How to support you and your in-house team's mental health

In-house lawyers Joanne Theodoulou and Alexia Eliades discuss how to approach conversations around mental health in the workplace, how you can support colleagues who may be struggling, and share useful tips and resources.

Clouds across the sky

How can you recognise signs of poor mental health in yourself/others?

Joanne Theodoulou: Poor mental health can manifest itself in a number of ways, some emotional, some cognitive and some physical. It's important to be alert to this, and to recognise that something that appears to be a physical problem, might have a mental health issue at its heart.

Let's take stress and anxiety as an example. If we or someone else are more impatient than usual, quicker to anger, or feeling overwhelmed with everything that is being thrown at them, we may recognise these as signs of stress. Other signs, however, may not be as obvious, such as headaches or other aches and pains, indigestion, increased clumsiness, a tightness in the body or poor sleep. An inability to concentrate or make decisions, being more forgetful than usual or "brain fog" could all be signs of poor mental health.

Over-reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms might feature as well, such as drinking more alcohol than usual, relying more on medication, prescription or otherwise, eating too much or too little, and so on.

For me, it's often about energy levels. High energy often means good mood, whereas low energy is usually about more than just physical exhaustion. The key thing is to know yourself and what is usual for you, so that you are aware and notice things like this.

Alexia Eliades: I used to be unable to recognise the early warning signs of my mental health deteriorating. I was not readily able to identify what triggered my anxiety and therefore was unable to take ownership of how to best help myself.

Over the last few years, I have really invested in reading, listening and learning about poor mental health and I am now alive to what contributes to me being in a good headspace. I regularly try to take walks, especially after work and while working from home. I try to eat well, listen to podcasts, read self-help books, and try to not absorb negative energy. If I feel that I am in a heightened state of anxiety, am not sleeping well, or feel burnt out and irritable, I will sit with my feelings for a while so that I can understand the source of what has triggered me feeling that way, before taking a walk and listening to music.

Being a trained mental health first-aider, I am (ironically) probably more able to identify poor mental health in others than in myself. Therefore, if I notice a family member, a friend or a colleague acting out of sorts, being unusually introverted or irritable, I have learned that asking if they are OK is sometimes all they need. Sometimes offering to just listen can do the world of good, without offering up opinions.

How do you start the conversation with your manager if you’re struggling?

JT: It's normal to feel apprehensive. We may feel that our manager will see us as 'weak' or not up to the job. However, no one finds things easy all the time, and these feelings are far more common than you may think. I'd suggest lining up the conversation by giving them a heads up, such as "I'm finding things tough at the moment and would welcome the chance to talk to you about it". This sets the tone for the conversation and reduces the chance of your manager being taken by surprise. Any experienced manager will have had conversations like this before. The important thing is to be as clear as you can about how things are for you, and what you think might help.

AE: I am incredibly fortunate to have a very supportive manager, which goes a long way to help being able to voice if I have any concerns or am feeling under pressure. We have regular and honest open check-ins, and therefore I will always try to speak up earlier than later if there is anything bothering me which could materialise into becoming overwhelmed. Sometimes being honest about feeling overwhelmed is the first step and, although it is the hardest, it is immediately a starting point in order to resolve.

How do you start to have a conversation with someone who you think may be struggling?

JT: If the standard "how are you?" is answered with a bland "not too bad, thank you", then get used to asking twice, or being more specific.

I like Samaritans’ SHUSH technique:

Show you care
Have patience
Use open questions
Say it back 
Have courage

The other tool we use at Simply Business is a stress risk assessment. This is a questionnaire which both manager and team member can fill in. It helps to pinpoint where the areas of difficulty are. For instance, workplace stress can be caused by too much work, the difficulty of it, a lack of control over it, difficult relationships at work or a lack of a sense of purpose. Opening discussion around these topics can elucidate opportunities for intervention and help. Be aware, also, that the stressors or other factors contributing to poor mental health, may have nothing to do with work.

AE:I find that being honest about my own journey helps the other person to feel comfortable in having an open discussion. Usually, I will simply ask if they are OK and show empathy with whatever they seem to be struggling with. In a working environment, it is easier to pop out for a walk or a quick coffee in order to chat, but with the current COVID-19 situation, it is more important to check in by whatever communication is necessary, just to let that person know that you are available to speak. Showing compassion and being a good listener is key.

How can you make your office environment more open and supportive in terms of mental health?

JT: Tone from the top matters. Leaders must go beyond just saying "we care about you and how you are", and show they mean it. Showing some vulnerability themselves is key. If they are finding things tough and say so, this opens the way for others to speak up too. Leaders being open about their own mental health conditions can be transformative in terms of how people feel about coming forward themselves. It can also reassure those less familiar with poor mental health that it is possible to live with a mental health condition and thrive at work.

A basic level of training about mental health and poor health is crucial, too. I believe all people managers should go through this, rolling out to the entire workforce where possible.

AE: I firmly believe that hearing the senior leadership teams being open about mental health provides good standing for a supportive environment.

I am a proud co-founder of LikeMind, which seeks to provide a support network within the insurance industry. We've set minimum standards for which all organisations should aim to include.

There are also internal networks within my organisation, which hold events and support groups for promoting good mental health and providing support to employees. If we all continue to play our part, both from a professional and personal perspective, I think office environments will continue to flourish beyond COVID-19.

What mental health organisations / resources do you recommend?

JT: Mind's information on mental health conditions and treatments is first class. I suggest signing up for the mind@work newsletter, and generally see its workplace resources.

Minds@Work – I'd recommend their in-person events, when they are held again – great for networking with others interested in mental health and workplace wellbeing. 

Samaritans – a lot of great information on how to support people who are struggling, not just when they are in crisis.

City Mental Health Alliance 

AE: In addition to those shared by Joanne, and being somewhat biased, for my industry (the insurance sector), I recommend LikeMind. Mind is a great resource, and I also recommend the Headspace app. There are also some excellent podcasts on Spotify.

Can you share any mental health initiatives / support mechanisms from your organisation?

JT: We organise events around Mental Health Awareness Week in May and World Mental Health Day in October each year. Colleagues speak about their own experiences in looking after their mental health or caring for others. These are especially effective, as the more exposure people have to others who have or have recovered from mental health problems, the more unhelpful stereotypes are broken down and stigma is reduced.

Last November, we dedicated a week to wellbeing – our WellFest. We had speakers on a range of topics from sleep and nutrition to addiction and children's mental health. We sent a care package to everyone in the business and encouraged people to share their tips for wellbeing in a variety of fora. It was a week of positivity at the end of a very difficult year.

We use an app called Unmind, which offers our people a variety of tools and resources to help them manage their own wellbeing.

We participate in Mind's Workplace Wellbeing Index. This is a benchmark of best policy and practice. It will help you find out where you are doing well and where you could improve your approach to mental health in the workplace.

AE: We have a dedicated network to mental health, which often arranges external speakers on various topics. The organisation also provides us with regular check-ins to ensure we all feel supported in our individual mental health journeys. We were given a day off in January as a mental health resilience day, in order to endorse taking time out to ourselves and rejuvenate. There are regular initiatives taking place internally across all regions of the business which aim to provide support, and our leaders endorse these and attend and encourage us all to take part.

How can you support your team’s mental health while working remotely, especially junior members?

JT: Regular one-to-ones, where the topic of conversation is not only the work they are doing. Talk about how they are, and their lives outside work. This might be an opportunity to share a bit of your personal life, too. Showing some empathy and understanding can be the key to a good working relationship, and it paves the way – especially for more junior members – to feel heard and cared about. The positivity resulting from this is likely to result in more positive work outcomes as well. These conversations should happen as a matter of course, not just when you think there's a problem. Being understanding of personal circumstances is more critical now than usual.

I find "what do you need this week?" a good question. It goes beyond "how are you?" to help you both consider where the areas of difficulty might be and what can be done to help. This could be anything from a second pair of eyes on a document, to a few hours of free time.

Mood boosters, such as some team time doing something other than work, be that playing a game or going for a walk 'together', and showing each other what you can see, also help.

During a recent wellbeing event, we sent people a houseplant. Some people posted photos of the plant in their homes and wrote about how happy it makes them. Small things like this can go a long way to fostering connections.

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