Five ways to support your colleagues’ mental health

As we approach Blue Monday, the supposed “saddest day of the year”*, on a New Year which seems to be starting more dramatic than the last, I found myself in a state of overwhelm.

I was in a work meeting talking through a data transformation problem with some colleagues when I burst into tears. I held my breath, I apologised, but the tears were rolling. I am a crier and I have cried at work before, but not often, and this time it felt different. It wasn’t my work that was getting to me – I really enjoy my new job and all I’m learning – it was “everything”. The news, being stuck inside, not seeing my family or friends, moving house.

But when I looked up from my lap I saw faces of colleagues who understood. One of them took over the call and said “Rebekah doesn’t have to worry about this today – do you want to continue working or rest?” I said I wanted to finish the task I was doing, they said “OK, then this new task is my problem. Take it easy”. The other reached out to me and we had a 1:1 and shared our stresses. The next day I arranged a meeting with my manager and we went through my tickets one by one to make sure I understood each task, get their help prioritising and have a much needed joke about the project. I felt calmer, stronger, capable.

I share this story as an example of how – in a day – our moods can change. Some days I am fully independent, comfortable alone, powering through tasks, productive and confident, other days I am fragile, vulnerable, dependent on my team and loved ones. Both are human and both are OK.

This Blue Monday, this year, I want you to think of your colleagues as fellow humans experiencing this global crisis alongside you. Your team in hardship. If you don’t you’re not only missing a trick when it comes to team culture, cohesion and productivity in the long term, you’re ignoring (what should be) the most important part of a healthy business: it’s employees. So, with that in mind, I am sharing five ways to support your colleagues’ mental health:

Lead by example

As a manager, team leader or colleague if you want to create a team culture that is supportive and de-stigmatising – lead by example. Talk first. When I’m in my daily check-in and my team ask how I’m doing I answer honestly. Some days it’s “really excited! feeling great” other days it’s “total shit, slept 4 hours”. I think this is particularly powerful with senior management. My favourite business leaders have been those who were honest with me. Who told me how hard the work is, what the experience was like for them in my position, but also that they weren’t unflappable. We want our leaders to be calm, to be strong, but I believe there is strength in vulnerability and there’s nothing stronger – to me – than someone who is open with their team in saying it’s OK not to be OK.

Get together as a team

Yes, we all moaned about the Zoom quiz. But, getting together with your colleagues is important. In every company I’ve worked in I’ve become an unofficial social secretary. I think it’s because I don’t get embarrassed very easily so am willing to make a bit of a tit of myself in front of colleagues, but also because I believe team bonding is important. Not to get all “work family” on this post but team cohesion is vital for your business to function and when you’re literally miles apart, it takes some effort. I suggest short weekly activities and monthly, longer, evening sessions – but get a feel for what your team wants.

Ideas that have worked well for my teams: weekly 15-minute meditation drop-in sessions (I’ve been running these since March and received overwhelmingly positive feedback), #AskMeAnything evenings, Never Mind the Buzzcocks-style quiz, Three Truths and A Lie, externally-run mindfulness and yoga sessions, coordinated Deliveroo team lunches and a virtual running challenge.

Create an online space for resources

A simple but effective tip. Create a page on your corporate wiki with a list of resources staff can turn to. Include a list of mental health related ‘benefits’ e.g. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), health insurance cover, free Headspace, Calm or other app subscriptions. Pull the details out of those contracts and documents nobody really reads, and make it accessible. Add to this a list of external resources. If you’re not sure where to start the NHS has an A-Z of different charities working in mental health. I go a step further and pull out a few articles or helpful pages and numbers from these sites such as Mind’s Wellness Action Plan or the Samaritan’s helpline (116 123). Finally, add a space for people to share tools that help them relax. I always start this off with a list of books and podcasts as these have been instrumental in my recovery, but think about adding a list of relaxing activities staff can turn to if they find themselves struggling to switch off.

Time to Change has an easy, non-threatening activity to get your colleagues to start thinking about this: How Do We Chill? At the end of a team meeting, go round the team in turn and ask everyone to share one thing that helps them relax at the end of a work day. It doesn’t matter if people say the same thing, and it doesn’t have to be anything profound – if Netflix and a jar of Nutella relaxes you – great. Use this list to create your resources page and encourage staff to add more as months go by.

More workplace wellbeing activities for you and your colleagues can be found via Time to Change here.

Listen and adapt to your colleagues’ needs

The pandemic has hit us all differently. While some have juggled childcare, homeschooling, multiple business commitments and increased workload, others may have faced job loss, furlough, isolation or conflict. Equally, the effects of the global crisis have come to us in waves. Some days I feel strong and resilient, up for anything, other days I want to switch off all my tech, eat popcorn and spend the whole day in bed, reading. Create a space where colleagues can honestly voice how they’re feeling without judgement (this could be an anonymous noticeboard or individuals they can turn to in confidence), and work to make your company adaptable to their needs instead of forcing your staff to work 110% to meet your every demand.

Business leaders or project managers might recoil at the thought of having everyone on different schedules and commitments to the workplace on different days – but it’s our reality. Once you provide space for people to step back and prioritise – with your help – or to voice when they’re having a bad day and might not get that task done on time, you can plan. Additionally, you may have colleagues who have experienced loss, grief, or battled the virus themselves. Not only should you want to be accommodating – you must be. It’s not an easy task, but ensuring your business is adaptable and empathetic to the needs of its employees will only return you with loyalty, contentment and efficiency (yes, teams that are happy are more efficient…) from your staff in the long term.

Encourage rest and recovery

If you only take one tip forward, choose this one. Too often we focus on being “productive” without knowing what that means for ourselves. We feel as though we can’t stop or we’ll crumble and never get everything done. We worry our bosses are watching over us (even when at home), eagle-eyed, waiting for a mistake. But, encouraging your employees to rest and take breaks to refocus – recover – is essential. And, it actually boosts productivity in the hours you are focussed.

I work in bursts so I can’t plough through the day working non-stop (I’ve tried). Once I finish a task I need to talk to someone, go for a walk around my house or step outside. Communicating this to my team was a really good way at ensuring my breaks were protected and the random office chat (or rather GChat messages) about music or food weren’t questioned. Some of my colleagues protect break time by blocking time out in their diaries – and being firm about it. Equally, if you see someone has blocked an hour for lunch or exercise and you need them for a meeting – ask before confirming with your client. It may seem fine to you to skip that hour’s run or 15 minute coffee break, but if it’s key to that individual’s mental health – I think your client can wait 30-60 minutes.

And, if you need longer time off – a day, a week, longer – or you see a colleague struggling and think time off would help them recover – speak up. As a manager, I would err on the side of caution in prescribing time off, but I would encourage questions like my colleague above posed me: Do you want to continue working or rest? Would you like to take some time off? [If so] How many days do you feel you need at the moment? Give them the opportunity to define what they need to get better. And keep this in review, without pressure, that at the end of that week off they can come to you and figure out the next steps for them and for your team.

If you identified with any of the experiences shared in this post and feel you would like to talk to someone, please reach out to your GP, contact Mind, or the Anxiety UK helpline. And if you feel like things are too much, please call Samaritans on 116 123 💚

And for employers – if you’d like to talk about how to make your workplace more supportive – please reach out. I am a mental health first-aider and speaker with experience working to de-stigmatise mental health conversations in the workplace and creating company mental health policies with central HR teams.

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EDIT: *We all know that depression doesn’t care what day is it. I use #BlueMonday as a tool to raise awareness of how we can progress change – but we should be thinking about mental health all year round. I urge you to listen to Tina Daheley’s Beyond Today episode on Blue Monday to find out more about why the day exists.

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