Mental wellbeing at work

Did you know that 73% of agency workers rate the stressfulness of their jobs at 7+ out of 10, and that 25% of us have had time off due to stress, anxiety or depression? (CIPR State of the Profession survey 2019/20).

In response to the growing importance of mental wellbeing at work, the CIPR is now running a one day course aimed at people managers, leaders and directors who are keen to build their knowledge and confidence in this area so they can create the right kind of supportive environment for their teams to thrive. 

My motivation for attending the course was to equip myself with a better understanding of the key factors that affect mental wellbeing, as well as get a handle on the techniques I need to adopt as a manager in order to help promote wellbeing in the teams I work with. The course objectives promised to deliver:

  • Have increased knowledge and understanding of mental health and stress at work
  • Help reduce the stigma associated with mental ill health within your workplace
  • Build awareness of yourself and others in order to foster effective communication
  • Begin to create a team climate that supports mental wellbeing moving forward
  • Be confident in having effective conversations relating to mental wellbeing

Beyond the basic understanding that mental ill health and stress are among the leading causes of absenteeism as well as having an adverse impact on productivity, engagement and morale, I didn’t really know what to expect from the day so it was an unexpected bonus to find myself in a small and friendly group led by the very capable Cathy Conan, who’s perfectly placed to deliver training to our industry, being an integrative psychotherapist with a comms background herself. Cathy established a warm and confidential atmosphere from the start that encouraged us all to share our experiences frankly, which was a boost for our own mental wellbeing as managers, as well as really enrichening the learning.

Through the day we covered the following key themes:

  • Organisational change and implementation
  • Post-pandemic reset
  • Support for individuals
  • Creating a culture that supports wellbeing
  • Tools and techniques

Some key takeaways to give you a flavour of the learning:

  • Right brain stress response is automatic and not under our conscious control
  • Stressors are different for each of us – don’t presume to know but ask and listen
  • We need human contact for wellbeing so the cumulative effect of the last year’s lockdowns should be recognised
  • It’s really important to find satisfying hobbies to down regulate stress – engaging but relaxing at the same time
  • Our body is where we hold emotions and experience stress – movement is very important for releasing this
  • If we live our lives permanently in strain, we will move to burnout
  • You can’t force yourself from burnout to performance mode – you need spells in recovery, and that’s the focus needed now after a year plus of living with the pandemic

As managers, we need to set the right kind of nurturing culture for our teams by embodying a healthy approach to mental wellbeing ourselves. We must look after ourselves before we can support others effectively so self-care was a touchpoint throughout the training. Regular breaks, fresh air and exercise are crucial for keeping ouselves mentally fit and well. We should recognise that our needs are biological, social and psychological, and look to see if they’re being met across this spectrum.

We also spent a fair amount of time discussing the importance of boundaries. We are there to encourage and support our teams, but not to parent them. We need to be clear about setting expectations and laying out the support available in our organsations. Ultimately, we’re there to empower team members to help themselves, not to try to diagnose or fix their problems ourselves. Regular one to ones are vital for being attuned to any changes that might signal someone is struggling with anxiety and stress. It is also very important to create a safe environment to help people overcome their barriers to opening up, so helpful conversations that involve careful listening are key.

Another very interesting and valuable section of the course focused on the difference between sympathy and empathy, with the latter being the more constructive goal.

Finally, we unpacked the six factors highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive as fundamental for getting right if you are to create a healthy working environment: the level of demand place on individuals, degree of autonomy experienced, support available, quality of working relationships, clarity on roles and boundaries, and recognising the impact of change.

We closed the day by coming full circle to where we started: mental wellbeing starts with us as individuals if we are to become effective managers in this crucial area. In Cathy’s words, I need to put my own oxygen mask on first, asking myself what I need to do to make sure I’m thriving, before I can help others do the same. Never stop asking ‘What’s OK, what isn’t OK?’, and always be sure to listen critically to others.

The CIPR’s next Mental Wellbeing at Work course will take place 7 September, 09:30-15:30. Click now for full details and to register: https://cipr.co.uk/CourseDetail?EventKey=MWW070921&TrainingCode=RE&TKey=1093515

Ruth Jackson is Chair of CIPR E Anglia and Communications Manager at Cambridge Enterprise, University of Cambridge. She received a free place on the course as a volunteer.

When the black dog bites

This week (18-24 May) has been designated as Mental Health Week and – now more than ever – we’re aware of the importance of maintaining mental health, and recognising when we, or others, may be struggling.

The last CIPR State of the Profession survey revealed that 21% of public relations practitioners live with, or have previously lived with, a diagnosed mental health condition. Over half of those respondents said their work contributes highly to their diagnosis.

CIPR member Nic Wray shares some of the tips she has learned from her own experience with anxiety and depression.

As someone who has overcome serious mental health issues in the past and is ever-vigilant (not always successfully) for signs that my wellbeing is slipping, here’s some of the tips and techniques I’ve used over the last three decades to keep (mostly) happy and healthy.

Stay connected. When you’re feeling less than chipper, it’s tempting to become a hermit, and the current situation makes it very easy to avoid people. Reaching out doesn’t have to be a three hour Zoom call with all your extended family – it can be as easy as sending someone a funny meme, or a short text. Reading Twitter definitely counts, as long as you’ve curated your feed wisely. Mute and block, mute and block…

Talk about your worries. This can be the scary one. If you’re like me, there will lots of negative self-talk going on in the vein of “what makes my problems so important?” and “they’re going to think I’m a drama queen” but honestly, most people will be happy to listen. If it’s easier, when you start talking, say whether you just want to vent or whether you’re looking to bounce solutions around. If you really can’t face talking to someone you know, helplines do fantastic work. Samaritans is the best known, but CALM (for young men) and Mind are great, too.

Help others. When we can’t be kind to ourselves, we can generally be kind to other people, giving them our time, our support or our skills. Even at my lowest, I was able to volunteer for a couple of community groups. This was great not only for taking me out of myself, but building up my self-esteem and self-worth. What you do doesn’t have to be big – sharing a charity ask on social media, or checking on a neighbour are valuable too.

Get the right fuel. Some days this might mean a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, but that’s only a short term fix. Our physical health can have a big impact on how we feel, so I’m afraid the usual “healthy living” advice applies: well-balanced meals, drinking enough water, avoiding smoking and drugs, not drinking too much alcohol. But you don’t have to make too much effort –a tin of spaghetti hoops on wholemeal toast is healthy and even one of your “five a day”, apparently. Fruit juice, (bought) smoothies, soup or cereal are my go-tos when I’m down as they are low effort, and reasonably nutritious.

The E word. When you can barely lift your head from your pillow, the thought of exercise isn’t enticing. It’s not high on the list of fun things for me to do when I’m feeling fine to be honest, but I do know that a walk always makes me feel better. Especially when I really don’t want to go for one. The key here is finding an activity you enjoy, so that it doesn’t feel like a chore. My walking is usually combined with the online “treasure hunt” that is geocaching, to give me a goal to take a few more steps. Yoga is another favourite, although I usually go for the seated variety these days.

Get creative for fun. As communications and PR people, we’re used to conjuring up words, ideas or visuals on demand and to a deadline. And that does sometimes suck the joy out of creativity. I tend to choose an activity that switches the active part of my brain off, and I pick up something I can do effortlessly, leaving me free to focus mindfully on sensations such as touch, colour or repeated movements. I get this fulfilment through needles and thread or yarn, or by working in my garden, but activities such as baking, colouring in, completing jigsaws, building lego are other things to try.

Raindrops on roses. I probably spent too many rainy days as a child watching musicals on TV because both Maria in The Sound of Music and Anna in The King and I sang when they were afraid, and so do I. I sing incredibly badly, and sometimes I don’t even sing out loud, but mime theatrically. It’s impossible to cry while you are belting out your favourite upbeat numbers after the first few bars. A little dance is optional, but it ticks off something else on this list!

Professional help. There are times when you have to take stock and realise that you might need a little extra support, and the situation isn’t something you can deal with yourself. This is where the professionals come in. Your GP is the gatekeeper to NHS services and can prescribe medication to help you sleep or help your mood. Your employer may well have counselling provision available if you have an Employee Assistance Programme, and for CIPR members, the iprovision mental health hotline is available at no cost 24/7, 365 days a year.

The iprovision hotline is found here (you’ll need to log into your CIPR account).

More details about support via iprovision can be found here.