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How top down mental health policies fail to support the most vulnerable employees

Posted on Fri 22nd May, 2020 in: Advice, Blogs, Internal Communications by Lucy Bristow

18th May announced the start of National Mental Health Week in the UK, bringing with it an array of articles and opinions about mental health in business. As someone who has a keen interest in mental health issues, I enjoy reading about the many innovative ways in which companies are trying safeguard the mental wellbeing of their employees. However, one observation I find myself coming back to time and time again, when reading through these corporate messages, is that they always tend to come across as very formal statements, rather than the product of discussions or conversations. This is a trend we see reflected, most of the time, in corporate mental health strategy.

Mental health is a significant challenge for employers in this day and age, especially given the current circumstances, and with more people being open about their personal struggles, businesses have to adapt and incorporate it into their ways of working. As a result, many management boards and directors are having to face some big decisions as how to best to support their employees. A major shortfall in this approach, from the perspective of those outside the boardroom, is that these strategies come across as a rigid, slightly intimidating framework, informed by little to no input from the wider business and often aimed at minimising exposure to risk, rather than looking after individual employees.

From my personal experience of mental health challenges, this strategy does not resonate well with me. A struggle that is voiced regularly when it comes to tackling your own wellbeing at work is feeling comfortable and able to start a conversation with the relevant members of your team. There are still many stigmas which exist around being vocal about personal challenges; will I appear like I’m not coping with work; will I appear weak and unreliable; will people change their opinions of me if I admit to this; will this affect my career development? Unfortunately, one of the aspects that these overarching corporate strategies tend to lack is how to break down the boundary between employees and employers, enabling them to have open discussions about their mental health.

It is undoubtedly a tough task to create this kind of structure, however, too often the strategies that businesses put in place end up being at odds with the company culture that the business is trying to cultivate. In many instances, employers can be influenced by external factors, for instance, looking at what their competitors are doing or what is proving popular within the industry, rather than focussing on what their team needs. Unfortunately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to this challenge, basing an approach on that of another firm is unlikely to work as these need to be tailored to your team. Furthermore, businesses need to be flexible and willing to adapt as the needs of their staff change and evolve over time, as a strategy for today is not necessarily a strategy for tomorrow.

We have a unique dynamic within Aberfield which has allowed for an open platform to discuss matters of mental health, and whilst one approach does not work for all firms, our approach may prove useful to others. We operate in a small team, just seven of us at the moment, with a flat structure which means that’s we are all equally involved in discussions about the business and the work we do. We have a traditional line management structure which gives you an inroad with a particular member of the team to discuss any issues you may be having, but our culture doesn’t restrict you to that one person. When we say you can talk to anyone about anything, that is absolutely true. The honest nature of Aberfield is part of the fibre of the company, not an add on. As a result of the organic nature of our approach to mental health, it is able to evolve as the team does.

When I joined the team back in September 2019, I wasn’t greeted with a sheet of paper which outlined mental health protocol, who to contact and under what circumstances, I was met with a conversation, a real conversation, a genuine exchange of experiences and a mutual understanding of each other. As a result, I have never found it easier to be honest with colleagues than I do today.

The next step for us at Aberfield is looking into mental health training for the entire team as we return to normal office environment post-lockdown. The intention here being that training will help broaden our understanding about a range of mental health issues and develop how we communicate about matters of mental health, this will then inform the steps we can take to adapt our ways of working to suit individual needs.

To anyone reading this who is wondering how to create a positive environment to foster better mental health, I would suggest starting with opening up the conversation by engaging with people across the business about these issues. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can also speak about your own experiences of mental health. Sharing experiences in this manner can help employees feel as though they’re not alone, especially given the current circumstances. If you take that first step, people are much more likely to reciprocate. Don’t wait for others to kick it off, because that way, it may never come.

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