Promoting wellbeing is the way forward

Mental health and wellbeing has finally become a mainstream focal point in the workplace. Not before time, and there’s an extremely long way to go, but better late than never.

The statistics show that one in four adults will be affected by a mental health issue in their working lives. Look around the office you’re in now. One in four. That’s a lot of us. The Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer review into workplace mental health found that presenteeism, staff sickness and staff turnover cost UK employers a staggering £33-42bn annually.

Employers are required to safeguard the welfare of their staff yet this debate remains very much in its infancy. No doubt we have a very long road ahead of us before we can say our workplaces are truly inclusive when it comes to the subject of mental health and wellbeing.

A mental health crisis can affect anyone directly or indirectly at any time. Resilience is a word I hear used repeatedly when recruiting senior interims for local authorities, but while many are keen for it to be a measurable competency, few assess where it comes from or why it can so easily dissipate. In fact, resilience has almost become a pre-requisite for senior recruitment but more on that later.

Permanent employees and those on fixed term contracts have automatic access to whatever employee assistance scheme a local authority may have in place. While accepting that the quality of such schemes will vary, employers are hopefully at least meeting the minimum requirements set of them.

But what if you are an interim manager? The picture is totally different. Morally we would probably all agree an organisation should do whatever it reasonably can to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of anyone working for it but actually that’s not the general experience of interims.

Employee assistance schemes extend only to those individuals paid by the local authority. Contractually and in taxation and legislative terms that may be right and proper, however it is a hidden problem. Interims are rarely on the payroll – if they are inside IR35 they are paid through a contractual chain including an umbrella company and if they are outside IR35, they contract via their limited company. That means interims have no legitimate access to support networks within the organisation they’re operating in – even if they hold a board level role. Who would have thought HMRC could cause such an unintended problem through its IR35 tax legislation?

I have spoken privately to numerous HR directors and high profi le interim managers about this issue in preparation for this article and the work that will follow. There are many common themes and concerns. For clients, while there is no legal obligation to support an interim affected by a mental health crisis, morally we all wish to do the right thing. But technically it is contractually be up to the umbrella company that employs an inside IR35 interim to provide support, and no such provisions exist. For those outside IR35, legally they’d have to support themselves – as limited company contractors they’re usually their own employer. Worse, to be provided support by the organisation they are working for would be considered an indicator of disguised employment by HMRC, which would put their tax status at risk and expose that organisation to huge fines.

All this means that support for senior interims is minimal. In fact, most I have spoken to have found it simply doesn’t exist, except through the most informal type of support we might all hope or expect of a good line manager. Often there are support mechanisms in place for permanent offi cers should they choose them, yet there is virtually nothing in place for interims. Part of that may lie in the circumstances in which they are usually hired.

Interims are almost always taken on due to a capacity or capability gap, or both. There is ‘no easing in’ as one put it to me. There is an ‘assumption that ‘you’ve got this’ said another. It’s pressurised and you are judged on delivering results almost immediately, often in a high stakes context of ambiguity and risk where failure isn’t an option. Rarely is there much of an induction and there are usually ‘underlying issues’ to quote another – issues that rarely come to light at interview stage.

Added to that, interims are utterly dispensable. That’s part of the risk profi le for them but it also drives a culture of replacing an interim if results don’t come quickly and can erode resilience. As one highly successful interim said to me: ‘You worry people will see you in a different light’ – which means you’re highly unlikely to declare a mental health issue. The fear is you’ll be seen as a ‘liability’ yet as an interim there is usually an ‘assumption you can just get on [and deliver] without help’.

I mentioned resilience earlier on. It has become a watchword in every brief I get. Yet there is a disconnect between that intangible capacity and the ability of an individual to harness and manage it. There has been a real backlash against interims in recent years as tax dodgers and so on, but the reality is they have a different psychological contract with their end customer to those of us on the payroll, and with that comes a whole host of added pressures that mainly get ignored. It is generally assumed with little if any testing that an interim is resilient and no-one hiring an interim has ever yet asked me how to ensure their mental health and wellbeing is safeguarded, even in the most challenging of assignments.

HMRC taxes interims as employees but doesn’t require their end clients to treat them as employees – in fact it actively prevents them from doing so. The mental health at work debate is just getting started and my sincere hope is that as great practice emerges from our sector it can benefi t all those who contribute, including interim managers.

If you haven’t already read Mind’s Thriving At Work guide, I would encourage you do take a look and join the debate.

Neil Lupin is managing partner and local government lead at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.

Tel: 020 7399 3247

Email: neil.lupin@greenpark.co.uk

Neil Lupin

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