Community is key to supporting mental health at work
By Sarah Wright, People and Development Consultant
This year’s theme for Stress Awareness Month is community. When I had my first experience of anxiety and depression I remember feeling so alone; depression seemed to ‘just be in my head’, and therapy at 15 was something I dared not share with anyone for fear of shame or ridicule.
I am so grateful to say that in the 20+ years of having my mental health condition the community, conversation and attitudes around mental health have changed. Now, water-cooler chats with colleagues over the different therapies they have had or coping strategies to try out are becoming more accepted and less of a taboo. The community of people who feel comfortable and able to open-up about their mental health has grown, and with illnesses such as anxiety and depression this can only be a good thing.
It is through these conversations and communities, that what I first considered to be a barrier to my progression at work was over time reframed as an asset to my becoming first a manager, and then a director. Whilst it has not always been easy, my experience and understanding of mental health has taught me some valuable lessons both as an employee and as a senior leader.
Lessons as an employee
Let employers know
If you feel able and comfortable in doing so, speak to someone at work about your mental health. This is obviously a very personal choice for each individual but having a supportive environment can be helpful to talk to someone about your mental health experience at a time when your mental health is more positive. Having raised the topic when you’re feeling well, you may feel more able to open-up the discussion and subsequently receive support when your mental health is poor and more support is needed.
Equally, if you know someone experiencing poor mental health, aim to create an environment in which colleagues feel able to discuss their experience with you. For advice on how to start a conversation visit: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/personal-stories/5-ways-to-start-conversation-about-mental-health
You’re not alone
When someone experiences mental health difficulties at work the first thing an employer may ask is what help and support they can give. Whilst this can be appreciated, it can be hard to know what to say because you don’tknow the answer yourself. Thankfully, there are now a range of resources available for employers to look at and self-educate on the subject rather than all the information coming from the employee experiencing the difficulty. These can also be helpful for the employee in having a list to work from as to what may or may not help.
Mind has useful guide here that can help workplaces support colleagues struggling with mental health: https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/4661/resource4.pdf
Performance is measured cumulatively
When entering a period of ill mental health, you may struggle with not being as productive as usual, and the fears of the consequences that go with that: ‘what if I miss deadlines or can’t do as much?’ or ‘Will this hinder my progression?’. It can take time to realise that performance is not measured when at your worst but by how you perform over a period. It may help to view your work in the longer term which will allow you toreduce workload when you’re not feeling as well.
Having a conversation about how to manage priorities and capacity during a period of ill health can be helpful in reducing stress and re-establishing expectations whilst recovering. By realistically assessing your workload against capacity with your manager helps to take pressure off and allows you to prioritise your wellbeing.
Work smarter, not harder
Unfortunately, this is a lesson that is often learnt the hard way. In a world where exhaustion can be worn as a status symbol, it can be easy to push yourself by putting in the extra hours and showing the willingness to be a team player by increasing your workload. Whilst in the short-term this can seem fine, in the long-term it can lead to mental health deteriorating. In this situation, it’s important to remember that it is the effectiveness of the work of you are doing that made the difference, not the amount of hours. This will enable you to get the same results as your peers but without the burnout, and ultimately,it’s a far more sustainable way to work.
In working smart, it is important to remember what the end goal is and what is looking to be achieved. It is important to jointly clarify this between manager and direct report so it is worth adding this to a 1-1 conversation to check on any projects where this may not be clear.
There are also a number of great resources available to support with productive working. This video featuring Graham Allcott (author of How to Be a Productivity Ninja) covers some key points that you could start to use.
Lessons as a leader
Empathy in mental health
Mental ill-health is one of the most common causes of both short and long-term absence showing that it is all around us in the workplace, yet it is still a topic that can be so misunderstood. Having experienced mental ill health this allowed me to empathise with colleagues and offer a listening ear to help them in work. It also gives me the ability to spot early warning signs of work-stress and support staff in reducing it. If you haven’t experienced mental health but want to learn more about the experiences of people with poor mental health, Rethink Mental Health have a collection of blogs available.
The power of vulnerability
Along with empathy, my experiences with mental health opened the conversation up with a number of colleagues. In Brene Brown’s seminal TedX talk she describes how vulnerability is the key to connection. Displaying vulnerability as a leader, whether regarding mental health or just being an imperfect human (as we all are) allows for connection to establish in an organisation and creates the sense of belonging that people strive for in their work environment.
Lead by example
In 2019, the CIPD identified poor management as a leading cause to the rise in stress, with only 32% of senior managers encouraging a focus on mental well-being through their actions and behaviours. By managers have an awareness and understanding of the impact mental health can have on an individual, it can become instrumental in the way they manage their team. Practices such as workload management, autonomy at work and transparency can all implemented with the aim of stress reduction for the team as a matter of priority bearing in mind the possible consequences of not doing so. Unfortunately, it can often be the case that wellbeing is forgotten or de-prioritised in place of short-term goals.
As an organisational leader, considering your expectations, the signals of your own behaviour and making small adjustments can be an important way to foster an environment that is inclusive for those needing to prioritise the work-life balance, for whatever reason.
Championing wellbeing in the workplace
Whilst the above practices could be used in working with a team, being a senior leader can allow the opportunity to influence the wider organisation in improving its approach to stress and mental health.
A number of organisations are now implementing wellbeing strategies which recognise the need for stress to be reduced and encourage a person to be their authentic self at work. With 1 in 4 people experiencing poor mental health each year in the UK, implementing a wellbeing strategy can be an important step in supporting colleagues throughout their tenure in your organisation, and may be helpful in supporting employee retention in the future.
Evidence shows that those with a strong sense of community and belonging are less likely to experience poor mental health. Of all my lessons the most important is continually encouraging a supportive and non-judgemental environment in which people feel able to be their whole selves at work as, surely, there is nothing more important to community and belonging then being able to be accepted for being your authentic self.