A West Midlands chief executive who openly discussed her clinical depression with staff says company leaders need to be more open about mental health to support workers during the pandemic.


Laura Thomas, chief executive of Citizens Advice Dudley Borough, who has experienced depression since her teens, surprised staff when she told them about her mental health challenges. But she says since revealing her diagnosis the organisation has embraced a more supportive and transparent culture, where staff have thrived both personally and professionally.


The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that half a million people will suffer mental health problems due to the pandemic, and  Ms Thomas believes that CEOs need to be open about improving and sustaining positive mental health, not only to avoid problems within their organisations further down the line but also to harness specific skills, resilience and empathy people with disabilities and health conditions can demonstrate in the workplace.


Ms Thomas made the comments as Citizens Advice Dudley Borough gained Thrive at Work bronze level accreditation, the free scheme run by West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to help employers support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of employees.


She said: “Many leaders say that to successfully head up an organisation you should leave your problems at home. I disagree. As an employer, we should view employees holistically because unsupported mental health issues can and do affect work and that’s why it’s important leaders develop a transparent and supportive culture by being open about their own challenges.”


Thrive at Work has signed up more than 400 organisations across the West Midlands and beyond. As Covid puts new pressures on the workplace, the scheme aims to help bosses support their employees’ physical and mental health and wellbeing, which may be affected by the current situation.


Ms Thomas revealed her health diagnosis during a staff conference when she told employees that she had overcome a period of self-harming, undergone psychiatric assessment and been prescribed a variety of anti-depressants. She said: “When I shared my mental health journey with staff, many were surprised that someone in a senior leadership role could experience such problems. It made them realise that the stigma and discrimination around mental health needs to be challenged and that having a physical and or mental health issue is not a barrier to a successful career and fulfilled life.”


Citizens Advice Dudley Borough recently gained Thrive at Work accreditation.


Ms Thomas said: “We chose to join the programme because we are committed to the wellbeing of our workforce and the principles behind the accreditation. It wasn’t just a tick-box exercise. I was impressed with the support we received, and the rigorous assessment tested the integrity of our organisation’s approach against the outcomes we were aiming to achieve. I chose to disclose my mental health challenges to avoid an ‘us and them’ situation at work. I also wanted to make sure that our staff feel comfortable and safe to share any struggles without judgement or fear of it affecting their employment status.


“One of the positive effects of the programme was an increase in the confidence and self-esteem of staff, where some staff who previously struggled with mental health issues have secured internal and external promotions because of how they have been supported.


“A third of our workforce have a declared physical disability and/or a mental health issue, however since April last year 14% of our paid workforce have achieved a promotion.  Many of these are employees who declared a physical or mental condition. They’ve been able to move up the career ladder because the support offered within the Thrive at Work framework has boosted their confidence and self-esteem.”

Councillor Izzi Seccombe, WMCA portfolio lead for wellbeing and leader of Warwickshire County Council, said: “The wellbeing and mental health of employees makes a considerable contribution to every organisation. More than 400 organisations have been helped by Thrive at Work and as our region continues to face huge challenges both within the workplace and at home, I hope many more will benefit from joining this free programme.”