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The importance of an open-door policy for tackling workplace mental health

05 Mar 2018

Stressed employee in front of a laptop covered in post-it notesA director and an employee from Cicero Group share their accounts of dealing with mental health issues from opposite sides of the office, along with the importance of establishing processes for addressing mental health in the workplace...

Mark Twigg, Executive Director at Cicero

Mark Twigg, Executive Director

Mark has been a director at Cicero for 15 years and currently oversees the firm’s international research business. During this time he has successfully delivered major research-led marketing campaigns on behalf of leading global financial brands. 

He is also very active in promoting diversity and inclusion in schools and the workplace. Here's his story...

"Mentioning mental health and the Equalities Act often strikes fear into a lot of small business owners worried about compliance costs and potential liabilities. All too often employers think it easier to manage people with mental health out of the workplace. But that is time consuming and costly, and so too is finding a replacement. 

Also, it isn’t very enlightened and in my industry, it just doesn’t make good business sense. One survey in 2017 revealed that as many as 59 percent of people working in PR and corporate communications suffer with mental ill-health issues. Anxiety and depression can be commonplace in what is an incredibly pressurised working environment. PR firms cannot manage with 59 percent of their workforce out of the business. That’s a lot of talented people going to waste. Providing the right support and nurturing that talent is often more cost effective in the long-run.

I discovered this last year. Cicero employs 65 people working in corporate communication, PR, public affairs and research. My colleague Anna joined Cicero’s research team in January 2017. She was a good fit in terms of experience and she was easily the best candidate for the job. But it was clear almost from the start that Anna had issues outside the workplace which was impacting on her ability to settle into her new role. Anna had a long-standing mental health condition which she hadn’t disclosed during her recruitment. Unbeknown to me, Anna’s previous employer had done a really bad job of managing her condition, which had ultimately led to her leaving her post. Not surprisingly, this made Anna less trusting of employers generally and less open when talking about her mental health.

Building trust was our first challenge. The process of getting to the truth was a bit like peeling an onion. Each conversation peeled another layer away. Each time you got a more complete picture of what you are dealing with. But I remember thinking what a stressful process it was for all involved, particularly for Anna. As a manager there wasn’t really a template on what good practice looks like. After all, you are dealing with a very personal issue overlaid with lots of medical jargon - none of which managers are trained in. Talking about these issues in the workplace in a sensitive way is easier said than done. Especially in an SME where you don’t have lots of internal resources you can call upon.

"Getting it right isn’t about knowing what the law says or following a tick-box process. It’s about what kind of culture you put in place and how you manage employee wellbeing"

Fortunately, at Cicero, we do have an internal HR manager. This helped to make sure we knew the legal environment and followed an appropriate process. But getting it right isn’t primarily about knowing what the law says or following a tick-box process through to its conclusion. It’s more about what kind of culture you put in place and how you manage the employee’s wellbeing.

In our case, putting Anna’s wellbeing first was key to our success. Working with her therapist we were able to identify what the best course of action was when making reasonable adjustments. Being a bit more flexible on working hours to accommodate what can be quite time-intensive therapy appointments, home-working when necessary, avoiding certain working practices, talking openly. Over the past 12 months, those adjustments have really made a big difference whichever way you measure it: attendance, productivity, relationships with colleagues and clients. We’ve achieved a positive outcome.

Focussing on the need to change the culture in our workplace has also helped a great deal. We created a new programme – which we call Cicero Manas (it comes from a Buddhist word for the mind) – which is all about opening up and talking about how we feel. This has included workplace talks from Team GB Olympic athletes, mental health charities and mental health first aid trainers. We’ve also tackled unconscious biases in the workplace by forcing people to think about their behaviour and use of language.

As a senior director, I too have talked openly about my own battle with depression which I have dealt with on and off for 25 years. That has helped send a clear signal to everyone at the company that mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed about. It is just something we have to live with. It takes surprisingly little money or time to create an open culture where employees at least know that having a mental health issue, and being open about it, isn’t going to cost them their job. Once you remove the fear about being open about mental health, it makes it much easier for employees to talk about it, and for employers to manage it."

Anna Hallissey, Researcher at CiceroAnna Hallissey, Research Executive

Anna leads Cicero’s bi-weekly news review for financial service practitioners, combining desk research with analysis into client-friendly presentations. 

She has spent the past three years researching the financial services industry, specialising in wealth management and private client communications. Here's her story...

"Being offered a new job is typically quite an exciting moment. That shine, however, can quickly fade when you realise you have to tell the people inviting you into their company that the polished, in-control version of you that you somehow managed to portray during the interview process isn’t this perfect new starter they’ve envisioned. Sheer terror takes over as you work out how to tell someone in the position of power over your career (that you’ve only met twice) that immediately upon arrival, you will need to take Wednesday afternoons off every week for mental health treatment. There are so many horror stories of companies insisting that mental health issues should be “left at the door”. How can you know from interviews alone if this is one of those companies?

I had my psychiatrist write a very detail-light version of the state of play in her note to Cicero about my care plan. I can’t let them know what’s really going on, I thought. I need this to go right. I just need to get my head down and not let them know how ill I am. This is a professional environment, after all.

Despite what that old adage about leaving problems at the door may imply, there is not a switch for ill mental health. It cannot be separated and compartmentalised. Mental illnesses can be all-encompassing, and directly impact cognitive functioning through your interpretations, understanding and reactions – all unconsciously, of course.

I learnt this quickly, unfortunately. I have a particularly potent cocktail of borderline personality disorder and severe depression. I feel emotions incredibly strongly, especially the negative, and can be particularly volatile with this. In a new, stressful environment without any known friendly faces, this is easily exacerbated. There is nothing but shame felt the first time you are caught leaving your desk in tears, until of course the stabbing fear takes over that you will lose your job for this obvious display of weakness.

Sufficed to say, it was only a matter of weeks before my behaviour was flagged. Try as you might to keep everything contained, mental health problems can so easily manifest into how you act and react without any awareness of this yourself. I had been excelling at my work, it was noted, but I wasn’t fitting in. My personality and demeanour weren’t passing the mark.

In my mind I wanted to scream that of course it wasn’t, I had a personality disorder, I couldn’t fit this “normal” standard. It was starting to dawn on me that pretending I was fine wasn’t actually helping anyone – either my employers in working out how to manage their team, nor myself in my professional development.

“Disclosing” seems like a dirty word, and easily could transpire to be a particularly jam-packed can of worms. I was advised against it by confidantes – I was putting myself in too much of a vulnerable position, and after all, employers don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing. But after a good thumb through the Equality Act, summoning the courage to be honest about the help I needed was that much easier when I understood what employers are required to offer.

Our internal HR manager was incredibly accommodating and understanding once I started to explain the nuances of my illness – one that falls outside of the more-commonplace anxiety and depression knowledge-sphere. But the resources available from charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness are priceless for explaining – and legitimising – what was going on in my head and what I needed to be the best version of me.

Our HR manager has made it very clear that her door is always open, and works incredibly closely with my line manager Mark to work out how we, all together, can create the best environment. It really is a collaborative approach: Mark has helped with talking sensitively to my colleagues in the research team about how I could need extra support from time to time; our HR manager has helped to resource the right computing set-up so I can work from home when I have an unwell day; and I can talk openly about both the two-year timeline for my treatment plan on the NHS (which by the nature of the beast falls within work hours) but also how my health is. To know I can email on a morning and say that I will be working from home and know this will be all okay may seem like a pretty inconsequential reaction, but to me this is a significant comfort.

"There’s only so much employers can fix after all; it’s the day-to-day conversations on the shop floor that can govern a culture"

Every employee with ill mental health should be able to feel like this. I can’t fix all things, but Cicero Manas has been a fantastic trigger to normalise conversations on mental health in the workplace. There’s only so much employers can fix after all; it’s the day-to-day conversations on the shop floor that can govern a culture. Knowing that I can turn down after-work drinks because I’ve got to see my therapist not only means I’m not having to worry about lying – it means we can show that as a company that we can talk about mental health the way we talk about physical health.

Unfortunately my prognosis is that this is a long-term health condition. There may not be an immediate remedy, but knowing I have the support of my company and colleagues in whatever form I need provides the stable structure needed to help me through my recovery. My productivity is better for it, we can communicate better as a team, and I can thrive in the workplace without fear. Something I thought impossible when I first got that job offer."

Mental health in the workplace

The IoD is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, with a particular focus on opening up the conversation for small and medium-sized businesses. We have created a hub packed full of helpful advice, best practice and useful resources, as well as shared experiences from business leaders.

Visit our mental health in the workplace hub

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