Why stigmas around leadership, talent, and mental health are holding organisations back

Empathetic leadership, openness about mental health and refugee recruitment are just three workplace stigmas Maryam Meddin is tackling through her business The Soke

Maryam Meddin understands stigma well, she has spent her life battling it as a refugee who fled war-torn Iran during the 1980s and in the mental health and wellbeing field, where she runs her business today. She talks to DiversityQ about her vision for better mental health in the workplace and beyond.

Meddin started The Soke, a London mental health and wellbeing firm, after moving into psychotherapy where she saw that the client experience was lacking:

“Having come from a business world where it was all about client service, relationships, and making sure the clients felt comfortable, I immediately thought somebody needs to put this right,” she says.

Meddin wants to normalise mental health support and “make talking therapies relatable to everybody in the same way that somebody might go to the gym.” The spectrum of services she offers ranges from treating depression and eating disorders to couples therapy and leadership development services for businesses.

With larger firms, she trains their mental health representatives to “overcome their personal issues” in order to send them back to their organisations better equipped to manage their teams’ wellbeing.

Employer responses to COVID-19

In terms of wellbeing support gaps in businesses, Meddin has heard from employees that organisational issues are often the culprit, including heavy workloads and lack of empathy from leadership. She has also seen mental health issues arise during remote working, where “the culture and camaraderie have slightly gone out the window.”

While remote working has left some employees feeling cut off, Meddin has found that some responses from employers have been equally isolationist: “Organisations are mostly offering self-care remedies and saying, ‘do you think you might benefit from meditation’? Instead, they need to look at themselves and say, ‘how can we address these organisational issues’? Then perhaps they will have fewer employees who are burned out.”


While Meddin commends leaders who have promoted wellbeing during the pandemic, she believes they have failed to look at what they can do better internally, “they give out yoga classes and sad lamps, and that’s so on the ball with the self-care stuff, but zero on introspection and no investment in mental health leadership beyond the fact they teach managers to say, ‘if there’s something wrong, do feel free to come to me’.”

She also feels that COVID-19 has made staff more open about talking about their mental health but that it comes with a sense of guilt that they don’t think they have the right to voice complaints during this time.

Leading by example

In Meddin’s experience, corporates are doing more to further wellbeing in their organisations, but making sure it’s more than lip-service will be the next challenge, she says.

“You lead by example; everybody’s just looking to their team leader. It doesn’t affect them what the chairman sitting in New York does as much as their line manager. And if that person is getting support from the next one up etc. So I kind of think it starts at the bottom, but there needs to be some peer support. And you need to make a good example. You just need one or two people doing a really good job to set the tone for the organisation.”

When asked if the pandemic has triggered a mental health crisis, Meddin says it’s opened up the floodgates of existing issues: “If there is a crisis suddenly come to light, it’s because it has shined a light on something that was already there. The silver lining has been that people are feeling free to talk about things now.”

So, if a large organisation approached her now and asked what initial mental health and wellbeing policies they should implement, Meddin says, with a small flourish of sarcasm, that they should start with leadership and “the impossible task of trying to teach them empathy.”

She says these organisations know full well that poor mental health and wellbeing “affects the bottom line”, and while leaders can offer things like free yoga classes or cycle to work schemes, there’s no point if they lack empathy.

But the empathy has to be genuine, as a scripted “come and talk to me anytime” statement can, in Meddin’s opinion, mean staff become too nervous to approach a boss with their issues, rendering the offer pointless.

“Instead, you speak to them in such a way that says, ‘I know you, I see you, I hear you.’ There’s been research to show that if you have that sort of relationship where you’re giving positive affirmations and getting to know them, it stimulates the same part of your brain as the reward part.”

This form of leadership, Meddin continues, is not only good for employee productivity and wellbeing; it actually lasts longer in terms of employee satisfaction than a pay rise, which saves the organisation money.

Ultimately, Meddin’s goal is for mental health aid to become as normal as physical fitness: “I genuinely think that having a therapist will one day be like having a personal trainer, it will actually be an aspirational thing, meaning you’re working on making yourself better and stronger.”

The last talent pool taboo

From one stigma to another, Meddin talks about the untapped talent pool potential of refugee recruits, “I have a personal stake in this conversation, and I feel quite passionate about this,” she says.

“They (refugees) have shown gumption that a lot of people never get the chance to prove. From my own experiences, I know that there are a lot of highly educated people who are put into the lower echelons of the social process and don’t get the chance to prove themselves.

“I think it would be really helpful if there was some way that we could turn to some database of potential employees that we could choose from because I believe sincerely that you will not get more hard-working, dedicated, committed employees than people who have risked life and limb to create a better life for themselves and their families. So it’s a good investment.”

Meddin concludes that the only thing holding back displaced people from professional enfranchisement is opportunity: “I came from a background where we knew people who knew people. When I was destitute, I was still able to pick up the phone and say, ‘can I come and work for you’?

“There was a lady who owned a restaurant who was prepared to employ me, and until then, I’d been sleeping in the airport. If she hadn’t done that, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Perhaps her point about opportunity can be made to employee mental health too. Maybe all they need to feel happier and more encouraged at work is the opportunity to open up to a genuine and empathetic leader in a safe and supportive environment.


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