For people with brains

In 2003, I had time off work for anxiety because I was in an abusive relationship that had me in a constant state of fight or flight for two years, I didn’t confide in my employer, and this manifested itself in absenteeism.

In 2008, I attempted suicide, this dramatically impacted my career (and entire existence) for nine months, and left an indelible mark on my mind, self-image, and confidence.

In 2013, because my work-life balance was such a catastrophe and the support from the organisation I worked for was non-existent, I went from tonsillitis to pneumonia in about four weeks; this would arguably be free from the mental health stigma, what with its antibiotic treatment and physical symptoms, but I’d be naive if I didn’t acknowledge the root cause of that illness.

Shit happens.

Minds, as bodies, can be fragile. They need taking care of. Minds need an understanding, careful owner, who nourishes them, cleans them up, gives them space, lets them rest, feeds them knowledge, humour and purpose. And even with all that, sometimes your mind can still throw you a curveball. Whether it’s moments peppered through the years or a lifelong, inherent part of what makes you, you - mental health “issues” can happen to anyone with a brain. Which means, if you’re an employer you need to be prioritising how your organisation creates a culture that is both safe and supportive for people with brains.

Having experienced a range of mental health… let’s call them ‘moments’ and having witnessed friends, family and colleagues navigating similar, I had some strong ideas about how that experience might translate into the workplace when I started Crystallised in 2013.

Of course, there are some core things that were a given from the outset:

  • Working late does not impress anyone
  • Being contactable outside of your working hours is not a thing
  • Work should fit around your life, not your life around work
  • Flexible working arrangements and hours; we have an office, which we are all in most of the time, but if you can’t get out of bed, but you can work, work from your bed
  • The experiences, problems, fears or worries of one person are not comparable to, and should not be judged against the experiences, problems, fears or worries of another
  • Creating a culture of openness where someone can press pause on a day if their brain just isn’t onboard, for whatever reason
  • Implementing systems, processes and ways of working that mean if a team member is out of action, the world doesn’t end
  • Collaborative quarterly objective setting, reviewing and feedback
  • Celebrating successes, focusing on strengths and not perceived ‘weaknesses’
  • 25 days of holiday (plus Bank Holidays), which I will relentlessly hound you to take
  • And, always paying the Real Living Wage as an absolute minimum, because money and anxiety are perfect bedfellows

But, that’s not really enough, there is delivering on your duty of care, and there is actually caring. In recognising that the likelihood is your team are spending over 3,000 days at work over their lifetime (i.e. ten years) you begin to understand just how integral the quality of their professional life is to their general wellbeing. It might sound obvious, but it’s clearly not obvious enough if so many people (one third of employees, according to Mind, the mental health charity) are feeling like they can’t discuss feelings of stress or overwhelm in the workplace.

So, what else can you do?

In 2017, Crystallised implemented a welfare budget, which entitles every member of the team to £250 per year to improve their wellbeing - this isn’t about training and development (there’s a separate budget for that), but about identifying anything that could improve mental health, or nurture good mental health.

In the last two years this budget has been spent on; visits to the local dog café, hypnotherapy, talking therapies such as CBT, gym memberships, EDMR, meditation, yoga and spa days. There’s no judgement about how that money is spent, there is trust within the organisation that people will use the opportunity genuinely.

Crystallised sick time, 2013 - present.

Crystallised sick time, 2013 - present.

As someone who knows only too well how any mental health blip can floor you, I’m hyperaware of how other people might also be impacted, and go to great lengths to ensure that if people within the team need time away from work to rest and recover, that we afford that to them graciously. It becomes problematic if that appears to be abused, and I can see how organisations might find it difficult to manage or be fearful of ‘letting go’ - in the last year, for example, Crystallised saw an increase in sick time of a massive 320%…

Context: our team has increased by a similar percentage, but research shows that in the private sector the average number of sick days per person, per year is around five - so why are we sitting at something more like c.25 days?

No matter the size of your organisation that will impact on productivity, profitability and, morale. In an organisation of our size, disruption like that, is acutely felt.

So, then the question became, what can we do better? Many things, as it turns out. Here, is some of my learning so far.

  1. Understand: as a team we’ve been utilising Tetra Mapping to help us better understand each other’s preferences, ways of working, learning and interacting. It has been revelatory in terms of appreciating everyone’s diversity and figuring out how those characteristics can come together for greater team working. It means everyone is playing to their strengths, which is vital.
  2. Space: we implemented 10% Time this year, something which I’ve been embedding in my teams since 2008 - in which 10% of your working week is free from direct delivery, tasks or deadlines, so that employees can prioritise their own headspace, for creative thinking, learning, development, collaborating, generating ideas, or experiencing arts and culture events in the North.
  3. Development: we’ve started looking beyond the obvious development opportunities (training, CIM courses) to identifying mentors (outside of the business) for our team members, and encouraging soft-skills development as opposed to just the measurable development stuff that is so often the ‘go to’ when we talk about development.
  4. Boundaries: the team have collaboratively created a set of internal values outlining how we interact with each other, with the aim of creating a harmonised environment, in which everyone is comfortable.
  5. Pay attention: if you pay attention, it’s not difficult to clock if your team mates are a little off, and simply asking the question “Are you okay?” and being genuinely interested in the answer, means we can be open with each other and share the load.
  6. Balance: in September 2019, we will trial a 4-day week, with some team members working Monday through Thursday, and others Tuesday through Friday. I’m entirely convinced on the research in this field, and am confident our trial will prove positive for the minds and souls of our team.
  7. Purpose: in 2019, we’ve really stepped up our sense of purpose within the team, it is essential for me that everyone feels united around a common purpose and feels a genuine sense of satisfaction in the work that they do. There’s a wealth of reading out there about how teams respond to a sense of purpose, and in particular a meaningful, authentic sense of purpose.

To quote one of my favourite artists, Fink, ‘nothing is ever finished’ - these are the first tentative steps we are taking as an organisation to be better, work better and live better. There will always be more to do when it comes to the welfare and wellbeing of people.

If you’re in anyway stuck with navigating how you might implement good mental health practices in the workplace, then this introductory guide from Mind is an ideal place to start; and why not start now, during UK Mental Health Awareness week.