Leaders can use Blue Monday to open up conversations about mental health, to show their own vulnerability and to allow people to admit they are feeling down
Hooray for ‘Blue Monday’! Yes, you heard me right. I am cheering what is supposed to be the worst day of the year. In reality it’s probably no worse than any other Monday so far this year, but it gives us the chance to uncork whatever emotions we have been bottling up and to express how we are really feeling. With the numbers of those dying or in intensive care continuing to rise, and with businesses and the economy continuing to suffer, it’s no wonder many people are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or at best rather flat. As a natural optimist I have to admit that even I have found it difficult to put a positive spin on a challenging start to this year, so when I realised that today was so-called ‘Blue Monday’, it almost felt like a relief, as if I was being given permission to admit that I’m not my usual cheery self, that I’m feeling demotivated and under stimulated. Every day feels the same. There’s no light and shade, no variety. As I heard someone say recently at a webinar –it’s as though we’re living ‘decaffeinated lives’.
Before we had even heard of Covid-19, responsible employers were already embracing the need to support the mental well-being of their staff. That is more essential than ever now that so many people are facing additional stresses and pressures, whether they are on furlough or having to work from their bedrooms, home schooling their children or caring for elderly parents.
Talking helps – Make it ‘ok to say’
However artificial the construct of ‘Blue Monday’ may be, it’s a great opportunity for leaders to have a different kind of conversation with their teams, to let them know it’s ok to talk about their mental health and to be open about how they are feeling. If you’re prepared to do this yourself it will set the tone. Lead by example and don’t be afraid to expose your own vulnerability. Your team will know how much pressure you have been under trying to pilot the business through a time of turbulence and unpredictability, and they will respect you even more if you own up to that. Also share tips about how you have built your own resilience and encourage them to share what works best for them.
It’s important for leaders to create a culture where these things are discussed openly as a matter of routine. As CEO of The Royal Foundation, I worked closely with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry on the ‘Heads Together’ campaign that they championed alongside several leading mental health charities. The aim was to try to tackle the stigma around mental health so that it was treated on a par with physical health. One of the key findings was that talking made people feel better. Although they found it difficult to start a conversation, once they did so eight out of ten people found it helpful. The campaign hashtag #oktosay really seemed to resonate. Conversations are a powerful tool and often an important first step in getting people to seek help. Now that so many of us are working in a virtual world, those conversations are more difficult to start and they are unlikely to happen in a video meeting with several others present. Try to find time to have one on one conversations by phone or meet up for a socially distanced walk when possible. It’s so hard to know how somebody is feeling when you only see them on zoom and don’t even have proper eye contact.
If people are feeling insecure and worried about losing their jobs, they are less likely to want to tell their employer that they are facing mental health challenges. A survey for ‘Heads Together’ showed that only two percent of people would talk to HR about a mental health issue which suggests that they fear it would have a negative impact on the way they are perceived, potentially affecting their chances of promotion. However, twenty four percent said they would confide in a colleague. With most people working from home, those conversations with colleagues are less likely to take place so your organisation needs to show by words and deeds that there is no stigma attached to those who have mental health issues and positively encourage them to seek help. There’s nothing like the power of personal stories. Videos of people talking about how they have been supported is one way to tackle this – the more senior those people are the better. Another way is to give your staff access to confidential counselling or make other resources available to them.
Encourage good habits
There are many things you can do to show that you value the mental well-being of your employees. Here are a few suggestions :
- Show your staff you value them and let them know you appreciate the challenges they are facing at the moment. Don’t forget to thank them and praise them when they do well. If you do this to your team it will cascade throughout the organisation.
- A new kind of ‘presenteeism’ has grown up around home working with people feeling they need to prove they are working hard by being online all the time. Encourage proper breaks. For example, you could ban meetings and emails between 12.30 and 2pm so that people have time to go for a walk in the daylight. Tell everyone that’s what you’re doing – and make sure you do it!
- Provide online yoga or relaxation classes during working hours or give everyone a subscription to one of the many excellent apps available eg Calm or Headspace.
- Encourage your team to enjoy themselves and to come up with ideas for social activities. They’ll have to be virtual at the moment but remember organised fun is better than no fun.
The mental health at work gateway has collated resources available to employers from all sectors across the UK https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk