Interconnected cogs, engraved with the words, ‘mental health’, ‘happiness’, ‘positive thinking’, ‘positive energy’ and ‘optimism.’

How to create a workplace where mental health can thrive

Even without the perfect storm of Covid 19, there is every chance that you have struggled with your mental health or work with someone who does. It’s not an assumption – the numbers speak for themselves. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 264 million people suffer from depression, making it one of the world’s most prevalent disabilities. Unfortunately, a lingering stigma around mental health issues means that many sufferers still feel that it’s something to hide. But the very fact that it’s a topic for discussion is ushering in a new understanding of the effects of poor mental health on the individual, society and the future of work.

If you don’t have a culture of openness around mental wellbeing in your business then, without even realising it, you are being affected. On a personal level, you might feel that it’s easier to call in sick with food poisoning than admit to just not being able to face the day. Or you may feel mentally exhausted and know that you’re just going through the motions. Maybe you’ve noticed a colleague working at almost unsustainable levels, who is likely to be at risk of burnout. At a corporate level, there are the broader ‘invisible costs’ of lowered productivity and compromised business performance. Organisations that do not accept poor mental health as a key issue for its people are the ones likely to see an even greater negative impact on profit.

So, what steps can businesses take to foster a culture of openness, acceptance and support around issues of mental health? Jonny Jacobs is EMEA Finance Director at Starbucks, a trustee of the Mental Health Foundation and an advocate for mental wellbeing and mental fitness in the workplace. He has, in his words, “lived experience of mental health” and has a valuable personal and corporate   perspective. He recommends some great ways to destigmatise the conversation around mental health in the workplace and promote a culture that benefits everyone.

A blonde woman, wearing glasses, a t-shirt and leggings, sits on the couch with her bare feet up on the seat. She looks at a laptop, which rests on her legs and holds a pen in her right hand.
Lost productivity from employee depression and anxiety is estimated to cost to the global economy one trillion US Dollars per year.

Look at your language

The words we use to talk about mental health and wellbeing can shape the way our organisations approach the issue. We can endeavour to break the cycle of negativity and stigma by framing the subject gently and positively. “Language is important,” says Jonny. “When I first used the words ‘mental health’, I could feel the stigma, but when I began to talk about ‘positive minds’ I saw a lot more engagement.” He recommends opening up a dialogue at work and asking, ‘what does this mean to you?’ and ‘how would describe it?’ in order to adopt a language that can be used comfortably throughout the business. 

Assess the psychological safety within your business

If you’ve never heard the term before, then it’s a good time to get to know it. Sometimes described as the ability to ‘bring your whole self to work’, if any of your people have an inherent fear of being viewed or labelled negatively at work and hide aspects of themselves in order to prevent this, then it’s time to take a deep and honest look at your company culture. “Feeling that you can be yourself and treated with respect, and you’re valued and included, has never been so important as it is right now. And it’s that belief that we’re taking some type of risk in an unsafe environment that might lead to a negative impact,” explains Jonny. “There are lots of studies on the positive impact that psychologically safe environments can have on product innovation and company growth. And there’s also a correlation between not having psychological safety and not growing.”

We talk all the time about physical hazards, but when do we really talk about psychological hazards?

Promote ‘positive mental fitness’

There are some very real actions that can be taken towards fostering a corporate culture that takes care of itself. Learning and Development functions can provide tools and workshops to support stress management, mindfulness and techniques to cope with anxiety and overwhelm. Any focus on overall health and wellbeing must always factor in mental as well as physical health, and partnering with mental health charities is a great way to benefit from their expertise and resources – it’s also a great way to bring teams together in fundraising activities that send a strong and unifying message about the importance of mental health in your business. Jonny cites the example of pladis (global snacking business and owner of famous British brand McVities) partnering with mental health charity, MIND. “Ultimately the aim was to try and promote positive mental fitness and create an environment to support people in tough times, and the message of ‘be kind to your mind, with McVities and MIND’ really resonated.”

Talk, but also invest

Covid 19 has accelerated the global conversation around health and mental health, which can only be a good thing. However, some organisations might feel hesitant to allocate budget to something that feels intangible, but they’d be wrong, as lost productivity from employee depression and anxiety is estimated to cost to the global economy one trillion US Dollars per year. “If I put my Finance Director hat on,” says Jonny, “the cost to business really is quite startling. But if we invest in prevention and get it right it’s also huge opportunity.” Quite simply, it makes sound financial sense to address issues of poor mental health in the workplace and can actually represent a very positive return on investment. “Never has it been so important and I think we have to be really careful to keep the focus, particularly in an economic downturn, where some organisations might simply spend less money to support this.”

Raise your hand

As the expression goes ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ but saying the words and living by them are very different indeed. There has never been a more purposeful time to be a strong role model and if you have experienced problems with your own mental health, find a way to tell your story. Your honesty, resilience, empathy, and openness in how and where you find strength are powerful drivers of a corporate culture where mental wellbeing is highly valued. “Leadership will play an important role here. When we have vulnerable leaders, who are able to talk about things, that can really help move this forward.” Additionally, it’s important to lead the way behaviourally. Take good care of your own wellbeing, draw boundaries around work and home, practise active self-care in nutrition, sleep and exercise. The way you look after yourself sets the standard for your people.

Find Jonny Jacobs and other inspiring figures on the Canon ILLUMINATE Connects podcast, where you’ll find fresh thinking, great ideas and new ways to improve the way we live and work.

Written by Debbie Brown, HR Director Canon UK & Ireland

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