Mental Health In the Family Business workplace

This article by Marc Caulfield, CEO of Demolish the Wall Ltd  talks about the unique mental health issues facing family businesses in the modern workplace.

‘Demolish the Wall’ is a 1 year old start up with 2 business partners who have known each other for 25 years, not quite family but not too far off! Mark believes that they will face many of the issues that the readers of this article will face, so should compare notes.

He says,

“The Mental Health arena is full of figures and statistics but here are some key ones: –

  • According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists; ‘Mental illness is the largest single source of burden of disease in the UK’.
  • 676 million people are affected by mental ill health worldwide.
  • 1 in 4 UK adults will experience a mental health issue per year – this figure is diagnosed, so the truth will be far greater.
  • Mental health issues account for 91 million lost working days per year costing the UK economy £30 billion.
  • University students are 3 times more likely to suffer from poor mental health than the national average.
  • 10% of children aged 5-16 have a diagnosable condition.
  • 50% of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 75% by 24.

These simply can’t be ignored. What is particularly worrying is a significant number of people entering the workplace will already be in mental difficulties, as the above statistics demonstrate. These are the core statistics and apply to all; we will now explore some of the additional unique stresses and strains within the family business world.

The many fantastic reasons why family businesses can succeed and pull a family unit together also have a more negative flipside. Relentless pressure leads to stress; we aren’t talking about the kind of stress that makes you perform, we are talking the type that causes anxiety in performing your duties.

A little bit of science; everyone knows the human body has a ‘fight or flight’ mechanism driven by adrenaline. Being crude, this was designed to help us run away from a sabre-toothed tiger occasionally, not to drive people daily. What also happens is the adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol is small quantities is essential for human existence, but in significant amounts; i.e. during high stress situations, can lead to many health problems. Chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, muscle weakness and high blood pressure to name a few. The bad news is regular periods of stress are often a precursor to mental ill-health.

The issues facing family businesses are wide and varied, however here are some of the main ones my research has uncovered:

  • Bringing your work home – an evening meal or night out turning an impromptu meeting
  • Limited down time
  • Generational disagreements – could be around the digital world or risk aversion
  • Lack of or disagreements over succession planning
  • Control and voting rights
  • To bring in external views or not
  • Can be too insular sometimes; minimal external experience
  • ‘Normal’ family goals can blur or conflict with business or financial ones
  • Senior team financial needs may create a clash between short term retirement needs and the businesses future

I am sure there are many more and some people will disagree with some of these; however just typing these caused my heart rate to increase!

The first step in any organisation’s mental health journey is education. However, education without action is merely academia. Mental Health awareness training for all staff is the base level; you can’t understand the issues unless you understand the subject. Action comes in the form of ensuring all people managers are fully trained in their responsibilities in the eyes of the law, they appreciate how different conditions may manifest themselves, how they may need to make reasonable adjustments to compensate for such conditions, how to spot the common signs, what to do and how to tackle these difficult conversations. This is made all the more difficult in the family scenario.

The key point is that mental health must be treated the same as physical health, however rarely is. The Equality Act 2010 states this very clearly, and employment lawyers are using this time and time again where discrimination for stress & mental health issues are cited.

One last point, when you recruit from outside the business, not only will some people worry about nepotism, causing stress in its own right, but the millennials of the world want different things from a job. Work / Life balance is a major factor when choosing somewhere to work and this may well be out of kilter with the family ethos.

They also want to understand mental and physical health policies; these may be things as a family business you don’t feel are necessary, however in the eyes of the Health and Safety Executive and increasingly the law they are.

Family businesses are the envy of many corporate workers and rightly so. Let’s ensure work is left at work, we are open and honest and after all we all have mental health, good or bad, so let’s look after each other.

About the Author – Marc Caulfield is the CEO of Demolish the Wall Ltd.  ‘Demolish the Wall offer a full consultancy and training service to ensure your organisation is compliant in the eyes of the law and your people are fully aware of their own and their teams mental health, how to spot signs of difficulties, how to handle difficult conversations and signposting of where to go for help’.