Talk, understand and support: how can organisations support mental health

Interview with Emma Nicholls, Head of Employee Engagement at City & Guilds Group

The data is staggering: every week one in six people experience a mental health issue; major depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide; in the past year, 74% of people felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope and this is a growing issue particularly for the younger generations. When talking about mental health awareness in the workplace, stress is a good place to start.

But what is stress? Let’s start by imagining that one day you encounter a bear on the street. All of a sudden, your brain registers what is happening in your environment, and provides the appropriate response to that situation; the classic – fight or flight. In this situation your brain recognises that bear as a ‘stress’ and  generates a ‘stress response’ – the hypothalamus and pituitary gland activate the sympathetic nervous system which kicks off a rush of responses in your body. Your adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, blood flows to your outer extremities – getting your limbs ready to fight or run from the bear; parts of your brain become more active whilst others shut down, helping you decide what your response to the bear should be. Our bodies are really good at dealing with this type of stressful situation. And if we told our friends that we encountered a bear on the street they would for sure recognise in their response the stress of meeting a bear on the street! 

But what if the situation with the bear repeats itself again, and again, and again? While this isn’t likely, believe it or not, living in the modern world, surrounded by a plethora of stimuli can at times feel as stressful as encountering a bear – at least for your body. Constantly bombarded with information, email, hassle and bustle, our bodies’ stress tolerance levels keep on stretching, adjusting to modern living conditions. No wonder everybody is now talking about mindfulness, resilience and stress management.  

Unless we decide to move into the woods (preferably a wood without bears) and cut down on contact with society, one way or another we need to learn how to live with and tackle stress. In this fast-paced and ever changing world of work - a great deal of stress is associated with the workplace and even though it is not the only trigger, employers should be aware about the ways their employees are coping with stress and mental health. 

To raise awareness during the Mental Health Week, Emma Nicholls, Head of Employee Engagement at City & Guilds Group, agreed to talk about stress, the workplace and ways in which we can look after each other. 

Q: Tell us about a stressful situation in your life. 

I used to work in the HR department of a small green technology manufacturing company. Well, in fact I was THE HR department. The company grew quickly in terms of headcount. However, at a certain point, times became challenging and the company felt the impact of increased competition and the financial climate. Unfortunately, as a result we had to restructure the business. I ended up being the person who had to manage the restructuring process – be involved in all of the difficult conversations with colleagues. This, on top of managing all the paperwork and helping the management team go through the process, felt like a lot of responsibility, involved long hours and was definitely not the easiest time in my career.

Q: What kept you going and how did you tackle stress?

Looking back I know I learned a lot throughout the process and it helped me understand how I best deal with stressful situations. Remembering my purpose was really important during that time. I tried to focus on how I could best support and show respect to colleagues, having an open door policy and making space and time for people. This actually helped me to develop my own resilience. I used to talk to my management team a lot too, as they also felt the burden and stress of the situation so we could encourage and support each other. I also used to go to the gym every morning, as it gave me time away from work and space for myself. 

Q: How do you generally tackle stress?

I have had to work hard at managing myself and how I cope with stress, when it moves from being helpful to unhelpful. I can handle long hours or periods of pressure, but not for too long and not if the rest of my life or health is out of balance. I’ve had to be really honest about when I am out of balance and not coping. That honesty has come from experiencing clinical depression – depression can be utterly debilitating and it’s also often a ‘secret’ illness. We don’t like talking about things like that, which makes it even worse for the sufferer. One thing which helped me to tackle unhelpful stress was flexible working. There were moments through my lowest points when I couldn’t stand to face the world even though I love my job and I love working. Work for me was actually a really positive thing when everything else felt very ‘dark’. Flexible working – even for just a day a week, gave me space to focus on my work, talk to people virtually in a way that I could manage the exertion (I’m also an introvert) and reply to my emails in the comfort of my own home. It also took away the stress of having to commute and gave me more time for things I knew were good for me – i.e. exercise and/or counselling. I am a big fan of meditation. I’ve only discovered the benefits of meditation in the past couple of years really. I use an app on my phone which really helps me to focus and take a breath if I need it. Then, I try to exercise - something as simple as going for a walk in nature helps me find perspective and helps me to focus. There’s a great book called ‘Rest – why you get more done when you work less’ – which talks about our brains need for rest – and what that looks like and gives great examples of incredible people who knew the art of balance – to focus, work hard and crucially rest. Another way of maintaining balance for me is feeding my brain with inspiring or interesting articles, books, Ted Talks and things I enjoy. For example, last week I attended a leadership conference, which gave me loads of energy and inspiration to prepare myself for the week ahead. As Winston Churchill said: “the cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man.” It’s important we can find things in life we enjoy! And last but not least, I talk to my family and friends, to the people I trust – I have my go-to network. 

Q: Why are mental health and stress awareness important for companies?

If we look at this issue strictly from a commercial view, we know that stress and mental health affect productivity and the bottom line. Mental health (not specific to workplace wellbeing) costs the UK £70 billion each year, equivalent to 4.5% of GDP. In 2015-16, work-related stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. The total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression was 9.9 million days, an average of 24 days lost per case.  So it makes good business sense to address this issue. 
But more importantly, in my view, tackling mental health in the workplace is the right thing to do. We don’t ask people with a broken leg to ‘walk it off’.  Instead we show compassion and we offer help. The same should apply to mental health. We need to find ways to help people improve their wellbeing. This enables both businesses and people to thrive through each other. What else are people if not an organisation’s most valuable asset? 

Q: What is then the role of organisations in mental health and stress support?

The role of an organisation in tackling mental health is three-fold: talk, understand and support. First, a responsible company needs to recognise that everyone experiences periods of stress and mental health issues. We have to tackle the stigma and start talking! Then, they need to make sure they try to understand and if possible tackle the cause. Often when we are experiencing a negative stress reaction we can’t see the alternatives; different ways of working or prioritising -again that’s why we need to start talking and really challenging ourselves to see if there is a better way. Sometimes we can understand the cause but there’s not a lot we can do about it – but just acknowledging the stressful situation helps! There is a lot we can do to provide better support for employees, from big training or engagement campaigns, to small things like catering for different working preferences.  
Let me give you an example. Personally, I do love a deadline. It gives me energy and a positive stress reaction which enables me to focus, but other people might find deadlines very stressful in a negative way. We all need to understand that we cannot treat everyone in the same way. So it is very important for organisations to understand that people are different – they react differently and they work differently as well. 

Q: What should organisations work on?

There is this cultural thing in some organisations (and more widely in society) that you have to be super human: you can’t show weakness, you can’t show you are struggling with anything, so we don’t talk about it and that doesn’t help anyone. The data from Mind shows that 95% of employees who have taken time off due to stress named another reason when reporting their absence. BITC’s Mental Health at Work Report 2017 talks about the ‘pervasive culture of silence’: in 2017 just 13% of employees told their line manager or HR that they had a mental health issue. People are scared to show they are vulnerable or struggling. Also some believe that as a leader you can’t be seen to have a weakness or show vulnerability and that is difficult, because then how are you going to allow or help your teams to talk about their issues and things that they struggle with. We have to model that in a healthy way and talk about the things we have struggled with and the things that help us to get the conversation started. Vulnerability doesn’t make us weak. There is still a massive stigma around it. In fact some of the most vulnerable people I know are the most successful people I know. For me the real strength of character is in understanding yourself better, being open about what you’re facing and learning from it. We all experience difficult issues in life, we all experience unhelpful stress – it doesn’t define us though. 

Q: More and more, we hear that leaders are also required to be authentic. Doesn’t being authentic also mean being vulnerable?

Indeed, for me, being authentic comes with vulnerability. There is no such thing as a perfect person, then logically, you cannot always be right. You must have made mistakes, you must have failed along the way. The most successful entrepreneurs have failed 1000 times, but they’ve learned from it. If we can learn from it, then what have we lost? Unless we are willing to be vulnerable, I don’t think we are willing to learn, if I’m honest. 

Q: Do you have some advice for our colleagues on how to tackle stress?

  1. Be self-aware and recognise your own working style. For example if you are an introvert and spend a lot of time in presentations and team meetings, make sure the next day you have more down time and if you are able to, work from home. Talk to your manager as well, to set the right expectations and be on the same page right from the start. I know that not everyone has the best relationship with their line manager, but most of us do and part of Honest Conversations should be about how we like to work, how we tackle unhelpful stress - which all go hand in hand with mental health.

  2. Prioritise yourself: sleep, eat well and exercise to keep your endorphins flowing and happiness levels high. When life events or health issues crop up, recognise the impact and what needs to change to help you maintain balance. 

  3. Think about what energises you. What inspires and makes you happy? Can you do more of that? From hobbies, socialising, reading or listening to interesting people – it seems counter-intuitive when we’re busy but these things help our brains become more creative and more able to deal with stressful situations.  

  4. Last but not least, look out for others. If we are honest with ourselves when we are feeling under pressure and if we understand what makes feel better, then we are better equipped to cope with stress. Likewise, if we understand our colleagues more, then we are better equipped to help them when they are struggling too. 

Emma Nicholls - Head of Engagement

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Emma started her career in HR as a generalist, and moved into communications when she joined the City & Guilds Group in 2013. Emma now works as Head of Employee Engagement for the Group, working on a variety of brand, engagement and strategic projects and oversees the Group's internal communication channels.