10. 

Q.  Looking at current policies in organisations, how do we ensure mental health isn’t an afterthought?

A. I feel it is really important we prioritise those that are struggling and put resource and budget behind initiatives to help them. However, moving to less reactionary and more preventative mental health initiatives is also key to tackling the problem. There is currently a huge opportunity for those with ‘languishing’ and moderate mental health, statistically around 65% of the workforce. Those that come to work every day but underperform due to poor mental health.  Those who dip in and out of feeling good/bad. We need to ask: how do we actively encourage good mental health to increase staff retention, productivity and overall work satisfaction?

Q. The inability to measure ROI for workplace mental wellbeing initiatives poses a clear barrier to incentivising companies to invest. How do you think organisations can cultivate stakeholder buy-in?

A. What is quite ironic is that the majority of any company board will have had their own mental health issues – but just not talked about it for fear of judgement, losing face and, ultimately, losing business. Immediate ROI is hard to identify but with longer-term timescales it becomes apparent. 

Q. How much of a responsibility does leadership play in de-stigmatising the mental health conversation? What pragmatic steps can leaders take to set an example?

A. This is two-fold, firstly focus needs to be on de-stigmatising mental ill health; de-stigmatising by allowing an open forum, sharing personal stories and normalising the issue so that it doesn’t feel taboo. It means creating a culture of openness and facilitating conversations. Starting meetings by ‘checking in’, actively encouraging people to give themselves a mental health score each day and to connect with fellow colleagues.

Secondly, leading by example and encouraging employees to switch off when going on holiday, not eating lunch at your desk, not allowing calls/work emails beyond 6pm on a Friday. If employees see this as best practice, it will encourage them to replicate this behaviour. 

Q. What advice would you give you a relatively small company, like Raconteur, with a young workforce, trying to prioritise mental health and create a culture of speaking openly and supporting one another?

A. Aspire to good mental health! Make it a friendly competition. Challenge each other to do something to improve your mental health each and every day, be it go for a run, bond with a colleague, book a class etc. Learn from each other.

Check out to find out more about InsideOut and Link in with Rob here

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