Communications is the key to unlocking positive mental health

October 10, 2019 • 4 minute read

Today is the 27th Anniversary of World Mental Health Day. Particularly in the last decade great strides forward have been made in terms of destigmatizing mental health with campaigns such as #smashingstigma and #headstogether to name but two. The work done by industry leaders and celebrities in talking about their own struggles has done immense good in putting the issue at the top of the agenda. Governments and corporates, some more than others, openly recognize the need to drive mental health initiatives.

The PR industry itself is listed in the top 10 most stressful occupations, with 60% of those working in the industry suffering from mental ill health including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other serious conditions. Poor mental health is no respecter of age or experience and it can impact people at any stage in their career. Worse still, despite all the work done to destigmatize the issue many people still keep their suffering silent, not sure what help to seek or worried that they will be viewed negatively. PRWeek and the PRCA’s most recent survey reported that 50% of their respondents felt under more stress than a year ago. However, employees also reported that they feel far more comfortable discussing their mental health with their employers and co-workers, so there are signs of clear progress, too.

So as an employer what can you do? Poor mental health can have many root causes that are not work-related, such as financial worries or relationship issues. It can be a daunting challenge to take on. At a basic level we are told employers should not only have a mental health strategy in place but more importantly communicate it to their employees, encourage open conversations, provide good working conditions and monitor wellbeing. These are just core standards and for many firms are a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. But it is not acceptable to stop there. There is so much that can be done.

The first step, where so much progress has been made, is for employers to ensure that they really understand the issues their teams face. One of the largest mistakes employers currently make is to view mental health as a negative issue with negative connotations. Sadly, negative words are often still used to describe those suffering from poor mental health. It often reflects a form of cognitive bias with an ingrained attitude amongst leadership of ‘back in my day we just got on with it!’. Part of the destigmatizing process is to use normal language and shun jargon to avoid inadvertently reinforcing this negativity. Even once you have overcome these hurdles many still perceive mental health as a problem to be tackled when it arises. This reactive stance is exactly where many employers are going wrong. Mental health can be good as well as bad and, just as with physical health, promoting positive mental health is just as important as supporting those who are suffering from poor mental health. It’s the age-old adage – prevention is better than the cure!

Step two is to ensure that you have a positive mental health strategy at the core of your business.  What does this mean? Many employers feel ill-equipped to put these strategies in place. This is not as hard as it might at first seem. There are several initiatives that are a great starting point:

  • Get buy-in – make sure your Board and/or senior management team view addressing mental health as a core business issue and understand the consequences of reticence. Boards should nominate a board member to actively take responsibility for reviewing and reporting back on the wellbeing of the team.
  • Train your team – ensure that you have trained mental health first aiders at all levels within the business (you don’t always want to talk to the HR lead or your boss).
  • Provide support – whether via Employee Assistance Programme and Healthcare benefits where appropriate.
  • Seek out regular feedback – as you are taught at the very outset of the mental health first aid course actively listen to your teams and react to their feedback whether via temperature check surveys or regular management check-ins. Don’t second guess them – ask them!
  • Use the data to make a difference – you need to continually review what benefits you offer and recognize that small changes can make a big shift! Be creative with your benefits, provide resources to engage in activities which support positive mental health.
  • Promote work life balance – encourage time away from desks, breaks, and conversation. Allow for flexible working arrangements where necessary.
  • Lead by example – ensure that your organisation truly progresses beyond empty rhetoric. Talk about habits you have that you feel keep you healthy. Demonstrate healthy coping mechanisms for when work gets busy. Don’t shame or demean people for showing “weakness” by taking time to care for themselves.
  • Communicate – communicate, communicate and communicate.

There is no silver bullet, however, if employers continue to work hard to support the positive mental health of their teams next year’s surveys should show an ever greater move in the right direction.