Advocating for better mental health awareness in the workplace

By Katherine FitzGerald, People Director December 9, 2019

Spektrix recently hosted a conference for 600 individuals from the organisations we work with. One of the themes of the conference was ‘Healthy Workplace’ and there were several breakout sessions, and a keynote, that spoke about mental health, inclusion and the importance of teams feeling connected with those around them. Never before has mental health held such prominence in the minds of executives in businesses of all sizes – getting this right is fundamental to attracting and retaining great people, but ‘getting it right’ can be hard, and it’s hard to know when you’ve managed it too!

As I prepared my introduction to a session on mental health in the workplace at the conference, I reflected on the mental health programme we have at Spektrix and what I’ve learned over the past 18 months.

Providing a wide range of resources suitable for a wide range of people

I think the main lesson for me has been that there’s no one intervention that’s going to make a difference to how people feel about being open about mental health in the workplace. In the same way that no two people’s experience of mental health is the same, there’s no silver bullet that will mean your team trust you to talk about challenges they’re having. And, as a business, we should accept this – some people will never want to talk about their own struggles but that doesn’t mean we can’t offer support. Others want to, but you’ll need to try different things to get them comfortable.

Support can come in many forms. We offer an employee assistance programme with counselling services for people to contact if they need someone to talk to. We have trained Mental Health First Aiders in each of our offices, we’ve offered mental health awareness training for everyone, and specific training for managers, and have put on themed events around mental health awareness week and World Mental Health day. 

We’ve also hosted quarterly ‘tea and talk’ sessions where people are encouraged to take time away from their desks and sit and chat to their colleagues over a cup of tea and a slice of cake. The idea here is for people to build connections with those around them, to feel part of a community, which can help them feel supported and have people to speak to when times are good, and when they’re not so good. It also reinforces the fact that we don’t want people chained to their desks all day – stepping away from work can really help give people perspective and also drive productivity. Sebastian Cheswright Cater spoke about this at our conference and encouraged organisations to create wellness policies or a mindfulness manifesto. Small interventions like this don’t cost much but can have a big impact.

One area we haven’t quite cracked yet is for people to open up publicly and tell their story about the challenges they have with mental health. Stories are what stick in people’s heads and if one or two people are willing to ‘make the first move’ and speak about their own experiences with mental ill health, it’s often the case that others will feel more comfortable being open too. We all know there’s still a stigma around mental ill health, often due to a lack of understanding, and demonstrating to the business that when someone opens up about their mental health there are no negative repercussions can have a powerful impact on how others feel about speaking about their own challenges. This is something Mediacom have done very effectively as part of their Mental Health Allies scheme which has enabled their team to spot signs and prevent poor mental health turning into mental illness.

Taking the time to develop trust with colleagues

Several people in Spektrix have come to talk to me about their mental health over the last couple of years – this might be because I’m the People Director (in some cases I’m sure that’s the case) but I hope it’s sometimes because people see me as someone they can trust and who will take the time to listen to them. I’m not a mental health professional – I consider it a privilege when someone confides to me and I make sure to actively listen to what they say. Sometimes, engaged listening is enough to help individuals feel comfortable. Often I’ll point them in the direction of resources that might be useful for them and encourage them to seek professional help where appropriate. 

One of the most important things I do, I think, is to make sure I follow up with people once they’ve spoken to me. It might be in a week or in a month, but for me it’s important to keep building trust with them. It can be hard for people to reach out and start the conversation, and I think it’s important for me to show that I’m interested in continuing the conversation, in case they want or need some ongoing support.

With these kinds of things, it’s very hard to read cause and effect. I can’t tell you that the team at Spektrix feels more open to speak about their mental health because of the various activities we’ve undertaken. But I can tell you that I think it’s important to keep the conversation going – both on an individual and on an organisational level. If we don’t keep talking about mental health, the stigma will never go. 

Taking action in your workplace

Most of this is common sense, yet it can seem overwhelming to work out how to start the conversation around mental health in your organisation. If at all possible, it’s best if you can secure senior leadership involvement and endorsement. It’s great if you can secure some budget as well but it’s not essential. There are lots of free educational materials out there (for example the Business in the Community Mental Health toolkit), and some excellent services on offer from the likes of MIND and Mental Health at Work

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned more than anything else, it’s talk to your peers and colleagues and don’t be afraid to try things, even if they seem really small – most people are affected by mental ill health at some point in their lives and it’s only by sharing ideas and experiences that we can keep the focus and momentum, and ensure everyone feels comfortable asking for help when they need it.

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