Ideas: How to integrate mental health into everyday workplace conversations

Ashley Lowe, health and wellbeing manager at Newcastle United Foundation, explains the practical steps all businesses can take to get their staff talking about mental health and prioritising their own wellbeing

At the start of February 2021, we all celebrated Time to Talk Day – the annual awareness day encouraging us to talk more about mental health. Workplaces will have shared graphics, posters and Time to Talk Day get togethers with their staff to encourage people to take a moment to chat openly. However, as great as awareness days are, their impact needs to be long lasting. So, it’s interesting to ask how many workplaces are still talking about mental health? Or will you just be picking it back up when the next campaign hits (Mental Health Awareness Week in May, for example).

It’s difficult to keep the conversation going if you don’t think you’ve got that ‘news hook’ or ‘date in the diary’, but at Newcastle United Foundation we’re doing all we can to support workplaces with doing just that through our Be a Game Changer mental health campaign. Using the power of football, the campaign reaches out to fans to encourage them to talk openly about mental health, including in the workplace. Businesses across the North East are signing up as campaign champions by promoting the message with their staff and service users to ‘be a game changer and let’s talk about mental health.’

Mental health is about more than mental illness

This is more widely understood these days, however, if we prompt ourselves to think about what this means and how it translates into the workplace, you’ll find much more natural ways to start mental health conversations.

Whilst it’s invaluable for workplaces to understand the range of mental health problems that can occur and ensure adequate support and resources are in place for staff, it’s also good to understand what can drive good or bad mental health. Sleep, stress, nutrition, physical exercise, stigma, anger and frustration all contribute to our daily mood and productivity – and they can all contribute to whether or not we go on to develop a diagnosable mental health problem.

So, we don’t need to always talk about specific mental health problems in order to talk about mental health. Encourage walk and talk meetings (that’s something you can do remotely if you’ve got good mobile phone signal) that can boost your mood or implement a no work after 7pm policy to help people switch off before they go to sleep. These policies and activities, if communicated positively, all contribute to better workplace wellbeing.

Appoint volunteer ‘champions’

While we should all prioritise our mental health and the mental health of our teams, it is useful to have champions in the workplace whose roles take on a more proactive approach. Plus, knowing that there are people who have a more in-depth knowledge of mental health and wellbeing, a calendar of awareness days and campaigns and a specific remit to implement group wide activities will ensure that an open and supportive culture is complemented with dedicated activities.

Train staff in Mental Health First Aid

When mental health problems or stress become overwhelming, they can lead to crisis point. Just as we have physical first aiders in the workplace for when a sticking plaster isn’t enough to stop the injury, mental health first aiders are trained to understand how and where to signpost people for specialist help, how to have conversations with somebody experiencing crisis or acute symptoms and they also have a sound basic knowledge of mental health problems. But, just as a physical first aider isn’t a replacement for the paramedics or a doctor, a mental health first aider isn’t a replacement for a counsellor or psychiatrist. What they will do, however, is support the individual in distress and ensure they are aware of and can access the help available to them – both within and beyond the organisation. If ever you are concerned that somebody might imminently hurt themselves, however, it is always best to call 999.

Incorporate wellbeing into your staff appraisals and one to ones

Appraisals or six monthly reviews aren’t purely about performance – they are a two-way exchange to understand how an individual is finding their role and how their manager can better support them. Most managers hold monthly or bi-monthly one to ones with their team so why not have a health and wellbeing prompt as part of the process. Just asking ‘how are you?’ and ‘can I do anything to help?’ will enable a member of the team to speak out more comfortably if there is anything they do need help with. After all, you can only help if you know that there’s a problem.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference

Big campaigns, support services and training are all great – but to make these really effective, we need to change the culture too. Everyday conversation about mental health and wellbeing should be encouraged. It’s often an organic thing, but if you hear somebody openly dropping into conversation that they are struggling with stress, that yesterday they experienced a panic attack or that they’re switching their antidepressants, don’t try to shut the conversation down. This isn’t attention seeking – it’s actually the very culture we all need to be part of. There can’t be a single office that doesn’t regularly have someone talking of taking painkillers, so why should mental health meds be taboo? Don’t make a big thing of it, but encourage these natural conversations. They have the power to change workplace culture for the better.

Newcastle United Foundation