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21st May 2019

Tips for a healthy, happy workplace.

I’m all in favour of practice what you preach, and when it comes to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, I’m wholeheartedly committed to making the By Design Group a place to work where the team are healthy, happy and engaged employees who feel valued.

As an employment lawyer with over 30 years’ experience, I’ve worked in many large, high-pressured law firms and watched colleagues at both the top and further down the organisation suffer under excessive workloads in terms of time pressure and the complexities of the work they do. Let’s face it, it can be enormously stressful, and it is our response to those stressors that is important.

Many of us will recognise colleagues who battle through silently, taking on stressful work loads in increasing numbers, are the first to arrive in the morning, turn the lights out at night and work weekends. We may have done the very same thing ourselves and how did it make us feel? Some are resilient enough to withstand these pressures, but those who can’t and carry on regardless can suffer the most catastrophic breakdowns. It’s a disaster for their health and personal life and frankly it’s also bad for business – not least for the pressure it puts on their colleagues if a long sickness absence ensues. Under these conditions people can’t deliver the excellence of service that attracts and retains clients, and over time it severely impacts on the reputation of the business from a recruitment point of view.

So, what can be done?

It seems to me that the fundamental problem that faces employers is that whilst their employees may admit to feeling stressed, the majority are reluctant to admit they are having difficulties coping with it. There must be a change in attitude towards mental health in the workplace driven from the very top of an organisation and devolved throughout. Employees must be happy to seek assistance so that they can be supported. Mental Health first aiders should be appointed and appropriately trained not only to spot signs of mental health issues but also to offer that support. All staff should be trained in awareness so that they can spot the signs and what action to take if someone is suffering.

Whilst work colleagues may be reluctant to admit to difficulties, experience shows that often the signs have been there all along. Someone who used to be outgoing, interested in others and actively engaged with their colleagues might become withdrawn, apathetic and moody. Their overall performance may take a dive or their levels of absenteeism increase. Despite all the work that has been done to raise awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and measures to tackle them, there is still a sense of stigma attached to admitting you are experiencing these problems. Raising awareness to change this will hopefully mean that positive action can be taken much sooner.

The measures we’ve taken

The By Design Group regularly monitors the wellbeing of all its staff via a health and wellbeing survey which specifically includes a section on stress and mental wellbeing. The survey is carried out twice a year and is completed anonymously online. We then analyse the results and have an engagement session with all employees to discuss the results. As a relatively small organisation with around 20 staff working in an open plan office, we believed it was important start as we mean to continue especially given our plans for growth, which we thought some employees may find stressful through lack of resilience to change.

Employees responded well to the survey and there were some surprising results. Those employees who had personal challenges outside of the workplace were finding it difficult to leave them at the front door – and so stress undoubtedly spilled over into their working lives. Prior to the survey this might not have been obvious to us – but once highlighted we could do our best to be supportive and caring to their situations.

Also, one of the suggestions we received from employees was to consider a more flexible work pattern so that the perceived barriers to doing some form of physical exercise was removed. We had already offered every member of staff 1.5 hours per week in work time to take up physical activity of their choice., but the survey highlighted that many of the staff did not take up the offer due to pressures of work. Of course, the links between physical activity and alleviating stress and depression are well documented, so we wanted our staff to take this time out for themselves and so made some adjustments that (subject to the needs of the business) they could take their exercise time when it best suited them.

This is a system based on trust and has been a step change for those of us who have worked in very traditional law firms. These small changes are already paying dividends in terms of employees now taking some time out and appearing happier about themselves when at work.

We recognise that tackling mental health in the workplace is complex and that one size approach does not suit or work for everyone, but we’ve made a start and will continue to engage with our staff on a regular basis to try to tackle this issue in partnership.