Spotlight Series: Clifford Chance on creating real cultural change

The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health aims to help organisations all over the world to prioritise employee mental health. As a business-led initiative, the insights and good practice that we share will be heavily informed by the visionary leaders and companies who sign our six-point Pledge.

In the article that follows, Tiernan Brady, Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Clifford Chance, shares his organisation’s approach to destigmatising mental health, and breaking down barriers to inclusion.

Campaigns create culture

Before joining Clifford Chance, Tiernan was Executive Director of The Equality Campaign for marriage equality in Australia, and the Political Director of the marriage equality campaign during the referendum in Ireland. With a strong background in campaigns, Tiernan is a fierce advocate of bringing about change through transformative action.

“Without campaigns, you simply have well-meaning rules and regulations; campaigns make the rules breathe, and give people confidence in the journey you’re trying to take them on. In other words, they help to create culture.”

Tiernan talks about the importance of campaigns in setting the tone: the journeys that businesses are trying to encourage their people to go on are entirely voluntary; great campaigns are about building momentum, and taking down those barriers that stop people from joining in.

When you’re part of a minority experience – which mental illness is – life has taught you that you’re probably going to be judged. It’s this exposure to stigma that makes people risk averse. And that conversation happens without a word being spoken. The job of the campaign is to dismantle what society has taught people to expect.

“It’s almost like trying to create a bubble inside the workplace that runs in an opposite direction, at full speed, to the world outside your walls.”

Tiernan also stresses the point that you have to meet people where they are. Alongside societal pressures, those in hierarchical corporates are even more risk-averse; here, people don’t want to put their heads above the parapet and admit they’re struggling. So before you can even think about enabling access to mental health support, you’ve got to create a culture that makes people feel comfortable about speaking up and admitting they need support.

To truly change corporate culture, Tiernan warns, your message needs to be demonstrated by every part of management, all of the time.


How you say it, matters

One of the most crucial insights that Tiernan imparts is the importance of delivery. If you’re trying to overhaul workplace culture, where you say it, how you say it, and who says it matters.

“We’ve hired very smart people, and they can tell when the tone doesn’t match the message. In mental health and wellbeing, that’s ‘The Show’; it’s what ultimately influences whether or not a person is going to come out and ask for help.”

The most damaging thing for any organisation is to say one thing, and do another. It erodes trust, and damages credibility. Your people are looking for authenticity, which is why the tone you set is so important. What matters is who you choose to deliver your message, and the tone they deliver it in. Do they look and sound like they’re telling the truth? If not, you’re fighting a losing battle.

If you’re trying to convince people that it’s okay to admit vulnerability, this message needs to come from a level of authority. A Managing Partner or CEO speaking out consistently is going to have greater impact than an email from HR.

But communication doesn’t come naturally to everyone – which is why organisations have to invest in essential skills training, too.

Clifford Chance has a department known as ‘The Academy’, which rolls out continuous programmes of self-improvement. While The Academy isn’t specific to mental health and wellbeing, the firm does use it to build people’s capacity to be empathetic, inclusive, and strong communicators.


Live your authentic values

Tiernan speaks passionately about the need for a company to live its values: “Having a value in your head is a secret; no one knows you have it.”

You have to be actively demonstrating these values, because in a world full of stigma, why would people assume you’re any different? Tiernan reminds us that if we don’t build open cultures, we’re asking people to do something that’s entirely counterintuitive: encouraging them to put their hands up, without a culture of support and inclusion to fall back on.

In hierarchical structures, people need to hear it from the top. This can’t be a one-off, annual comment; people are busy, and they’re wary, which means your message won’t resonate unless you repeat, repeat, repeat. There exists a barrier of suspicion, and the only way to smash through it is by proving that you mean what you say.

Tiernan talks of the power of internal comms and personal stories, but also the importance of considering how you present these stories. You can bring in speakers, but it’s even more powerful when a human story is delivered by someone within the business. It makes people relatable, destigmatises conversations around mental illness, and opens up lines of communication.

Leadership has to be a visible voice on this, but you can’t simply make a statement about a value; you need to show what you’re doing about it. It’s essential then to buy-in to services so there’s somewhere to signpost employees to.

Tiernan tells us that demand for EAPs (Employee Assistance Programmes) has risen during lockdown. Meditation and relaxation has also proved popular, along with their mental health and inclusion ambassadors. We’re all different, and we all need different access points, which is something that can be achieved through diverse ambassadors.

“Build as many doors as possible that people can choose to walk through.”


Out with the old…

One of the greatest challenges facing organisations in effecting real cultural change is in untangling old habits, and rebuilding new ones.

Tiernan advises companies to look at any existing habits that aren’t helping; instead, create habits that will build a culture of empathy and compassion. All firms have factors that will add to employee stress levels, but we need to be more open with those conversations; acknowledging the pressures, and normalising the need for support.

It’s also important to be honest with people from the start. You can’t create solutions for a world that doesn’t exist, and employers can’t promise a stress-free working environment. But they can put support systems in place.

The unique experience of the pandemic has catapulted wellbeing into the spotlight, and Tiernan warns companies not to close their minds to anything. Try different things out, but remain honest at every turn. For example, flexible working can help with wellbeing levels, but there are structural questions that need to be asked.

The email culture can also be difficult in global firms; sometimes, emails have to be sent outside of normal working hours – but this shouldn’t be the default culture. And those are the conversations companies need to be having. It can’t be stress free all the time, but those times should be the exception, and support should be accessible when it’s needed.


Making changes that stick

Never implement anything, and neglect getting feedback. Tiernan advises companies to carry out surveys and focus groups that allow them to gauge how their people are feeling, but it’s important to be smart about what, and how much, you ask. People are busy, and they’re unlikely to engage with anything that’s not concise; this is where getting external advice on how to ask the right questions effectively can be crucial.

Usage numbers matter, so keep an eye on what people are opening and accessing – and use the data you glean to inform decisions. Tiernan also advises employers to be ‘good pupils’, and talk to other firms; we all need to learn from one another.

Ultimately, cultural changes need big actions, backed up by consistent initiatives. You can implement hundreds of small initiatives, but without the big ones, people will be suspicious. So speak your values, but explain what you’re going to do about them – because, as Tiernan says, “there’s hope that we mean it, and doubt that we mean it. Our job is to give people enough reason to believe that change is not only possible, but happening right now.”


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