How to build mental health resilience in the workplace

Public awareness of mental health and wellbeing has never been greater. On television, in newspapers and online, there are daily references to mental health and its impact on people, employers and on society.

This is great news, because talking about mental health is an important step towards really helping people. The more we talk about the subject, the less taboo it will become. However, we still have an awful long way to go.

Business leaders are taking this seriously too. Almost weekly, I get a call from a company asking what they need to do to put in place a mental health and wellbeing strategy. This is really good news, because it shows that the message is getting through to employers.

In this post, I don’t want to reel off statistics and data, suffice to say mental ill-health is now at the top of the list when it comes to time lost at work. Instead, I would like to spend a little time discussing the main things a company should do to help their employees.

I believe there is a six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. Put simply, the six stages are:

  • Identify the risk: the baseline
  • Pledge support: the commitment
  • Develop a plan: the journey
  • Champion the cause: the support
  • Coach leadership: the change
  • Providing support: the counsellor

Identifying the risk: the baseline

The first thing that employers need to do is to identify whether or not they have a problem. A company may have perfectly happy employees, who are all fulfilled at work and who thrive on their daily challenges.

At the other end of the spectrum, a company may have a very negative culture, with high absenteeism, and with some of their employees on the brink of collapse.

The first step is to identify the risk. Is your company at one end of the spectrum or somewhere in the middle? You need to know where you are so that you can plan your journey for improvement.

There are many ways to identify the risk. The simple approach is to ask employees to complete a mental health and wellbeing questionnaire. There are some very good off-the-shelf questionnaires that will help categorise where the risk lies. However, I don’t think questionnaires on their own are effective. I much prefer a combination approach; completing questionnaires and one-to-one sampling of the workforce. A properly trained interviewer (usually a counsellor or psychotherapist) can glean a huge amount of information during a ten-minute one-to-one session with an employee.

The output from the questionnaire and from the sampling will provide an accurate picture of the level of risk within the company. More importantly, it will show which areas are weak.

Pledge support: the commitment

Next comes the pledge. Let’s hear it from the boss. It is incredibly important for top management to address mental health in a proactive manner. They need to pledge support and they need to commit to a policy. I find a one-page policy on wellbeing works nicely. It is something that can be published across the company for all employees to see. The pledge needs to be signed by the top dog.

A policy and pledge should clearly show that mental wellbeing is high on the company’s agenda. It should show commitment from the boss, and it should include something about early intervention and securing appropriate funds to finance wellbeing initiatives. The policy should challenge the stigma of mental ill-health by committing to raising awareness across the company.

Develop a plan: the journey

The third stage is to plan. Armed with information from the baseline survey, the journey for improvement needs to be planned and documented. The journey starts here.

It is a great idea to set up a consultation group to help develop the plan. The consultation group should consist of volunteers from across the company and should include representatives from senior management, from line supervision, representatives from each department and from trade unions too.

I have a few corporate clients where I chair their consultation group. We meet every quarter to discuss progress against the plan. It is a wonderfully positive meeting, full of enthusiasm and support. It always amazes me how innovative people can be. A few months ago, I sat and listened to a group discussing how to promote life-work balance. Suddenly, someone exclaimed: “We could use the WELL concept.” All eyes turned to the lady as she described her idea. She suggested putting together a company-wide initiative, using a themed approach, around the concept of Work, Engage, Learn, Live. Amazingly simple, but they have now embraced the WELL concept and everywhere you go across the company’s sites you can see posters that explain how to work, engage, learn and live.

Champion the cause: the support

The phrase ‘mental health first aid’ is doing the rounds at the moment. I think this is a wonderful thing. If an employee cuts their finger while at work, they would pop along to the first-aid station to get a plaster and a bit of TLC from the local first-aider. However, if an employee is close to emotional breaking point, who do they turn to?

Training mental health first aiders is an essential stage in building workplace resilience. Properly trained people, who can offer support to employees, can be invaluable.

Every company should have at least one Mental Health Champion. I advise the 1:50 ratio; there should be one properly trained champion for every 50 employees. Mental health and wellbeing champions are there to advise management and to offer emotional support to employees when needed.

I conduct a lot of training courses but my favourite course is the Mental Health Champion course. Delegates on the three-day course are enthusiastic and motivated, and it is a complete joy to be helping them to discover the huge rewards from being a mental health champion.

Most people don’t know what to do if a colleague is on the brink of emotional crisis. These courses teach how to recognise when a person is in need of support and how best to support them. Active listening is a key skill when dealing with emotional wellbeing and these courses teach this important skill that can be used in and out of work.

Coach leadership: the change

Who ‘controls’ the workplace? Is it the man or woman at the top of the tree?

Undoubtedly, the person who controls the company is the Managing Director or the Chief Operating Officer, but do they really influence attitudes and behaviours at the coal-face?

A few weeks ago, I was involved in carrying out a baseline mental health survey of a large international manufacturing company. I asked one of the shop floor workers, “when did she last talk with the COO?” To my surprise, she told me she had no idea who that person was, let alone having ever met them. I interviewed the COO a few days later and asked him why the majority of people in his company had no idea who he was. His reply was simple. He said: “I crunch numbers, I secure funding, and I make sure we have enough money in the bank to pay salaries at the end of each month. I employ supervisors to run the business and to manage people, so nobody needs to know me.” Interesting point, I said.

Now, whether you agree or disagree with that COO’s idea of running a business is clearly open to debate. But, he did make an interesting point. How can he possibly know 6,800 people? Supervisors and line managers know more about their teams than anyone else in the company. It is their job to look after the wellbeing of their teams. Ironically, these are the very people who can cause most damage to a person’s mental wellbeing. Poor management and poor leadership skills can wreak havoc with a person’s mental state of mind.

How many supervisors come up through the ranks, from shop floor to management positions? Most of them. But how many of them have been trained in the people-skills that are so important in today’s world? Not many.

I worked with a company last year where I got to know most of the supervisors quite well. One guy had been an electrician in the company for 20 years. He knew more about the electrical systems in that firm that anyone else. He was a very skilled tradesman. Then he was promoted to supervisor! Disaster.

That poor electrician quickly went from a position of expert to a position of incompetence. His management skills, or lack of, had a huge effect on his team. His staff were stressed out, absenteeism in his department was the highest across the company and the team’s reputation went spiralling out of control. Why? Because senior management had promoted someone on the merit of his skill and not on his management abilities. He was completely oblivious to the damage that he was causing. He became depressed and was prescribed medication from his GP.

All levels of supervision and management need to be trained in ‘managing people’. Getting the best from your staff, in a safe and healthy way, is a skill that cannot be achieved without proper training and coaching. That is why this stage in the wellbeing journey is so important.

Providing support: the counsellor

Sometimes, all the proactive stuff just isn’t enough. Sure, it is always better to fix the cage before the tiger escapes, but sometimes the lock on the cage door is just too rusty and it is a matter of time before escape is inevitable. When the tiger gets out, we need to have contingencies to find it and to return it safely to its enclosure (with a new lock on the door). Okay, enough of the tiger analogy. The important thing here is for employers to recognise that sometimes being reactive is okay.

Employees should be provided with the opportunity to get help when they need it. Every employer should set up an employee support system, so that employees can discuss their personal issues with a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. This is an absolutely essential aspect of building resilience in the workplace.

And so, that is it. The six-stage approach to building mental health resilience in the workplace. It is important for employers to start their journey by identifying the level of risk. They need to pledge support and they need to set out a detailed plan for improvement. Training mental health champions and first aiders is vitally important, and so too is the need for leadership training and coaching. Finally, access to a counselling service for staff needs to be in place. If a company were to put all of these things in place, they will be well on the way to keeping their workforce safe and healthy.

If anyone has experience of building mental health and wellbeing resilience in the workplace, I would love to hear from you. Let me know what worked, what didn’t work, and the challenges along the way.

For more information on the things discussed in this post, please visit our website.

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits of forest bathing

What is the main similarity between sushi and forest bathing?

They are both imports from Japan!

When sushi first arrived on the shores of the UK there was much scepticism about the food. But look at how it has taken off. Perhaps forest bathing will go the same way.

What is forest bathing?

Many people might think forest bathing is something to do with swimming in a river that flows through a forest. In fact, it has nothing to do with swimming, nor bathing. Instead, it is all about using your senses to soak up the atmosphere of a forest.

Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Surprisingly, it is also one of the most heavily forested countries too. In the 1980s, The Japanese government, concerned about high stress levels, carried out research that found a two-hour forest-bathing session reduced blood pressure and lowered cortisol levels. Cortisol spikes during periods of stress and although we need this steroid, continual high levels can be detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees release phytoncides, which are antimicrobials. These help to protect them from insects and bacteria. The research in Japan concluded that phytoncides could have an anti-microbial effect on humans. In Japan, forest bathing, known as shinrin-yoku, was introduced as a national health programme.

More recently, the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Japan’s Chiba University, measured physiological effects of 280 people. Blood pressure, cortisol levels and pulse rates were measured during a day in the city and then compared with the same biometrics taken during an hour in a forest. The study found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol and greater parasympathetic nerve activity, which is associated with stress reduction.

Scepticism

Yes, I was definitely sceptical when I first read all this stuff about tree-hugging. And then I thought, why not give it a go. I started researching shinrin-yoku a few years ago and I am now fully hooked on the concept. I have always enjoyed walks in the forest, but I have found a whole new dimension to time amongst the trees.

Forest bathing is not simply ‘walking in the forest’. Instead, it is about allowing all your senses to experience mindfulness in nature. It is a form of meditation.

I often take small groups into the forest for art and photography therapy. One of the first things I do now is to get my group to sit down and close their eyes. I ask them to concentrate and to ‘feel’ the ground beneath their feet. After a few minutes, I ask them to concentrate on their breathing and to enjoy inhaling the scent of pine trees. Next comes sound. Concentrating on the different sounds of the forest can reveal amazing things that might otherwise be missed. Finally, after about 15 minutes, I get my group to open their eyes and look up into the canopy. I challenge everyone to find at least twenty different things. Usually they spot many more than this.

Mindfulness in nature can really help to reduce stress, and to bring about a feeling of happiness and contentment.

I would highly recommend spending some time in a forest. But don’t just walk amongst the trees, instead enjoy all they have to offer the senses. You could even end your forest bathing session with a Japanese tea ceremony, which involves taking tea infused with foraged nettles, pine needles or blackberries. The first cup is traditionally offered to the forest, as a thank you.

Let me know if you have tried forest bathing and mindfulness in nature.

 

 

 

 

 

They are not laughing now

I know this an old story, but I like to keep it alive. It is a story of hope for everyone who has self-doubt and for those who hide behind a caricature they present to the world.

Whenever I work with a new client, particularly those who are struggling with their identity, I always send them a link to a clip on YouTube. The reaction I usually get from people who haven’t already seen the clip is incredible. Most people are moved by the shy 47-year-old who has spent her life being dismissed and written off. I have watched it many times and I am still moved by it today.

I am talking about Susan Boyle. She lived in a small town in Scotland, and she dreamed about being a professional singer since she was 12 years old. Susan was bullied at school and she suffered from mental ill-health throughout her life. Shy, retiring, and a person with massive self-doubt describes Susan. I could go on and on with words such as ‘lacking self-confidence’, ‘insecure’ and ‘reserved’ – all of these describe Susan Boyle.

But Susan had a dream, and she kept hold of that dream. In many ways, I think her desire to achieve her aim was stronger than her low self-esteem. Her dream kept her going.

Persuaded by friends and relations, Susan took the plunge and applied for the TV show, Britain’s Got Talent. When she stepped onto the stage at the auditorium in Glasgow, the judges laughed, winced and cringed as the very nervous Susan Boyle tried to introduce herself. The audience was laughing too. They were anticipating an awful performance. Judges and the audience had written-off Susan before she got started. They were looking at the outside of the person rather than anticipating what was within.

And then an incredible thing happened. Susan raised the microphone and she started to sing. Within 30 seconds the audience were on their feet. Susan delivered a stunning performance, a performance for every person who has ever felt they were robbed of hope.

At the end of the performance, Susan watched the packed auditorium deliver a standing ovation. The presenters, Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly, grinned from cheek to cheek. The judges’ expressions were of shock, surprise and wonderment.

Piers Morgan, one of the judges on the show, said: “Without doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years on this show.” Morgan told Susan, “When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Paige,’ everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now.”

That audition was almost ten years ago and since then Susan has gone on to release many albums and has toured the world. However, she has been suffering with health problems and hasn’t done very much, at least musically, for the last three years. But things are changing again because she will be releasing a new ‘come-back’ album before the end of the year.

I think Susan’s story is great. People who watch the clip are often inspired to do things they have been dreaming about. They give it a go regardless of what people think of them. That is the crux of this tale. Not everyone will end up with a £50 million fortune like Susan Boyle, but everyone can give it a go.

People might mock, they might laugh, and they might try to discourage you from your dream. Don’t let them. Hang onto your dream and visualise it. If you want something badly enough, give it a go. Let them laugh and mock if they want to, because deep inside you will be fulfilled and happy.

Please watch the clip and let me know your thoughts.