Celebrate how you support mental health, but always commit to doing more

In Mental Health Week, it’s a good time to highlight your brand’s efforts to protect staff wellbeing, but you need to spend the rest of the year putting them into practice.

How are you doing? I am feeling a little frazzled. I am not the only one. Feeling stressed and worried during a global pandemic are perfectly normal responses.

Many of us will have lost family and friends from the virus; we will have been understandably concerned about contracting it; and, beyond the fear, it has had a massive impact on our every day lives. Jobs have been lost, movements restricted, physical and social interaction curbed. It has been hard – really hard – to cope.

It is hardly surprising more people are reporting poor mental health, but it is great that people are actually acknowledging it. It wasn’t too long ago that it was not mentioned; to talk about any kind of mental fragility was taboo. Fortunately, as individuals, within our families and friendship groups, and in our workplaces, we are getting better at talking about it. And we know that for many mental health conditions, talking is an important part of tackling them.

This week is Mental Health Week. There are lots of things happening in workplaces and communities online and in real life. Mental wellbeing is featuring in storylines in soaps and drama, there are some incredibly powerful documentaries on TV and radio, and some fantastic podcasts. Celebrities are sharing their experiences. Brands are talking about it. And I am delighted. It has taken years of work from organisations like Mind and Rethink to get to a place where mental health is taken as seriously as physical health.

Please make sure that this week is the icing on the cake – you do need to have already baked the cake.

As ever, I would add a note of caution to employers, and brands especially. Of course I want you to use Mental Health Week to shine a spotlight on all the great work you are doing to support the mental wellbeing of your employees and your consumers. But note the use of the word ‘spotlight’.

If you are to be authentic, to be credible and to support rather than hinder, please make sure that this week is the icing on the cake – you do need to have already baked the cake. This is the week you celebrate what you have already done and commit to doing more. It shouldn’t be, it can’t be, the week you talk about the importance of looking after one’s mental health but in fact do nothing to contribute to supporting the wellbeing of colleagues.

I actually think that many, many organisations are doing it right. They are taking the issue seriously. There has been far less calling out of brands on social media this year than previously. A reflection of the fact, perhaps, that the last 15 months have forced us to be more actively interested and engaged in the physical and mental health of ourselves and our teams. I have been struck by how many leaders (whether of small units or massive businesses) have stepped up.

Need for social interaction

As lockdown eases over the next weeks and months, we need to build back with mental health front of mind. I do worry about all the talk of closing down offices and permanent remote working. I recognise that there is a financial benefit to the employer to not having to pay for expensive office space and that there is a tranche of people who are hesitant about going back to the office (especially the commute). But I would warn that working on one’s own does not support good mental health.

We are human beings; we need social interactions. We need to see other people, see them smile, hear them laugh. We want to have a chat about how Line of Duty ended (don’t get me started). We need to share our worries and fears over a cuppa. We produce better work when we spark off each other, when we bring together a host of different perspectives and ideas to solve a problem. And we do all of this better in person, not on a scheduled Teams call.

We can’t lose sight of personal connections when managing teams remotely

We also learn and teach better when we are together. I am increasingly concerned about how people are learning to do their jobs. Converting in-person training courses to online is all very well, but I learned so much from observing my bosses, seeing how others handled calls with tricky journalists and clients, negotiated deals, talked about audiences, planned campaigns. Almost everything I know today was learned through osmosis, insight and experience gained while I was sat in a room with brilliant people.

My juniors don’t have the chance to observe others more experienced than them in the same way. They also don’t have the opportunity to form relationships with their peers as the rest of us did. It is more than just missing out on the post-work fun. We know that having a strong network of people who have been through similar experiences helps build resilience, which is a really important component of good mental health.

This past 15 months we have managed because we have had to. As we think of innovative ways of working, let’s make sure we are able to work together in a way that promotes productivity, creativity, collaboration, learning, resilience and above all wellbeing. That way we can all thrive.