Supporting mental health

How can organisations support good mental health in the workplace? And what signs everyone should look out for in themselves, their coworkers and their network? Comms Business talks to leaders from across the Channel to find out.

All of us have faced considerable difficulties over the last two years, with the lockdowns put in place during the pandemic bringing the importance of looking after mental health to the fore. Working in the Channel – whether at a reseller or MSP, or a distributor or vendor – can be a high-pressure environment, so it is vital that we look out for everyone in this community.

Whilst there is growing awareness of the importance of looking after our mental health in the Channel, more can still be done to support good mental health for everyone.

Claire Horton, HR manager for the UK and Ireland at Westcon, described how her company is helping to break down barriers. She explained, “There is certainly more awareness of mental health in the channel than ever before.

“We’re working to normalise the conversation at Westcon, and create a safe space for people to open up about how they’re doing. I’m seeing evidence of good things happening elsewhere– the increasing number of mental health awards in the industry, for example, is testament to that – but it still needs to be improved.

“A lot of initiatives take place around events such as World Mental Health Day or Mental Health Awareness Week which is fantastic, but the conversation needs to continue all year round.”

Latanja Gill, head of people and talent, Nuvias UC, agreed that things are moving in the right direction, but warned of the impact of the pandemic. “We think the awareness of mental health within the channel has only been properly recognised over the last couple of years. When lockdown was put in place, there was a lot of general discussion about how having to stay at home and minimalise socialising can have an impact on mental health.

“Workplaces started to pick up on this and therefore implemented measures to remove the stigma of mental health within their business and support employees with adapting to life in lockdown.

“When you see someone daily in the office, you would hope it would be easier to pick up on any changes in their behavior. When working from home, it’s extremely difficult to grasp how someone is feeling. Businesses recognised this as an issue and made the efforts to ensure they were checking in on employees on a regular basis, setting time aside to find out how their teams were coping with the changes to their daily routine and reassuring their employees that they had someone to talk to.”

When asked if she thought there is enough mental health awareness in the Channel, Chloe McGain-Harding, mental health lead, CityFibre, said, “Personally, no I don’t think there is enough awareness of mental health in our industry but it is an improving landscape.

“The pandemic had a huge impact on people’s mental health and also really highlighted the issue in both a positive and negative way. Many employers stepped up and recognised that more needed to be done, especially whilst staff were working from home and missing social interaction etc. Whilst, this is a great start for many employees, more is still needed.”

Louisa Gregory, vice president, culture, change and diversity at Colt Technology Services, said, “The pandemic has shown that mental health is just as important as physical health. From a leader’s perspective, you need a healthy workforce, mentally and physically, to have a healthy business. Employees that are clear on what’s expected of them, understand the vision and plans for the business, and have, where possible, autonomy and flexibility in their working practices are more likely to be engaged and have a positive outlook, ultimately helping to provide a better customer experience.

“The Channel has become far more aware of this and as the boundaries between work and home have become more blurred over the last two years, there is a greater onus being placed on managers and employers to be proactive in supporting their employees when it comes to mental health.

“Beyond having in place specific mental health support policies, tools and resources, it’s also about training everyone to spot the signs of poor mental health in themselves and others, practicing personal wellbeing unapologetically, and talking openly and often about challenges that can increase stress and anxiety.”

Gregory pointed to restrictions or movement due to the pandemic, or trying to balance childcare alongside delivering on work commitments, as potential triggers – but she explained that “regular occurrences” also cause stress.

She added, “Holiday periods can be highly anxiety-inducing for some people. Those that live on their own can often experience greater levels of stress than those that share a household. People managers who get to know the people in their teams in an inclusive way by listening to understand, being curious about others and showing deep levels of empathy will be better placed to support the mental health of their teams, or at least offer a safety net if someone needs it.”

Supporting good mental health

There are numerous ways in which employers can support their workforce to look after their mental health. Nuvias UC’s Gill highlighted the importance of a good work-life balance. She said, “Some take comfort in working but for others, it’s important to be able to step away from work. It’s important for companies to promote a healthy work-life balance and a supporting work environment. By starting up the initial conversation about mental health awareness, it opens the door for employees to speak honestly about it too.”

McGain-Harding, from CityFibre, discussed how her company supports staff. She said, “At CityFibre we’ve implemented a lot of new initiatives to support our staff’s mental health. Even before the pandemic we had already started training our team of Mental Health First Aiders and had communicated this across the company, with clear routes of contact.

“Since then, we’ve expanded that programme, training more MHFAs and further developing our Mental Health focus to also include wellbeing through lots of initiatives including Photo Fridays (share your interesting, quirky photos), Get active challenges in the summer which resulted in over 100 teams being involved and guided meditation and relaxation webinar sessions.

“Small changes can make a huge difference, just providing a route to being able to talk to someone could make a huge impact – so speak to your staff to understand how you could provide more support and what sort of things they would be interested in.”

Accessing support

Although periods of poor mental health can occur at any time, January can be a difficult month as it is one of the coldest months of the year with reduced daylight hours. The first step to getting support if you feel you are having difficulties should be to visit your GP. Your doctor will be able to offer advice and, where appropriate, prescribe medication to help you better understand and manage your feelings. Your GP may also refer you to more specialist services for additional support if he or she feels this will help.

In addition, Mental Health Associates was founded in 2020 as a listening service for ICT industry professionals experiencing any type of mental health issue. It also provides access to information and support. The organisation was set up by telecoms veteran Peter Orr and a group of trustees last year with a mission to act as a ‘first response’ resource for people in the ICT industry who need someone to talk to in challenging times.

Some can find it more difficult to ask for help, which is why it is vital that everyone plays a role in looking out for each other and noticing any behavior or mood changes that could indicate a friend or colleague needs support. Chris Selby Rickards, UK marketing director, NFON UK, added, “There is still work to do to increase awareness and acceptance of mental health challenges in the channel. By and large, younger workers seem more comfortable talking about mental health, in contrast to older workers who seem to feel there is a stigma attached to the issue. This really needs to be addressed so that everyone feels open to help and support – whether its aiding others, or themselves.

“At NFON, we are proud to have taken a progressive and proactive position on mental health. We have run a mental health first aider programme since 2018. This means that whatever mental health problem an employee is facing, they have someone to speak with in complete confidence, who can direct them to services that will help them. We also have an excellent mental health support provision within our private healthcare subscription.”

Mental health first aiders

For those that are dealing with challenges to their mental health, it is vital that there is support in place to help them get help. Mental health first aiders (or MHFAs) have gained traction in the last few years and are one way in which channel companies can help employees know who to talk to if they are struggling with their mental health.

Gregory, from Colt Technology Services, explained, “People within organisations play an important role in supporting each other, tackling the stigma around mental health and building a more inclusive environment. Mental health first aiders are great facilitators for this as this peer to peer support can encourage people to talk more freely about mental health and get support if they need it.

“At Colt, we trained MHFA in all of our locations as part of our global Mental Health and Wellbeing programme. They are a first point of contact for anyone suffering from emotional distress or mental health issues and can offer appropriate support and guidance entirely confidentially. While some issues will need and should be directed to more professional help, having MHFA in the company can really help to embed a culture of openness and awareness and care of mental health.

“The move to remote working first meant lots of employees in our industry have been working longer hours, and many calendars are filled up with back to back virtual meetings. ‘Zoom fatigue’ is a real issue and companies need to encourage employees to fully switch off from their laptop for their wellbeing and create some of those boundaries that help maintain a productive balance.

“That’s why we run monthly ‘Clear Your Plate Days’ for the whole of Colt, where everyone is asked to make a concerted effort to keep diaries free of any meetings. These days free up time to catch up on emails, daily operational activity, reading, learning or planning and gives much needed downtime from constant video calls.”

Gill, from Nuvias UC, agreed. She said, “Mental health first aiders should be considered within all businesses because it places a trusted advisor and a go-to person. This is especially beneficial within larger companies where some employees don’t interact with many members outside of their own department. People can feel more inclined confiding in someone they don’t know, rather than someone who they work closely with on a regular basis.”

Chloe McGain-Harding, mental health lead, CityFibre, added, “MHFAs are a fantastic addition to any workplace but they also need to be implemented as part of a wider network of support and not a standalone solution. Having qualified people available to help in any given situation is essential to a workplace, but also having the right culture in place to ensure people feel they can talk, providing wider training so that others can recognise key signs and potentially raise those alarms and to offer additional support and wellbeing initiatives is really key.

“Training MHFAs can also be costly and there are other options available such as a Level 2 Understanding Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace qualification, it’s for distance learners at a college and currently free for adults. There are also many books to read that can give you an insight to understanding Mental Health such as ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Employers and Employees by Donna Butler and Gill Hasson. Also, if you have private healthcare, most offer a range of resources and support options through the provider.“

Early detection

Channel companies can also help with early detection. Gregory, from Colt Technology Services, said, “The Channel can help with early detection by educating managers and employees on the signs of deteriorating mental health through specific training or webinars. Early warning signs are hard to see in ourselves, so it can help to have colleagues connect our behaviours to our mental health. It’s important to offer help if symptoms are causing problems in someone’s ability to work or relate to others, as it could be a sign of a mental health issue.

“Colt’s global Employee Assistance Programme provides our people and their families with confidential support, resources and information for personal and work-life issues. It’s provided free of charge and is available to them 24/7.

“There are many great charities in the UK that offer support with mental health and the Hub of Hope website shows all the available services in your area that you can reach out to. The NHS also has teams of First Responders who are trained mental health clinicians based in A&E and in the community. They provide face to face assessments to people who are in need of urgent mental health assessment or in a crisis, 24/7, 365 days a year.”

This is a wide-ranging effort with no simple answers, but there are some practical ways in which channel companies can push for change. Westcon’s Horton, said, “First and foremost, channel companies need to build cultures where employees feel comfortable talking about mental health. Making sure staff are skilled and trained in early detection is also critical.

“Individual action plans can help support staff, by being open and honest with their teams about their condition, any triggers for colleagues to be aware of. If the industry comes together, removes the stigma around this issue and works towards putting mental health on a level playing field with physical health – I’m confident that we’ll start to see positive change.”

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Charlotte Hathway

Charlotte is the editor of Comms Business and writes about the latest technology innovations and business developments across the Channel. Got a story? Get in touch – charlotte.hathway@markallengroup.com.

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