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Time to talk: opening up about mental health at work

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Jane McLintock, legal & compliance director at Shire Leasing, discusses how her organisation has started a dialogue on mental health in the workplace – and how staff reacted.

None of us need reminding that a career in the law can be a stressful one that can impact on both our physical and mental wellbeing. However, whilst we talk freely about physical wellbeing, the same cannot be said when it comes to discussing our mental wellbeing. But why? We all have mental health, good or bad, and the consequences can be dire for the individual and their employer if we do not look after it.

It’s a real problem that a subject we don’t like to talk about, affects one in four people every year.

At Shire Leasing, I have been fortunate to be part of a wellbeing steering committee. There are many strands to our work, but one of the issues we have tried to tackle is the stigma around mental health. We want to ensure we have a culture and environment that enables staff to speak openly without fear of being judged or discriminated against. 

Creating the right culture requires a commitment from senior management to support those employees who have mental health challenges to feel that they can be themselves at work and encourage them to look after their own mental health. There is also a strong business case for doing so, as employees feel more valued and engaged. This positive approach has a direct impact on the work environment and, ultimately, the bottom line. The Thriving at Work Review, an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of their employees, revealed an annual cost to employers of between £33 and £42 billion as a result of not supporting people at work with issues relating to mental health.

One of the obstacles to creating a more open culture is that people are too busy to get involved and just want to get on with the day job. However, we found that once you engage with people, that initial reluctance disappears.

At Shire, we hosted a ‘vintage’ tea and cake session over two days during Mental Health Awareness Week, downloading ready-made posters as a way to advertise the event. We set up two of our training rooms as a tearoom, and invited people to sign up for slots, ensuring we had a good mix of people from departments in each seating. Members of senior management on the wellbeing committee served tea and coffee (this went down well!). We had some leaflets about mental health printed, and we used prompts such as origami conversation starters (available from the Time to Change website). We were pleased to find that the dialogue flowed freely, and by being greeted with due respect within this enivronment, staff were more willing to discuss personal issues. There was some initial reluctance on the part of some male members of staff to attend, but as word spread across the business how beneficial and relaxed the event was, more of them signed up.

The feedback we received made the event worthwhile:

‘Very refreshing to be able to speak freely with friendly faces.’

‘Thanks for today – it’s lovely to see that Shire cares and takes issues that people have on a daily basis seriously. It was a great idea.’

‘Amazing atmosphere, very relaxing and would love to do it again!’

It was a good start to raising awareness and seeing past the stigmas associated with mental health. Holding the event has led to a number of other initiatives. We have run mindfulness and emotional intelligence training sessions that are equipping staff to handle situations with members of their team who might need extra support.

We have also signed up to the Mindful Employer Charter, and we offer all staff the opportunity to take a four-week online course in mindfulness. We are now part of the Mindful Employer group of companies working with the Devon NHS Trust, which provides staff and management with access to a 24/7 independent and completely confidential help and advice line.

It has been pleasing to see how much staff have valued our approach, and it has led to a greater understanding of the challenges faced by others across the business. Our culture is changing for the better, with more openness and employees recognising it is OK to say: ‘I am looking after my mental health.’  We are looking forward to our next wellbeing event on mental health in September, which will be a similar two-day event offering staff an opportunity to take some time out of their busy day to talk about, and share their views around wellbeing, and how we can continue to raise the profile of such a vital aspect of our approach to staff engagement.

There is a lot of available support for companies to help tackle this issue and raise awareness; we found the Mental Health Foundation useful. 

Jane McLintock is legal & compliance director at Shire Leasing.

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