From education to employment

#BeKind this World Mental Health Day

someone sitting down with a shadow

Global events throughout the past 18 months have left many of us experiencing higher levels of stress resulting from feelings of disconnection, uncertainty, and a worrying loss of control. Navigating in and out of national lockdowns, enforced isolations and a lack of social interaction, coupled with the post-pandemic anxiety of a workplace return, means that paying attention to workplace mental health has never been more important.

However, recent research from Lime indicates that only 16% of UK workers feel very well supported at work when it comes to mental health, and 40% say they will look for a new job if their employer doesn’t do more. This World Mental Health Day, we spoke to seven industry experts about how employers can build a culture of care and better support employees as we navigate the next frontier of working life.

Added strain

Terry Storrar, Managing Director at Leaseweb UK, cites a study conducted this year by St. John’s Ambulance which found that one in four people had left a job due to mental health and wellbeing issues, up from one in five in 2018. “As we spend today recognising World Mental Health Day it’s important that we reflect on our own actions and consider what more we can be doing to promote mental wellbeing in the workplace,” Storrar notes.

“The necessity of looking after our mental health has never been more true,” adds Richard Guy, Country Sales Manager UK & Ireland at Ergotron. “While the most obvious route to help combat this is for individuals to take ownership, this responsibility also lies with employers, who have an obligation to workers – many of whom are still remote – to care for not only their physical health but their mental wellbeing, too.”

Laurie Sorensen, Leadership and Talent Development Manager at ConnectWise, furthers this sentiment. “When we see someone coming down the sidewalk wearing a cast on an arm or on a leg, we immediately understand that something has happened to their body and that they have a healing journey ahead of them. We might even have a small picture of what their pain has been like. But if someone is struggling with mental health, they don’t wear that on the outside. The people around them may have no idea what’s been going on.”

Is the stigma around mental health changing?

One of the greatest challenges we face this World Mental Health Day is the stigma that surrounds the discussion of mental wellbeing. “Although mental illness affects an estimated one in four adults, we still have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness and advocating against social stigma,” explains Gillian Mahon, Chief People and Places Officer at Totalmobile. “During the course of the pandemic, many of us have suffered from complications with our mental health, or seen a loved one go through it and experienced first-hand the disparity between the UK’s mental health crisis and the help available.”

This means that as a society today we’re more aware of our own mental wellbeing, and of those around us, than ever before. Promisingly, Dave Birchall, Chief People Officer at Node4, highlights that the stigma that often accompanies this topic has significantly reduced and attitudes towards mental ill health are continuing to change for the better. “While collectively we still have a way to go, there are many things organisations can do to help support their employees. Small acts can make a big difference, whether it is a regular coffee morning for people to connect and catch-up, providing tips and techniques to help tackle anxiety and manage stress, or access to professional support services.”

So, this World Mental Health Day, what should we be doing to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of our friends and colleagues?

“With so much misinformation and guilt surrounding mental health, one of the most valuable things we can do is to open up the conversation and improve communication with each other,” notes Mahon. “For example, one of the hardest places to create an open dialogue around mental health is the workplace. However, there can be huge benefits found in utilising new digital communication platforms, such as interactive apps which can accurately track employees’ mental and physical health over time and then offer approved guidance on potential actions to improve wellbeing.”

Destabilising employees’ ‘always on’ mentality 

The pressure to work extra hours has made workers increasingly vulnerable to burnout and poor mental health, especially when working remotely over the last eighteen months.

Samantha Humphries, Head of Security Strategy EMEA at Exabeam, highlights that due to the unpredictable nature of data breaches, security operations teams commonly work in an always on state, which leaves many with the inability to switch off when they down tools for the day.

“We continue to see a relentless volume of attacks and breaches, from phishing to ransomware to insider threats and unfortunately for some even nation state attacks. Coupled with extended periods of working from home in the last year for many of us, it has meant balancing parenting and home-schooling with professional responsibilities.”

A key element of supporting mental wellbeing in the home is to ensure that employees utilise their desktops, laptops and furniture safely,” furthers Guy. “This includes ensuring the monitor is at the correct height, having a comfortable chair and avoiding staying sedentary for long periods. While we tackle the challenges of the new world in which we find ourselves, organisations must take responsibility to provide workers with a safe and comfortable working environment to boost employee morale and mental health.”

What are companies doing this World Mental Health Day?

This World Mental Health Day we challenge all organisations to examine what they are doing to support their employees’ mental wellbeing.

“Here at Node4 we’re committed to looking after our employee’s mental wellbeing and destigmatising mental ill health,” reflects Birchall. “Among an extensive array of wellbeing-focused initiatives, we provide our employees with a 24/7/365 counselling service as well as access to qualified mental health first aiders. We also have a wellbeing centre focused on mind, finance, fitness and nutrition, including discounted gym memberships, and a cycle to work scheme. We also feature case studies and personal experiences of mental health struggles within our internal monthly magazine – all helping to de-stigmatise the topic and make it OK to talk about.”

At Leaseweb we are always looking for new methods to improve our employee’s lives and cultivate a positive workplace culture,” Storrar adds. “Some of the ways that we ensure this is by implementing regular check-ins with our staff, introducing workshops specifically designed to challenge negative behaviours and mindsets, and ensuring regular conversations are taking place with anyone who indicates they are struggling. During challenging times, one of the most important things you can do is simply to let someone know that you are there for them no matter what. Sometimes, this can make all the difference. After all, as Robin Williams once said, “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

Liz Cook, People Director at Six Degrees, adds:

“My company, Six Degrees, has taken a number of initiatives to support employees who may be suffering increased stress during these unprecedented times. Along with bolstering our team of mental health first aiders and carrying out lunch and learn sessions on mental wellbeing, we have created working guidelines for wellbeing which reiterate that if people continue to need to work flexible hours due to personal reasons or commitments, it is still so important to ensure they take a lunch break for some time away from the screen and to get some fresh air. People should also consider the impact of sending emails or Teams messages outside of core hours, as they sometimes won’t appreciate the stress this can cause people receiving them.”

As we approach World Mental Health Day, I’m encouraging myself, and everyone I know, to be a supportive peer. And I hope you’ll do the same,” Sorensen concludes. “Be a good listener. Realise that there’s a lot more going on inside the people around us than we may know about. Give each other permission to not be okay. We’ve all lived through a lot in these past couple of years. Being a friend to someone in need, being someone who is there to listen, even when it’s painful, is so important. It can mean the world to someone struggling inside.”

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