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I believe that the tide is changing when it comes to our attitude to mental illness. Organisations are increasingly putting the mental wellbeing of their employees high on their agenda, and you don’t have to look very far to see the variety of initiatives on offer. However, recent CIPD research has shown that even though most organisations are taking some action to improve their staff mental health at work, just half of us believe that our workplace is actually effective at doing so.

With 92% of agency employees suffering with poor mental health, it’s critical that mental health care isn’t just a box-ticking exercise and that it makes a tangible change to staff wellbeing, and at Haygarth Group this has been our main objective.

At Haygarth, we offer a wide variety of benefits, from financial ones such as private health insurance, income protection and visits from a financial advisor, to soft benefits that include regular socials, charity fundraisers and the ever-popular dog days (which were so successful that we went from an initial trial to becoming a fully dog-friendly agency).

Many of our discretionary benefits are well-used and of course they’re great for recruitment, and the soft benefits genuinely do make our days a little bit brighter. But rather than just offering up a wide variety of standard ‘perks’ across the board, we’ve made great efforts to align our agency’s benefits to the specific needs of our people and this is especially the case for our mental health support.

As an agency that heroes our culture of collaboration and effective communication, we have repeatedly seen first-hand the positive impact on our mental wellbeing that results from a simple chat, and this was something we wanted to build on. This is how we came to launch Mental Health Conversations at the beginning of last year: in a welcoming and intimate setting, we opened up the conversation around mental health in the workplace.

 

Give us a sign

The aim of these voluntary sessions, held monthly in our open-plan creative area, is to inform, to discuss and to signpost. Initially the format was traditional - it would involve a short presentation on a different aspect of mental health, followed by some leading questions to establish a discussion. We would then communicate the various sources of support available, often tailored to the subject of the day. Initially we were unclear what the uptake would be on the sessions – and to me it didn’t matter if one person or thirty people turned up, in all honesty - but the emphasis was on making mental health a regular topic of conversation for whoever wanted to participate. And some days, the intimacy of a smaller group encouraged more open and personal sharing, where on others, a bigger audience lead to a broader scope of opinion and conversation.

We wanted everyone to be able to take something away – whether that was facts and figures, a perspective of someone going through a mental illness they’d never personally considered before, or the understanding that they could begin to open up about their own mental health without prejudice. Before long we had employees from across the agency volunteering to share their experiences and advice, and we covered topics from disordered eating, to autism, to mental health in the LGBT community.

The feedback that’s come back to me about Mental Health conversations has been mostly very positive. Many of our employees have reported that the sessions have increased their awareness of mental illness, brought the agency closer together and encouraged them to be open about discussing their own mental health at work. I’ve also been told that one of our team has heard more about mental health at Haygarth in a matter of weeks than they have at years in other agencies, which has come up repeatedly in our exit interviews.

 

Beyond the usual solutions

For the rest of this year, Mental Health Conversations will take a more creative direction and will emphasise the benefits of creative activities on our stress levels, concentration skills and the ability to switch off from work and focus on a mindful activity.

Although we spend a lot of time socialising as an agency, much of it involves our beloved local pub and while that’s also important for team-building, we hope that engaging with our colleagues in a creative piece, completely separate from work, will foster collaboration further and build trust in each other. Trust of course being essential in enabling mental health-related conversations. While our plans for the activities this year have not yet been set in stone, we are working towards having card design, collage making, sketching and yoga as options for taking an hour out of our day. Our plan is to encourage the same level of conversation while enjoying these more mindful activities.

By continuing to make mental health a regular topic of conversation, we hope that our staff will be able to bring their true selves to work, and will be more likely to open up to family, a friend or a colleague when they are struggling. And in putting conversation at the top of our agenda we also aim to demonstrate that our staff can speak to a Mental Health First Aider, HR or their line manager without fear of ramifications, in order for us to provide the right support and guidance for them so they can access the medical intervention needed.

In terms of tackling the stigma around mental illness, I would be naïve to believe that we can overcome this completely and as a society, we still have a long way to go. But as part of an agency making conversations about mental health a priority, I know that there has been a palpable shift in perception and I believe that more workplaces should give mental health the airtime it deserves.

 

Louise Serto?lu, HR advisor at Haygarth.