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Podcast: Some honest talk about managing mental health risks at work

Award winning trainer Peter Larkum supports organisations such as the Ministry of Defence, NHS, HSBC and Boots with managing mental health risks at work. For this episode, Peter talks about how and why mental health has risen to the top of everyone's agenda recently and whether that's a good or a bad thing!

He also explores the new ISO 45003 standard around Managing Psychological Health in the Workplace, aspects of legal liability and discusses the role we can all play in supporting others and ourselves. Listen in to this fascinating and open conversation today...

If you would prefer to read rather than listen to this episode, please see our transcript below.

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Johnny Thomson  00:01

Hello everyone, and welcome to the RiskACUMEN podcast which offers thoughtful insight around risk engineering and management. Now mental health is a subject which often dominates the mainstream agenda. But what about the the manageable risks it presents to organisations and the people that work within them? My guest today is Peter Larkum, who is a well known speaker on the subject, as well as an award winner for both his Mental Health First Aid instruction and Mentality training courses. Peter's clients include the likes of a Ministry of Defence, the NHS, Experian, HSBC, and Boots, among others. Hi, Peter, thanks for joining me today. 


Peter Larkum  00:44

Thanks very much for having me. 


Johnny Thomson  00:45

Now, before we begin to talk about well, all kinds of things such as the new ISO standard on managing psychological risks, and legal liability issues around mental health, tell me a little bit about why you do what you do Peter?


Peter Larkum  01:00

Oh, why do I do what I do? I suppose my journey started, if I can be honest, all the way back in 1997, when I first started to engage with youth work. So I'm a youth worker by trade, so helping young people understand emotional literacy. And emotional literacy is to understand what you feel and understand why you feel like that. Now, it sounds fairly simple and yet most people never put those two pieces of information together. And so I started to see young people dramatically change their lives, because they suddenly had this realisation that they were allowed to firstly understand what they were feeling, at any time, but also ask the question of do I want to keep feeling like this? Because if the answer is then 'no', then we can start asking the question so what are we going to do differently? And through that time as a youth worker, I started to see young people, like I say, dramatically change their lives. And it got me to a place back in 2009, when I set up a company focusing in on the PSHE curriculum in schools, which for me is everything you need to learn in life, but you don't get taught in a normal lesson that's actually PSHE. And through that I then got involved with a company who were doing Mental Health Training in the Workplace. And it was then that I suddenly had the connection between emotional literacy and mental health. And I was like, I need more information. And so I then became a mental health instructor. And yet the whole process has constantly been through the lens of seeing people dramatically change their lives because there's a light bulb moment that you know what mental health isn't something that happens to other people, but it is something that can happen to me. I'm just as vulnerable as anyone else. And once you begin to identify that then we begin to think how do I look after myself, but also how do I look after the people that are around me, my friends, family members, my work colleagues. And so I suppose kind of the whole reason why did I get into this is because I desperately want to see the language and understanding of mental health and emotional literacy to be available and understood by everybody.


Johnny Thomson  03:19

Yeah, and I can understand why you've reached the point that you have in terms of working with these larger employers as well. Because that just extends extends your audience. Now I mentioned in the intro that mental health is a is a big topic these days. You almost feel sometimes that you can't get away from it with royalty and sporting stars and and so on highlighting, but talk to me about the scope of mental health Peter because I know it's very broad and whether you think all of this attention is actually a good thing or a bad thing?


Peter Larkum  03:53

Oh wow. Good thing and bad thing. Isn't that a great answer? Yes, both! So let's try and put it back into a timeframe. So back in 2016 Norman Lamb put a paper to the government that said Mental Health First Aid should be recognised alongside First Aid at Work because First Aid at Work is recognised across the board as good practice, you know. But First Aid at Work also goes from here's a plaster because you've got a paper cut through to oh my gosh, you've broken your arm to let's resuscitate you because you've had a heart attack, you know and save someone's life. And the Mental Health First Aid framework is pretty much the same just looking at it from a mental health perspective. So the the plaster maybe 'yey, do you want a cup of coffee, let's go and have a chat.' And the life saving part of it is to ask directly about suicide risk, and then it gets much more complex and much more in depth, just the same as trying to resuscitate someone and learning those behaviours and skills. So that was 2016. Then in 2017, the Royals created their Head Together campaign, which is where Prince William and Prince Harry did the the London Marathon and the Head Together campaign, which really kick started a much wider awareness of mental health and mental health in the workplace specifically. And then through that, it's almost been a nuclear button where it's become such a big agenda, and then COVID hit. And COVID has added a whole other dimension to our understanding of mental health, because I believe personally that some people have experienced mental health for themselves for the first time in their lives. And what I mean by that is not mental health illnesses. And we've got to get away from mental health, meaning mental health illnesses, because it doesn't just the same as physical health doesn't mean physical illnesses, they are two very different things. But what it has created is a language where we have understood isolation, we've understood loneliness, we've understood anxiety, we've understood depression, we've understood all of these things for ourselves in the context of COVID, and the lockdown, and the uncertainty and the apprehension around job security and family dynamics and travel and everything that we took for granted, were suddenly whipped out from underneath us, which created a lot of internal mental health processing, that a lot of people found uneasy and unsure. And on the kick side of that other people have absolutely loved it. And this is what I find fascinating is that almost with every single conversation I have with someone, there was a different dynamic being shared about the impact that lockdown has had, whether it was being positive, or negative, you know. And just yesterday, I met a local dad on the way back from from school, and he was with his wife and I'd never actually met him before I met her before. And she was like, oh, and this is my husband, who's basically been a gremlin in our house for the last 18 months and he hasn't really left it because of needing to be at work and all of this because he was working on American time. So it meant that he rarely got out on the school runs and was just in a whole different timezone. But he said, you know, I would view myself as someone who is fairly mentally robust, you know, pretty resilient. But I've got to admit that I've struggled, especially since Christmas. Now, this has brought another interesting dynamic. So we went through lockdown one, lockdown two, lockdown, three, and we kind of got to Christmas and thought, you know what, we're going to get out the other side, the vaccine is on the horizon, and then we hit lockdown in January. And I think a lot of people at that point were like, you know what, I've simply had enough of this! And that feeling kind of went from January through to probably July, in honesty before the summer holidays kicked off, where we're waiting for the announcement on the 18th of July that said, yes, we're allowed to start to go out, we're allowed to engage, we're allowed to have holidays, we're allowed to get back to the office and all these different dynamics that people have been holding on to. And then on the flip side of that, we've now got the situation where people are going, I don't know if I want to go back to work, or not work but not back back to the office, I don't know if I want to go back to the office. Because that means I've got to go back on the trains, I've got to go back through the commute, and I've got to go back through x, y, and z and I don't know if that's actually what's going to be healthy for me anymore. And I saw a fantastic statistic around this, which is that before lockdown 60% of the UK workforce had never worked from home. And then post lockdown, only 9% want to return to how work was before, which is quite a significant shift in changing people's understanding of how work works, but also what works for them.


Johnny Thomson  09:21

Yeah, and I guess it's a wake up for employers in many respects in terms of how people think and how their thoughts will have changed as well, as a consequence of that.


Peter Larkum  09:31

Yes. And the whole question of this hybrid working, coming in for X number of days working from home X number of days. And again, one of the dynamics which I'm facing just in in my local area with my kids primary school, is the number of parents now that are working from home or regularly, but they don't have the social engagement of the office environment. And so a question as parents of the local primary school is do we create an out of office social platform where people who are working from home can still have social engagement and meet other adults. Because otherwise you can very easily sit in your own house for weeks on end, and not really have any social interaction with other people.


Johnny Thomson  10:21

Okay, now, let's turn this around Peter and let's look at this from the employers perspective. And, of course, as I mentioned, you work with some pretty major employers around tackling mental ill health. Why did they choose to work with you, Peter? And what are the real benefits to them in managing the risks?


Peter Larkum  10:41

Gour question, why focus on Mental Health Training in the workplace? Firstly, we spend most of our time in a working environment, 40 hours a week on average is spent kind of in some form of working engagement, whether that's what it used to be in the office or in the working environment at home, which means that employers do need to look after the mental health of their staff. Now, if we're not careful, we go back to that feeling that mental health, we're talking about mental health illnesses and I want to throw out the image when you think about someone who is physically healthy, the image that comes to my mind is the billboard poster of someone running alongside the beach with the sun-setting in the background and it's a really powerful motivating image. And when you think for someone who is struggling with their mental health, the image is someone with their hands in their face, sitting in the corner, rain pouring down the window and the image in itself is fairly depressive. And we've actually got to start thinking about mental health in its positives. When somebody is in a positive mental health space, they are more productive, you know, they are more engaged, their functionality is higher, their ability to engage, and problem solve is more. And what we then need to start thinking about is that we're not looking to prevent mental health illnesses, we're looking to promote positive mental health. And weirdly, by promoting positive mental health, we are preventing poor mental health by default. And there is a dynamic at the moment where yes, we are looking at it probably through the lens of we need to prevent our staff from becoming unwell. And I think we need to start looking now, how do we actively promote our staff to be thinking and pushing their own positive mental health much more. In the same way as our office places often have gym membership, or space of lunchtime yoga sessions or space where they can physically engage and be healthy, we need to start creating a workplace that is mentally health, as well. And that's what the ISO 45003 is really kind of focusing on as a standard for this year.


Johnny Thomson  13:10

Okay, what about the negatives as well, though? Legal liability, for example, I guess that's not so clear cut, though. It must be a difficult thing to, for example, absolutely connect one employer with someone's mental ill health. You know, a physical accident can happen at work and be caused by work, but surely, with mental health, it's a cocktail of issues relating to things both inside and outside of the workplace? So I take your point about the positive, the negatives need to be managed, from that perspective?


Peter Larkum  13:41

Yeah, I mean, the negatives always need to be managed, because it's about setting a standard. And if we don't look at it from the legal perspective, which encompasses unfair dismissal, or discrimination, or lack of provision, I suppose, then companies need to be able to put that in place. And then we're getting much better at that with things like the employee assistance, programme, counselling, and therapy, and access to help support. But we've also got to have this conversation around thriving versus surviving. Now, what I mean by that is, if someone is in the workplace, and they are unable to thrive, or they are not thriving at the moment, that also needs to be a question of is this the right space and environment and work context for this individual? Or is the dynamic of the workplace and the work pressures and the workload, actually creating an environment where this person is going to be constantly struggling with their mental health? And, again, kind of talking to another friend who's an investment banker, he was saying burnout wasn't the long hours. He said I could I could deal with the long hours. The burnout was the anxiety of constant shifting deadlines and targets and never quite knowing whether I was going to achieve that daily, weekly, monthly target or not. Because it seemed like it was forever shifting and changing. And it was that level of anxiety that was underpinning every transaction and every phone call with every engagement that was causing the burnout process for him. And so there are elements in our workplace where we need to be thinking is the way that we work and the engagement with our employers creating an instability for their mental health? Is actually inducing anxiety, is it creating the stresses, and if so, if we were to change the way that we work, or change the way we communicate, or change the team dynamics somehow and these are all questions that need to be unpicked a lot more than we've got time for today, to try and minimise or dismiss or, or change the dynamics to alleviate unnecessary stressors. And one of the easiest arguments and you'll hear it left, right, and centre is just the context of out-of-hours emails. And I worked with one company in London, who made out-of-hours emails a disciplinary process. And the reason for that is because they began to realise that all the out-of-hours emails was them emailing each other. It was never external clients getting in contact with them, it was only ever them kind of emailing one another. And by making it a disciplinary process, they knocked it on the head within a month. And people would stop sending emails after five o'clock in the evening and before nine o'clock in the morning, because of this acknowledgement from senior management that actually, this is an unhealthy practice, that is waking people up in the middle of the night, and forcing people to keep working late into the evenings and as soon as they wake up in the morning, which is unhealthy. And so that's sort of a simplistic example.


Johnny Thomson  17:12

It's such a difficult thing as well, because everyone has different perspectives on that I'm sure you equally find somebody saying I'd rather do the emails on an evening, because then it's less to carry through the next day, and I feel less stressed. And I've cleared some of the things out, but I guess you've got to think of the impact on others as well, at the same time. Now, Peter, you mentioned ISO 45003, which is the standard for managing psychological risk in an occupational health and management system, just together to correct. What's your views on that?


Peter Larkum  17:45

Very broad and very deep. But it's trying to keep it, keep it succinct and keep it simple. And at the risk of oversimplifying, this is about the protecting an employee around the stress, stress at work or work related stress. So through the Mentality training, I talk about stress being the number one cause of mental health illnesses. And the more stressed we are, the more likely it is we're going to experience the signs and symptoms of mental health illnesses. And so the dynamic for the ISO 45003 is to look very specifically around employees and what is causing or contributing to mental health illnesses within the workplace. And the example I gave a second being being a good example. Now the other side of it, where the liability really kicks in, is where it is deemed that a company has not put these revisions in place. And there can be tracked evidence where an employee has been struggling with their mental health, looked for help, asked for help, reached out for help, and has felt like no help has been provided. Worst case scenario is then taking their life as a consequence. Now, the legal side of it is then is the company seen to be liable for that death? Has it been caused by or contributed to, by the working environment? Has the person been seeking help, have they acknowledged that they're struggling and has the relevant help or support being being provided. So there is a fairly heavy edge to the standard that's been set for the workplace. And it would be wrong not to highlight that because otherwise it's very easy to say, we need to have more conversations, we need to be doing this, but actually workplaces need to be proving that they are putting more in place. And at the risk of self promotion, so feel free to edit this out if you need to, but for me, that's where Mentality kicks in. Because Mentality is a training for everybody. It creates a base knowledge for the entire workforce, you know, which means that everybody has had access to a base level knowledge, everybody has been given the skills to spot the signs of poor mental health in themselves and other people and everybody has been given the top tips of where help is available not only in their workplace, but also in their community. And when we start with that base level knowledge, a company can then say, look, everybody had access to this, everybody completed this, everybody knows where that help and support is. And if they haven't engaged with it, then there was a little bit that says, that's on them, because we do have to acknowledge that my mental health is my responsibility. And that's very easy to say, and very difficult to implement. And I say difficult to implement, because there are so many external pressures and forces and processes that have an impact on my mental health and it's very easy to get swallowed up by all those things, which is where people become overwhelmed with their mental health.


Johnny Thomson  21:27

Fascinating. So yeah, the standard is obviously an important step in that it's something that can kind of be benchmarked or measured against and you mentioned self-promotion and I was going to ask you about your approach, and training is obviously the key from your perspective. And I'm sure there'll be people out there want to know a bit more about Mental Health First Aid, which sounds like a really interesting concept Peter?


Peter Larkum  21:52

It's a fantastic course. I am an absolute ambassador of Mental Health First Aid and Mental Health First Aid England and the work that is being done. The core courses at the moment, especially with the online process is the half day awareness course and the full two day course, which, for the online process, the quickest I'm covering, it is over four mornings, four consecutive mornings. But the more general, the more general practice for the online course is actually over 10 days. So I deliver those on a Monday, Thursday, Monday, Thursday, over two weeks, or Tuesday, Friday, Tuesday, Friday, because there's a lot of information in the online course that you've got to get through and understand. And sometimes by pushing it and going through it too quickly, you miss so much stuff. But also in the in the awareness course, that's four hours. And to try and help you understand, the core subjects covered by Mental Health First Aid England is very much around mental health illnesses and understanding of mental health illnesses. So through that we look at anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, self-harm, eating disorders and suicide. And in the four hour course, it's a skimming process. We literally kind of bounce over those topics, give a very bare awareness of those topics and that's what the awareness course is about saying, look, mental health is out there, mental illnesses affect all of us and this is what what we've got. And with a two day course, it's much more in depth. So it takes a four hour process and delves deeper into a 12 hour or a 16 hour course in the context of the online with the with the self learning activities. So as you can see, the full course is much more in depth than the awareness. But those are the two main different courses at the moment with Mental Health First Aid England.


Johnny Thomson  23:47

Now I always like a good kind of summing up, but we've covered quite a lot here Peter. But the kind of feeling I'm getting from, from what you've said overall, is that, yes, there are considerable risks for employers, and for us all, of course, around around mental health issues. But the way to tackle those is primarily to focus on the positive side of things. You know, look at that image as you quite clearly illustrated of what a healthy situation would be like and support people towards that and support yourself towards achieving that. And then, in essence, the risks will be managed in their own way.


Peter Larkum  24:34

No for sure. A possibly helpful way of trying to explain it is, if I know that I want to get fitter, and I want to lose some body fat, I know that I need to go to the gym. But if I start using the wrong exercises and the wrong process, I'm not going to achieve the aim that I'm aiming for and sometimes we see me going to the gym is a really healthy thing. But actually, if I'm not achieving what it is that I want to achieve, there's no point me going to the gym and engaging with that. And now sometimes with my mental health, I don't even know what activities or exercises I should be doing to be promoting my mental health. And this is where it's very easy to go, oh, engage with yoga, oh do some breathing exercises, o, do some meditation, oh and all those things are brilliant. Great. Absolutely, yes! But also, if we're not understanding our own mental health journey, and what we're wanting to achieve, then all those activities may actually be masking, that we're not dealing with the core issues that are going on, that are impacting on our mental health. And that again, there's so it's so much deeper and so much more specific. But yes, those things are good. But also, we need to explore the context of counselling and therapy, we need to explore how physical health and mental health are engaged, we've got to understand how nature plays its part, we've got to understand how social interaction is key and how, how much more holistic we as individuals are, and how much more holistic therefore, our mental health is.


Johnny Thomson  26:26



Peter Larkum  26:27

I hope that makes sense. That kind of made sense in my head!


Johnny Thomson  26:30

No, it worked for me. Brilliant. No, thanks Peter, I mean a lot of food for thought there, you know, around what is absolutely a fascinating subject. And I think sometimes people dismiss it, because they just see it as, as I say, the world of celebrity, and so on and, you know, I think it's it is something we all need to understand what our role is both in supporting, as I said before ourselves and supporting others around us. So yeah, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you.


Peter Larkum  27:04

Thank you so much, Johnny. 


Johnny Thomson  27:05

Yeah. Great, great chatting with you Peter and that's all for the latest episode of the RiskACUMEN podcast. If you have any questions or comments around the topic we've been discussing today, or anything else we've covered recently, please head to our LinkedIn page. You can find a link at and until the next time everyone, goodbye for now.



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