It’s 10am. I’m sat on the floor gasping for breath. I’ve just had a monumental panic attack. I’ve had them before but this one terrifies me. It was the final curtain call of my body telling me to just stop. I had been having heart palpitations for weeks, but I kept saying “yes” to any request sent my way.
The little devil on my shoulder was telling me that I’d never make anything of my life if I got signed off and that stopping was a sign of weakness. The dreaded burnout was calling. Once I caught my breath, I saw my phone ringing, it was HR. I was subsequently signed off for ten days by my doctor, and then put on a phased return for eight weeks, with the full support of my team, clients and leadership. I couldn’t have felt more supported on my return to the fold. I’m now back at work full-time and building up my workload again in a sustainable way.
Unfortunately, my outcome is uncommon. Research from Opinium suggested that 92% of agency staff have suffered with their mental wellbeing, as opposed to 62% of the general population. This is unacceptable. As is the continued split in our approach to mental as opposed to physical health. If you knew 92% of your staff would be subject to a suffer a long-term physical illness due to their working environment, you’d be taking serious steps to prevent this. Prevention is better than cure, as the adage goes. So, what if, as an agency collective we could break down the stigma between the physical and mental divide and develop a culture of true mental wellbeing?
Many of us see our colleagues more than we do our friends, family or partners. It’s time to accept a bigger share of the responsibility in jointly looking out for one another’s emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing at work.
“All very well and good. But how?” Establishing a culture of wellbeing takes time. The key to unlocking wellness at work is through a combination of education, leadership support and openness. As is being aware that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
Health does not discriminate. Different races, genders, ages, religions, sexual orientations, disabilities and job roles will all have unique needs – and different ways to approach wellbeing. There is huge potential to empower ‘crowd-sourced’ initiatives to take root and flourish, encouraging the innate creativity of our employees to express itself in all its diversity.
To be successful, we need to allow company-wide initiatives to be created, built and promoted from the ground up, rather than simply directing from the top. We’d recommend establishing a wellbeing committee within your agency and inviting a cross-section of employees to join and contribute.
We’ve established that health does not discriminate. Neither will it wait for us all to be ‘ready’. The marketing industry is at the beginning of its journey. Shifting the conversation will take time. We can’t prevent all cases of work-based mental illness that occur, but we can all become more aware of the signs and triggers surrounding it. You know your peers well, so look out for any recent personality changes. Are they withdrawn? Are they becoming more vocal to things they wouldn’t normally react to? Have they recently experienced a trauma, or have their personal circumstances changed?
Even if you don’t already have a wellbeing programme in place there are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of stress and work pressures on the individual, and on the company. Leaders can refer to the Mind Employers’ Guide, and work with HR to establish support systems without judgement, including managed time out when it’s needed. The simple acknowledgement of mental wellbeing at your agency can go a long way to help create a culture of openness.
For instance, acknowledgement of mental health at work by printing out Mind support and putting it in the toilet cubicles or promoting World Mental Health Day on your social channels. After all, it’s the little things that count. Conclusion Thanks to better communication and awareness the stigma that wrongly surrounded mental health problems is lifting. As expectations rise, so to do employers obligations to support employees in changing the dialogue on work-related mental illness. The implementation of a wellbeing programme should not be a burden. It can be a very rewarding journey however you start it. In an ideal world it will ultimately become a holistic part of your culture and will fit in seamlessly with all other operational matters.
The sooner we take steps to shift the narrative from “illness” to “wellness”, we can all become better, together, and ensure that every story ends as well as mine.
Setting up a wellbeing committee
- Educate yourself: Step 1 complete, you’re reading this article.
- Build a mental wellbeing team: if you’re interested in supporting mental wellbeing within your agency, start the conversation with your peers and build a task force. Seek out people with a view to coming together once a month or so, to discuss any current issues and put plans in place.
- Get management support: there is clearly a critical ‘top-down’ influence in terms of senior management setting the right examples, so getting buy-in from agency leaders is key.
- Survey your peers: the most important step: ask everyone. What are your colleagues looking for from a wellbeing programme that represents them? What are their biggest concerns around the subject? Anonymise the survey or use closed questions to gain the best insight.
- Hold focus groups: it’s time to broaden the conversation. Take the key topics from your survey results and use them as discussion points to help identify the real drivers behind them.
- Present and plan: it’s time to bring the team back together with your agency leader to discuss what you’ve found. Use your findings to outline a pilot to trial with the agency.
- Host your pilot plan Now it’s time to try. Whatever plan you’ve devised will be tailored to your specific audience, so you will hopefully see great engagement amongst your peers.
- Launch your official committee: once you’ve run your pilot and have a good idea of how best to support your staff, you can officially launch your wellbeing initiative to the wider agency. Let them know who is involved, and what you have planned for the year.
- Keep the conversation going: the journey towards mental wellbeing never ends. And nor should the work of your wellbeing committee.
Sara Foxley, senior account manager, Twogether
N.B. this article was originally wrongly attributed; the correct author is Sara Foxley