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Why Cognitive Diversity Needs To Be Accepted In Our Culture

13/01/2017 15:06

There's more awareness of mental health issues at work these days. There are strong campaigns like #timetochange championed by respected figures like Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell, both of whom have been public about their struggles with mental illness. In the consulting and marketing industries - my professional world - it's not uncommon to read impassioned and well-argued pieces by senior figures about the need to take this aspect of wellbeing more seriously. The call goes out "employers should have better policies", "we need to be more open and remove stigma", and "toxic long hours cultures need to change".

We all nod in agreement. Who could disagree? And yet nothing really changes.

At least, nothing we can see as having a real effect. Recent numbers from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that citizens' overall satisfaction with mental health is actually declining. You read that right - despite living in an age where people discuss mindfulness and therapy openly, things are getting worse for many people. Last year 19.7% of people said they had experienced anxiety or depression, in contrast to 18.3% the previous year.

We can blame some of this on political turbulence or the sorry state of funding for mental health in the NHS (despite depression being the biggest killer of young men under 35, it can take six months for someone with depression to get access to basic talking cures). But companies, and their leaders need to take their share of responsibility.

Change will be possible once leaders take this issue as seriously as they do other threats and opportunities. But why should mental health be as high on the strategic corporate agenda as adapting to digital disruption, the war for talent, or boosting innovation?

Employee mental health isn't a soft issue. Framed in the right way it can be seen as part of the solution to these other challenges. There is a commercial case for investing in the psychological and emotional wellbeing of employees that goes well beyond morality, social responsibility and being fundamentally decent.

Leaders need to stop thinking about this as a wellness issue and wrap it in the broader strategic imperative of developing cognitive diversity. A culture that is more accepting of mental health opens up the idea that we need a mix of ways of thinking in our organisations. The same commercial argument that supports diverse gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality stands for accepting people with different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking.

Consider the greater prevalence of people on the Asperger or autism spectrums in technology companies. These companies have embraced difference as a strength and other business would do well to follow suit.

Digital is turning business models on their head, ripping up the play books for whole industries and organisations know they need to innovate. Innovation requires new ways of thinking and a fight against the mediocrity and conformity of groupthink.

Beyond including differently wired minds, leaders need to be open to peers with average mental health. In his New York Times' bestselling book, A First Rate Madness, S. Nasser Ghaemi compared political and corporate leaders who had experienced mental health issues - Kennedy, Churchill and Lincoln - with those of average mental health - Neville Chamberlin, Tony Blair and George Bush. Averagely healthy leaders perform well, he argues, during times of stability - but in a crisis they find it hard to adapt and think about things from new perspectives. In a sense, they are more assured but change too slowly when their certainties are challenged.

Cognitive diversity means valuing ways of thinking outside of an apparent normal. It means supporting and keeping people through periods of illness, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because a homogenous workforce creates a vulnerable culture and set of capabilities.
To promote cognitive diversity, leaders should consider the following:

Hiring for diversity. Where can people with all kinds of minds and wellness support in a business. Show talented people who have different needs or have suffered mental health problems that they can thrive in your business.

Promoting openness and acceptance. Leaders need to set a tone of openness in their organisation and celebrate cognitive diversity. Intolerance needs to be challenged.

Policies to support different ways of working.
Part time working, flexible hours and the like can help people through difficult times - helping them to recover rather than burnout or to deal with an episode of depression.

Flexible workspaces and working practices. One size does not fit all - open plan or otherwise. Explore ways of giving people different working environments.

All of these can be achieved if business leaders articluate and champion cognitive diversity as a commercial and moral imperative in the 21st century.

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