Mind matters

8 min read People
No one was ready for the events of the past year, and each of us has been affected in ways we might not have yet processed. Comms Business finds out how channel companies are looking after employee mental health.

We all know it is important to look after our mental health, but this is not always easy. There are countless things that can impact on how we are feeling, and the last twelve months has been particularly difficult for so many of us.

In May, data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) looked at self-reported depression in Great Britain and rates of depression as diagnosed by a GP in England. Self-reported depression doubled during the pandemic, with one in five adults experiencing depressive symptoms in the last quarter, compared to one in ten before the pandemic outbreak.

Worryingly, the number of GP-diagnosed cases of adult depression has fallen during the pandemic yet depression rose as a proportion of all diagnoses during that period. This indicates adults may have been avoiding or putting off speaking to their GP about depression or other health problems.

These stark figures should be a warning to all of us that, statistically, it is likely a colleague or a friend is experiencing poor mental health, or you might be struggling. It might feel an exhausting prospect, but you must tell someone if you haven’t already. Speak to your GP, family, a friend, a colleague, your manager, or talk to Mental Health Associates, a specialist listening service for the ICT industry. You can call the Mental Health Associates helpline on 0330 124 4338 or Mind on 0300 123 3393.

Fortunately, there is a willingness from those working in the Channel to prioritise mental health. Vendors, distributors, resellers and MSPs up and down the country are examining ways they can support good mental health in the workplace.

Accessing help

Sati Kaur, HR manager at CityFibre, pointed to the importance of mental health first aiders. She said, “There is no doubt that the last year has had an enormous impact on all of us, from the isolation due to multiple national lockdowns to the uncertainty living with a pandemic has created. All of this combined has undoubtedly led to a rise in mental health issues being heightened.

“To help tackle this, channel vendors, distributors, partners and indeed everyone has a responsibility to put mental health wellbeing at the forefront of the forefront of their mindset coming out of the lockdown. Ensuring that mental health first aid training is available to all managers should be one of the first steps we take so we can ensure all employees have access to, or the ability to ask for, the help they may need as we slowly return to normal.”

Phillip Higgins, service desk agent at CityFibre, is one of the company’s mental health first aiders. He explained why his training is so vital, “Being a mental health first aider, I am able to offer support to colleagues who might be suffering from stress, anxiety or bereavement and more. Listening to them, and offering advice for self-care really helps them, and feels great to be making a difference, and helping others.”

This chimed with the view of Louisa Gregory, vice president at Colt Technology Services, whose company has also trained mental health first aiders. She said, “It’s important to signal to the organisation that it’s OK to talk about mental health challenges in the same way that we might talk about physical health challenges. We should also recognise that it’s not just the health crisis that leads to feeling low or mentally exhausted. Our new regimes of working from home and constant Zoom and screen time also have an impact upon our mental wellbeing. Normalising these conversations and acknowledging the issues exist are vital to helping people feel that what they are experiencing is not unusual, which in turn encourages more to speak up and ask for help when they need it.

“We are constantly thinking about what more we can do to help people better manage their mental wellbeing. We encourage people to think differently about meetings – can shorter meetings work? Can they do a voice only meeting while taking a walk outside or sitting in a park? We also ask people to think about the workday in the same way that they would have come into the office – including commute time, where they might read the news or schedule a lunch break. We’ve rolled out global monthly meeting free days to allow people time to catch up on their To Do list, do some learning or reading.”

David Tulip, managing director of Network Group, added, “Ultimately, promoting good mental health at work comes down to company culture. There’s no point promoting a good work-life balance and then expecting people to work 12-hour days – business leaders have a responsibility to ‘walk the walk’ – it’s that subtle difference between good management & good leadership. Secondly, it’s about normalizing the conversation around mental health, de-bunking the myths and creating an environment where ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ – and then demonstrating the importance of mental health by providing accessible support systems.”

Tulip’s colleague, Perry Ashby, Network Group’s chairman, added that during his career he has found support amongst his peers. He said, “For me, being a member of a community or peer group provides [mental health] support, offering an environment where like-minded people can share information in the knowledge that you are not alone. In times of adversity this can be very powerful.”

When asked if enough is being done to support those working in the Channel, Kelly Dickson, enterprise account manager at Jabra, said, “There is always more that can be done. Making sure people are taking regular breaks is essential. No one can work to the best of their abilities if they’re struggling with stress or anxiety. Removing the stigma of weakness that surrounds ill mental health is critical. Raising awareness of mental health and sharing experiences can make all the difference when ensuring employees don’t feel alone.

“Additionally, praise people where it’s due. The aim for all organisations should always be to create an atmosphere of reward and recognition. Small acts of kindness can make a mountain of difference to someone’s self-esteem. You could be that person to help someone feel they are able to get through the day.”

CityFibre’s Kaur agreed that, whilst progress has been made, more support is still needed. She added, “Managing a positive climate of mental health is a journey. Whilst great progress is being made, there are always positive steps that can be taken to drive positive change.

“Line managers have a massive role to play – they should be there to help their colleagues maintain a healthy mental wellbeing mental wellbeing. Here at CityFibre, our management development programme includes several modules based around mental health, and helps managers to spot early warning signs of mental distress, and enhances their confidence to have supportive conversations with employees who may be experiencing mental health issues.

“We have also created several wellbeing initiatives to ensure all employees are able to work in ways that suit them. This includes applying flexibility to working hours, encouraging a lunch hour and time away from laptops, weekly wellbeing webinars including yoga and Pilates. And most importantly, ensuring regular communication and collaboration is taking place with their peers and team.”

Nurturing caring workplaces

Our mental health can be affected by a variety of things, from our working environment, our relationships with our colleagues, our homelives, and much more. Poor mental health isn’t just about experiencing a mental illness, not quite feeling yourself can still impact on your working life. There are various ways organisations can help employees look after their mental health. Jabra’s Dickson said, “Outside of what most businesses already do, such as allow employees to take compassionate leave, some companies are allocating wellbeing days to their staff. Smaller initiatives, such as creating a book club, are helping to promote taking time out during the working day. It’s all about getting people connected and working together.”

Tulip, from Network Group, added, “Don’t underestimate the importance of human connection for wellbeing, we are fundamentally social creatures!! Often some of the simplest initiatives, like encouraging both formal and informal check-ins between managers and staff, work best - it could be a simply 5-minute check-in each morning or a weekly team meeting. At Network Group we’ve introduced an initiative dubbed ‘Gimme 5’ – essentially a daily scrum where the team check-in with each other - this is what I have going on, this is what I need help with today - it’s a great way to build some structure into the day and alleviate feeling overwhelmed.

“During a time when we’ve been more isolated than ever, we’ve been organising regular social activities designed to bring our team and community together in a virtual environment – virtual pubs, murder mysteries, race nights – socialising with our peers is part of what makes us human and helps build morale and a sense of belonging.”

The pandemic and efforts to contain it have impacted everyone’s lives. Kaur, from CityFibre, said, “The last 12 months has been challenging for many people and their mental health. Covid-19 has absolutely impacted all of us in some form, and the constant change has caused great stress and anxiety. In terms of changes to our workplace, we must pivot and learn to do business in new ways, which our staff have excelled at being flexible enough to handle. However, we feel a large part of their success in doing this is the supportive environment we have created.

“The biggest change being working remotely, from their homes. Adjusting to these changes in an uncertain environment has been difficult for many. Unfortunately, Covid 19 has introduced non-work-related stress which may be compounding the effects of the stress related to workplaces. This includes anxiety over the safety of loved ones, social distancing measures and associated loneliness caused by lockdown.”

There are signs that the pandemic has made people think more deeply about mental health, and the role we can all play in helping each other get the help we need. Jabra’s Dickson said, “The topic has become more prominent during the pandemic. It is being talked about more in the media and people are becoming more open with how they are feeling. The light shone on mental health throughout the pandemic has shown ways in which we can focus more on people’s wellbeing and stress induced problems.

“Issues of loneliness and discomfort surrounding talking about our personal issues is not a problem that will disappear overnight, it’s ongoing. If employers can do one thing to help, it will be to enable their staff to deconstruct those bad coping strategies that have been adopted by our historic, British stiff upper lip attitude.”

Colt’s Gregory added, “The events of 2020 had such a big impact upon us – it started with a health crisis with people feeling anxious and, for some, frightened about this new virus. That led to a financial crisis as lockdowns came into force with people being put on furlough, or losing their job altogether – increasing anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

“We then went into a social crisis following the events of the death of George Floyd and a re-thinking of the role we can play in removing racial bias and discrimination. On this basis, it’s no wonder that more of us have experienced mental health wellbeing challenges over the last year.

“This in turn has opened up conversations and helped people to recognise it’s OK to acknowledge mental health challenges and encourage everyone to check in on each other more often – something that we can hope will remain into the future.”

After Covid

As we look to the future and begin to hope we’re about to step into life after the pandemic, it is vital that we keep mental health front of mind. Dickson pointed out that long-term shifts to how we live and work could negatively impact on our mental health. She said, “One key question worth considering is, what implications closing offices good might have in the long term for our employees? Offices and overhead costs may be expensive, but are still an important part of feeling connected to the people you work with every day. For many, face to face interactions are crucial to their mental health, particularly as we come out of the pandemic.

“Mental health is everyone’s responsibility. Individuals need to take responsibility for their own mental health and speak out when they are struggling. While businesses can, and should, encourage their employees to take healthy breaks; advocate for the healthy sharing of your employees’ feelings, and workforces will consequently fire on cylinders.”