I am the founder and CEO of two marketing agencies – TopLine Comms and TopLine Film. In September last year I had a baby. In November I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. In January I came back to work. By March I was really struggling- I was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work, overcome by guilt at leaving my baby, and unable to maintain the positive, upbeat CEO persona that is fundamental to the success of a business like ours.
At a loss, I decided to start by communicating my situation to my team. I was nervous about doing so, but I figured if the people I worked with daily had better insight into why I wasn’t at the top of my game, I might feel more comfortable requesting the flexibility I need. So I sent an email round to the whole company informing them that I am suffering from depression and anxiety and I need a little more time before I am fully back at work. The response was pretty overwhelming: every single person who responded was kind and sympathetic. But I was really surprised by how many members of my team could empathize with my situation. They too had experienced anxiety and depression, so they knew exactly how I felt. It got me thinking: why are so many people suffering in silence? And what can we, as a business, do to support positive mental health?
We’re still very much at the start of our journey, but here are nine suggestions from my team (we held a brainstorm) on how we can make our workplace mental-health friendly:
1. Encourage (but don’t force) openness about mental illness: when a person in leadership admits to suffering from a mental health issue, that makes the whole team more comfortable talking about mental health and more aware of the issues. Lots of people want to keep anxiety and depression to themselves, but it still helps to know they are not alone!
2. Welcome pets to work: there is loads of scientific evidence showing that being around pets improves mental health, from anxiety to depression and PTSD. At TopLine, we have our own office dog, but we also invite people to bring their (well behaved or so cute that naughty behavior is easily forgiven) pets into work. We regularly survey our team and find that working in a dog-friendly environment is one of the most valued elements of the role.
3. Provide opportunities for play. We have a ping pong table that is widely used on lunch breaks. But we are now also going to look at other games that we can have in the office to expand that out to be more inclusive of people who want to tap into their playful side, but don’t want to play ping pong!
4. Offer proven stress-relief techniques. These could include regular massages at the office (our boardroom gets converted into a massage suite for an afternoon every few months), meditation and yoga sessions.
5. Keep socials healthy. There is a proven link between alcohol and mental health issues that not many people are aware of. There was a time when every work social revolved around drinking. But we are now more and more looking at different ways to socialize. Booze is available at most of our work events, but we also try to keep them healthy and be more inclusive of people who don’t want to drink. Recent socials have included a watercolors class and bubble football.
6. Create a mental health toolkit. I love this idea, that was presented by one of my colleagues in a brainstorm recently. It’s about curating a list of resources to support people with mental health issues and sharing it with the team. It’s definitely on the list for us – I’ll be asking colleagues to provide their best resources and we will share the results on our blog.
7. Training mental health first aiders. This is another idea that we will be looking at over the next few months – appointing a mental health champion and training him / her in mental health first aid so that members of the team know that there is always someone they can turn to.
8. Counseling support. We have a healthcare package available to our UK employees that includes cover for psychologists, counselors and a host of alternative medical treatments. The service also includes a confidential 24-hour support line that covers mental health and wellbeing support.
9. Subsidize healthy activities. We offer all employees an annual wellbeing bonus to put towards anything to do with promoting their health. People have used this for gym memberships, meditation apps and even learning a foreign language.
I know from my own personal experience that staying in positive mental health helps enable people to reach their potential, work productively and cope with the stressors of life. And as a sufferer myself, I want to make sure that my team feels supported and understood when it comes to dealing with any mental health issues.