Close this search box.

Mental health and wellbeing: The leadership challenge

Against a stunning backdrop of The City, Tower Bridge and the heartland of the UK’s tech hub, 360Leaders gathered a collective of senior tech leaders and entrepreneurs at the offices of London & Partners to discuss one of the most pressing issues of our time: mental health.


Organised in collaboration with Catherine de la Poerlink to external website, an executive leadership coach with 360Leaders and Founder of Halcyon, “A Healthy Bottom Line: Re-thinking Corporate Health and Wellbeing” sought to highlight the prevalence of mental health issues within the tech sector, how organisations can create (and maintain) a truly supportive culture, and how the investor community can support their clients.


Alongside Catherine who chaired the panel discussion were James McErlean link to external website, General Manager at Headspace for Work, and Stephen Waterman link to external website, Chief Operating Officer at Hero – two tech entrepreneurs whose entire business models are built to support people suffering with a mental health condition. They were joined by Stephen Bourke link to external website, Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer of Echo.


Guy Tolhurst link to external website, Group CEO at investment company Indagate Group and founder of ‘The Mindful Investor’ kitemark programme also delivered a keynote presentation as part of the event, discussing the stress that is experienced by founders, and how we can actively address this.


Being honest and aware


Bourke has successfully scaled Echo to become one of the leading healthcare apps in the country. The repeat prescription delivery company, which he co-founded in 2015, currently boasts over 50,000 users and was acquired by Lloyds Pharmacy owner McKesson earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. Bourke has undoubtedly done exceptionally well and continues to do so, but that hasn’t eradicated the mental health issues he has faced during most of his life.


Bourke explained to the audience that he has suffered from anxiety due to the pressures of scaling a start-up company. It was the process of ordering his own repeat prescriptions for asthma that sparked the idea of creating a piece of technology that could simplify this; thus, Echo was born. But this was only possible due to his self-awareness.

52 per cent of tech founders have suffered anxiety and panic attacks


Stress and anxiety can stifle business performance


A report published in 2018 revealed that as many as 52% of people in tech suffer from anxiety or depression. Yet only 8 per cent of organisations are actively having conversations about it within their workplaces.


“We have a real problem in the tech sector,” said Catherine. “If more than half of the people we work with are affected by mental health issues, it needs to be taken seriously.” If left unchecked, organisational innovation cannot thrive, and overall business performance will be detrimentally affected. “Mental health problems can take human beings from ‘competency’ to ‘survival’ mode.”


Mental health problems can take human beings from ‘competency’ to ‘survival’ mode.


Creating a support network to overcome stigmas

Opening the event, Martin Falch, 360Leaders CEO said that one of the biggest issues facing the mental health challenge is the need to try and suffocate the stigma surrounding mental health. How can we achieve this?


As someone who continues to experience mental health issues, Bourke consciously takes steps to address his feelings in any way he can. One avenue is closer to home than most – his wife. He shared with us a text that she sent to him recently when he found himself in need of support – it read, “Think about how your anxiety shaped Echo and turned it into a super-power.”


This is a critical point. Stigma is often the product of a lack of understanding, and what Bourke’s wife has brilliantly done is to remind him that while he may think things are bad right now, this is what has made him the person and success story he is. As Catherine put it, “Change what you do and change the way you think about your mental health.”


This sentiment was echoed (no pun intended) by James McErlean and Stephen Waterman. McErlean said: “Most of the words we associate with mental health are negative – we’re conditioned to think like this. But we need to change the language being used and crucially we need to make it part of the normal daily routine.”


Looking after our mental health should be as much a part of our routine as showering, brushing our teeth and charging our phones. Social media usage has grown exponentially in recent years, with the average person spending 136 minutes each daylink to external website accessing various platforms, and the average screen time link to external website for a smartphone user in the UK currently 3 hours 23 minutes per day (50 days a year). But, McErlean asked, how much time do we take time to look after our mental wellbeing?


The onus is on businesses to create an understanding culture


The answer, to an extent, lies in the role of business leaders themselves. They have a responsibility to ensure that the culture they create has human health and wellbeing at its centre. As McErlean said, “Creating a healthy and happy culture is hard, but you need to be intentional about it and position it as an operating priority.”

Stephen Waterman agreed, “any change that takes place with a view to supporting its people must be in sync with what they themselves think needs to change.”


The average person spends 3 hours 23 minutes accessing their smartphone every day, but how much time is dedicated to their mental health?


He said that employee benefits such as subsidised gym memberships or fresh fruit have been the go-to ‘solutions’ for business. Yet feedback from analysis of employees which they undertake on behalf of their clients suggests that what there is often a disconnect between what leadership teams think their people want, and what the teams themselves say they need from their employer.


Waterman, whose company Hero works closely with organisational leaders to help them better understand the mental ‘fitness’ of their companies, suggested that it is the degree of self-awareness among the C-suite that serves as a true indicator of how successful the business really is. He said that “ultimately it comes down to the leader – if they want it, it will happen.”


The boardroom must lead the charge for change


The consensus was that leaders must take the lead when it comes to addressing the mental health among their employees. Stephen Bourke urged the point that telling staff they can work from home if feeling stressed is all very well, but it needs to be clearly defined as part of an employee’s rights. According to research undertaken by Wills Tower Watson, two-thirds of employees believe that their employers have a responsibility to look after their wellbeing.


 As leaders, it is essential to talk about mental health, creating an environment where people can share their experiences too. Doing so normalises it and helps staff to feel supported.


Prioritising the emotional capital of your business


While it is important to have a focus on the bottom line, organisations need to raise their profile to attract and retain the talent they need to scale.


To illustrate this point further, Catherine developed four key metrics to determine how a business is valued:

  1. Supportive network
  2. Human capital
  3. Cash flow
  4. Human health (emotional capital)


It is this latter point that the likes of McKinsey have also focused on in recent years. Their research has found that the top quartile of publicly-traded companies in the McKinsey Organisational Health Index (OHI) dramatically outperform their peers by a ratio of 3:1 when it comes to the returns delivered.


The first part of solving a problem is about being open and honest about it. Finding and creating role models who serve as advocates for mental health to talk about their stories is critical. The key is to remember the burden of responsibility is not down to the employee.


Guy Tolhurst’s tips for success


Guy Tolhurst recognises the effect that poor mental health can have on the workplace and offered some simple, practical solutions for founders under stress in a high-pressure environment.


Tolhurst understands the issue of corporate mental wellbeing intimately and took the time to discuss the stress experienced by founders and how we can take active steps to address this.


His key points included:

  1. Don’t just celebrate success, celebrate all the hard work that goes on beneath the tip of the iceberg.
  2. Develop purpose beyond financial value
  3. Treat mental help as you would physical fitness – focus on prevention and intervention.
  4. Set healthy boundaries. Saying no to something is saying yes to yourself, ensure people take their holidays and lunch breaks
  5. Don’t feel guilty, you must prioritise your mental health
  6. It’s ok to have a mental health day

Look at who is in your support network now, and who could be, from colleagues, friends, and other entrepreneurs to coaches, HR, therapists and mentors.


What can you do? 


It’s clear that if we are to tackle mental health, to make progress on this pressing issue, companies should create clear channels of communication, allowing staff to see how their HR practices are changing to support them in this area fully. To enable this, 360Leaders has developed 10 steps link to external website to help you make a difference to your team.


The Dalai Lama once said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” If leaders are trying to make everyone in the business happy, we need to start with ourselves. Be aware of yourself, learn to understand your thoughts and feelings and ask yourself why is today good or not so good?