It’s been great to see the public support for Mental Health Awareness Week, so many people have bravely shared their stories of depression, anxiety and more in the hope that it will help others.
Sometimes it feels to me that ‘mental health’ has become something of a ‘buzzword’. It’s great to pop on a leaflet that you focus on your employees’ mental health, but do employers really take meaningful action to support those who are struggling?
Clearly, based on the stories I've read this week, there are a lot of good managers doing some really good work to make sure their teams look after their mental health as much as they will look after their physical health.
Mental health problems in the UK cost businesses almost £35 billion a year in sick pay, an astonishing amount. Topics like ‘burnout’ and ‘work/life balance’ are always being discussed, and yet they can easily be addressed and solved.
So, how can organisations make changes within their culture that will actually encourage make a difference?
As a Mum of one, working as a freelance social media manager for a variety of clients – it’s strange to think how much my life has changed in the last three years. When I was ten weeks pregnant in 2016, I was made redundant from the first ‘secure’ job I’d ever had and it threw me into a spin.
I sort of muddled through I think, trying to balance my new life as a Mum with this burning desire to get back to work and sort out my career. I really missed being employed and hated the thought of every minute of my day being about having a child – I needed something for me.
Once my son, Harry, had been born I looked into ways I could return to work and – thankfully – found freelance roles with two PR agencies (Turner PR, who specialise in the charity sector, and Chocolate PR, who are based in Leeds).
Social media management was a completely new path for me, but one I’d wanted to take for years, having been involved in a few campaigns in my previous role. I found myself working through the agencies with a variety of clients and learning a lot in a short space of time.
This, the lingering anger over losing my old job and balancing a family life that I really didn’t think I was any good at, started to become too much for me. After a particularly bad week where I’d had some negative feedback from a client, I had a meltdown in the middle of a street in York.
I knew then that I needed help; so, after a visit to the doctor I self-referred to the Leeds IAPT service and was lucky enough to be booked on for CBT within just a few weeks. I began taking anti-depressants too, which I’ve since been able to come off with no side effects.
The reason I’m sharing this story is that a huge step in my recovery was being able to reach out to my employers and tell them what was wrong. So many people are too scared open up to their boss in case it leads to being discriminated against.
That needs to change.
So, what do employers need to change to help support everyone’s mental health?
Encourage an open dialogue between employees and their line manager:
After being diagnosed with PND, I knew it would be important to share this with my manager, Jenny Turner. When I picked up the phone to call her I was nervous, but I needn’t have been.
The conversation was supportive and kind, she made it clear to me that my health was the priority and we made some changes that would enable me to continue working. Just a few weeks before I had felt my only option was to quit, so this was a huge relief.
Check in regularly:
This is particularly important when you work remotely, as all of us do at Turner PR. We are a busy team, but Jenny and her partner Lucinda place a lot of value on making time for a phone call that asks, ‘are you okay?’
Most importantly, they genuinely care about the answer and I think it’s so important that businesses make that a core part of their culture.
Allow them to work the hours that suit their lifestyle:
Having flexible hours is the main reason I decided to work as a freelancer, they not only allow me a Friday off to spend with my son, they also allow me to focus on my mental health. If I’m feeling low on any given day, it’s possible for me to take a couple of hours away from work, I might have a nap or take myself somewhere nice* for lunch (*for ‘nice’, read McDonald’s!).
With my head clear, I come back to my laptop and do what needs to be done far more efficiently. It is my firm belief that all companies should offer this, because both they and their staff will feel the benefits.
Offer flexibility in other ways, so changes can be made when people are struggling:
After I reached out to Jenny for help, she was able to say to me, ‘take a step back and focus on doing only what you can manage’. Offering flexibility at work shouldn’t just be about the amount of hours staff work – it should also be about allowing them to say ‘no’ to anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.
All too often I hear people with depression saying they can’t refuse work, even though it is making their condition worse. More managers should respect and support an employee’s right to choose.
When someone says, ‘I’m fine’, don’t just leave it at that:
I’ll never forget the head of department in my old job taking the time to discuss why I was struggling with my workload. We discussed how to manage projects in a better way, sure, but she also asked me if I was okay and gave me encouragement to reassure me I was doing well, even though I didn’t think I was.
As it transpired, I had an underlying problem with anxiety and I wish to this day the company had given us all more space to address things like this.
Give regular, positive feedback:
The main thing that served my anxiety and depression was a constant feeling that I’m not very good at what I do and I’ll never amount to anything. Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve been in receipt of some lovely feedback from clients.
The Adult ADHD Channel, in particular, have been great at taking the time to let me know how pleased they are with the content I’ve produced and it genuinely lifts my mood daily. It’s a quick thing that we can all do, and it does make a difference!
Support your teams with their own personal goals:
I know you want your business to make money, but you can’t expect that to be the main driver for each of your employees too. Find out what their dreams are and ask how working for you can help them achieve that, this will breed loyalty and a renewed motivation at work.
I recently began working with a wonderful company called GPS Return and decided to inform them early on that I am currently pregnant with my second child. Managing Partner Simon could not have been more supportive, he was genuinely excited for me and I swear that has added to the loyalty I feel to his company.
If you’re doing all these things… well done. Now shout about it and lead the way for others:
There is still a damaging attitude that mental health issues cause problems for business and it is the employees who need to fix the problem. Actually, the responsibility lies with the employer to help their staff prevent things from becoming so bad they can no longer work.
What have you done this week to make sure your teams are okay? And don’t forget to ‘check-in’ with yourself too!