4 ways to drive cultural change around mental health at work

Over the past decade, celebrities, royals and politicians have made invaluable contributions towards destigmatising mental health, but they can only go so far. The people who make a more tangible impact on our lives – the figures of opportunity, mentor-ship, even authority – are employers, and they have the single greatest opportunity to break the taboo around mental health. Here are four ways you can do it.

Just four in 10 employers say they’re comfortable with the idea of hiring someone with a history of mental health illness. Considering the oft-cited stat that one in six British workers will face a mental health issue this year, clearly untold opportunities are being missed.

The political strategist turned mental health campaigner, Alastair Campbell, tells a wonderful story of when Tony Blair asked him to join his team in 1994. Before taking on one of the most scrutinized and high-pressured jobs out there, Alastair explained his history of depression and addiction to the future PM. Tony listened, thoughtfully nodding, to stories of breakdowns and alcoholism.

“Well,” said Tony, slightly taken aback, “I’m not bothered if you’re not bothered.”

“What if it does bother me?” Alistair replied.

“I’m still not bothered.”

Alistair took the job and together they went on to win three elections and galvanize a country. The moral of the story is clear. By challenging stigmas, leaders can change attitudes and reap the benefits of working with more diverse and talented teams. We spoke to business leaders and campaigners to explore how to drive cultural change around mental health at work.

1. Create a culture of openness

Francesca Baker, Marketing and Communications Lead at The Lord Mayor’s Appeal, an organisation devoted to finding solutions to societal issues, says working through mental health issues has to start with openness. “Feeling supported by your colleagues – people you spend most of your waking hours with – can have a fundamental impact on your well-being and mental health. But support can only come when those conversations are had, and people know that you need their help.”

Creating a culture of openness means accepting that we can’t all be well all the time. Tania Diggory is the Founder and Director of Calmer, a training organisation specializing in mental well-being, with lived experience of chronic stress and burnout.

She believes: “It’s important to share how we really feel, whether we feel confident and engaged, or struggling to cope and burnt out – or worse. A key aspect of shifting the stigma lies in how we empower ourselves to describe our state of mental health. ‘Today, I feel really content,’ for example, or ‘Today, I’m struggling with my mental health.’ We’re all human, and can experience similar states of mental well-being in varied ways, so talking about mental health ultimately opens up the opportunity to talk about being human.”

2. Education, education, education

The key to managing mental health is understanding it. While running her second business, Tania hit upon a rough patch. “I endured chronic stress, burnout and a period of depression followed by severe anxiety attacks for about a year. At the time, I didn’t recognize what the signs and symptoms were, yet thankfully my support network played a huge part in my recovery, and helped me to identify where my stressors derived from.”

Businesses should be proactive in communicating the signs of mental ill-health to help their work forces address issues before they become problems. Engaged HR outlined the six signs and symptoms to watch for:

  • Changes in work habits.
  • Changes in physical appearance.
  • Changes in demeanour.
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness.
  • Outbursts and mood swings.
  • Seeming withdrawn or avoiding interaction.

3. Storytelling

Storytelling has become one of those business buzzwords bandied about too freely. But in their purest and simplest form, stories are the most powerful form of expression we have. “Employers can empower a conversation around mental health at work by sharing personal stories of a struggle they’ve been through in the past and recovered from,” says Tania.

“It’s important to ensure that you feel you’re sharing from a place of empowerment and healing, in order to encourage others to be open – but at the same time protecting yourself by honestly reflecting on whether your story feels too raw to talk about at that stage.”

Robyn Vernon-Harcourt, Senior Program Manager at the Lord Mayor’s appeal, points out that: “Nine in 10 employees have been touched by mental health. This means that there are people out there with similar experiences who will be able to offer support and empathy.”

4. Embrace technology

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In today’s remote and geographically dispersed professional landscape, technology plays an increasingly important role in unified communication strategies. The ability to give your entire workforce access to mental health support is crucial to driving cultural change.

Meanwhile, workplace mental health platforms provide analytics to give you a deeper insight into your workplace mental well-being, and make interventions accordingly. It’s simply about communicating the right help at the right time – the principle should underpin the mental health technology you use.

At Unmind, we’re excited to be part of this change; to help create a world where mental health is universally understood, nurtured, and celebrated.