Today, Monday 10 May, marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 – and what a different place we are in compared with a year ago. We – in the UK at least – may be beginning to ease restrictions and on the surface, be returning to more of what we would, pre-pandemic, have called “normality”. But does that reflect how we really feel?
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “Nature” and I think it’s fair to say that most of us have spent more time outside in nature in the past few months, whether that is a daily walk for exercise, freezing outside as pubs open up (the irony of the coldest April in 60 years at the point where hospitality venues are allowed to open outside only is not lost on me), sitting in the garden or simply noticing the seasons change around us. For me, watching the long-awaited spring unfurl this year, from those first snowdrops to waiting for the cherry blossom, has been a very peaceful and grounding thing. At the end of March, I had a week off (I was lucky enough for it to coincide with the day or two of freakishly hot weather) and sat one morning with a cup of tea in the garden watching the birds in the sunshine. It was wonderful; and I reflected how our needs and desires have changed so much – a year ago, the idea that just watching nature, or meeting a friend for a walk would be the highlights of my week, would have seemed bizarre. For many, the opportunity to explore nature has not been as easy to engage in, while shielding at home, of course.
Also, a year ago, we carried out a survey into how our Members and Partners were responding to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees came up as the number one priority for many. Fast forward a year and mental health is on the agenda more than ever before. We have all experienced loss – some the deep and tragic loss of life and of loved ones, of jobs and livelihoods, of social contact, friends, and freedom. And moving away from this period of lockdown will not be easy. And for reference for dog-lovers, there are the greyhounds, yes; those who spring out of the traps, into the pubs, onto the trains, back to life as we knew it. But there are also those who are the bassets – with no desire to go, or indeed many fears of re-engaging in the world, outside our doorsteps.
So, what does all this mean for employers in the context of mental health at work? At our global symposium last month, sponsored by our Partner HSBC, we heard a recurring theme around the need for psychological safety; a culture where it feels safe to ask for help, to say that you are struggling – and where the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks. Perhaps nowhere is that more important than around talking about mental health; we have come a very long way in raising awareness and starting the conversation but there is still a long way to go. Too often, there is still a perceived stigma of admitting a “weakness” which means that many people are not asking for or getting the support they need.
At our global symposium, we also heard about the importance of storytelling and we know that senior leaders sharing their experiences is hugely empowering in creating that psychological safety – but that safety needs to be there for leaders too. Regularly I speak on panels and events where someone – usually someone very senior – talks about how they shared their experience of mental ill health – whether depression (in my case), the onset of panic attacks, anxiety, or a breakdown. And everyone who does so talks about the hesitation they felt before doing so. How would it be received? Would they be heard? Understood? Would they be treated differently? Too often the fear of how your story will be received or of getting the terminology wrong stops people from speaking at all.
But another theme from our global symposium was being “brave to try”. If you approach a conversation with the right intent, a desire to share and to learn and to get it right, the power of speaking out is huge. As restrictions ease, it is by sharing our stories that we can create that psychological safety and an environment where employees feel able to share their worries and anxieties and be open about where they are on their “post COVID-19 journey” without fear of how they will be judged.
So, if you are a senior leader reading this, I urge you to “be brave to try”. Talk about mental health in the workplace. Share your story if you have one. Give people space to tell you their fears and what they need. Remember that not everyone is a greyhound (if owners become like their dogs, then I am a Staffie-cross!) – so give permission and make it easy for people to work differently. And enjoy the birdsong.
Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum
Don’t forget that if you are a BDF Partner or Member we have lots of resources to support you in our Mental Health Toolkit, sponsored by Anglo-American plus loss of pandemic-specific information in our COVID-19 Toolkit – we really hope you find them useful.