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Growth · 1 December '20

Why it’s so important to talk about mental health at work

More than two-thirds of people in the UK would avoid talking to their employer about their mental health, according to a recent survey. Their reasons vary from feeling too embarrassed to share, to worrying it could have a negative impact on their job. Views on mental health have massively improved in recent years, but unfortunately, a lot of people still don’t feel comfortable admitting if they need to take a sick day for mental health reasons, for example.

For employees who are happy to speak about their mental health, it’s sometimes not obvious how their company can help. The same survey found that more than 75% of UK managers think businesses need more help to support employees with their wellbeing. Many felt they wouldn’t know what to do if a team member came to them with a mental health problem.

There’s a lot companies can do to help their employees and to reduce stigma around the issue of mental health in the workplace. Providing expert services to help promote employee wellbeing is a great place to start. Just over a year ago, we launched The Anchor, the Octopus home for wellness services, to help our people improve their mental health and wellbeing. This is one of the steps on our journey to looking after the financial, physical and mental well being of all our people. And so far, The Anchor has been really popular, with almost half our staff trying out at least one service.

For Kirstie Hawton, our Head of Culture, offering mental health support to Octopus people is a must. “Looking after our people is a huge priority for me. I really care about people and what they’re going through. I want to help change their lives for the better, or at least offer them the support they need to get there. That’s why I’m so committed to working with services like Sanctus, Parent Cloud, Rob Archer and Headspace, to give people a variety of tools, coping mechanisms and strategies to help them. Plus it makes good business sense. If we can make our people happy, it’ll lead to better performance and attract the best people to come into Octopus. And if we make our people happy, our customers will be too!”

A culture of openness

Octopus people have also been writing blogs to share with their teammates, talking about their mental health experiences to help normalise the issue. Kirstie was the first of many people to share her story. “‘I started writing blogs to be vulnerable about my struggles and share how I’ve been able to come out the other side,” she explained. “I wanted to help people by showing that everyone goes through tough times and they can affect us all differently. Speaking out and sharing helps me, but I’m hoping it also makes it easier for others to share and be vulnerable. You have got to be ‘willing to be uncomfortable’ in life, both in your personal and professional lives.

“I also wanted to make people aware of the services we offer through The Anchor programme. I thought the best way to do it is to show people rather than tell them. Share an experience that someone else can relate to.”

For Kirstie being open is key to building a great company culture. “It’s all about being honest,” she told me. “I’ve worked hard to build a culture of openness at Octopus and it shouldn’t be any different with mental health. We’ve all got it; it’s not a case of some people have problems and others don’t. It’s a spectrum.”

Kirstie’s vulnerability opened the floodgates for lots more blogs. George shared his story during Men’s Mental Health Week. “I was nervous,” he admitted, “but seeing other peoples’ blogs, seeing Kirstie and Simon talking about their own struggles, made a massive difference. People are up-front at Octopus and there’s a really supportive culture here. Vulnerability is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Because of this, I felt comfortable sharing what I’d been through.”

Steven was also nervous before sharing his blog. “I was worried to begin with, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share. But I feel really comfortable at Octopus. It’s not just about making money here, I feel really well looked after. There’s so much on offer to help with your mental health and the tools are really easy to get hold of. Plus, everyone is so open about using the different services, so you can have these frank conversations without fear. It feels very safe.”

Another blog writer, Charlie, agreed. “Everyone is more open at Octopus. Simon talks openly about his mental health, for example. It’s creating a culture where we get away from the stereotype that mental health is a problem. It’s not. It’s just a normal part of life.”

Why share?

“The idea that someone could benefit from what I wrote was far more important than any worries I might have had about writing it,” Charlie explained. “I wanted to share my story to help let people know that it’s OK to talk and share. If more people talk openly about their mental health, it will hopefully start to remove the stigma attached.”

“It’s very easy to think you’re alone when you’re wrapped up in your own head,” George expanded. “It’s easy to assume everyone else has everything joined up. But we all have challenges and it can be really reassuring to know other people are going through stuff too. When you talk about things, or hear about someone else’s experiences, you realise you’re not alone.”

Similarly, Emmanouil thinks sharing is important, both for the person sharing and the people reading. “I wrote my blog to try and explain what it’s like if you’re not open and honest,” he explained. “I spent such a long time not talking and not knowing what to do. When I started going to Sanctus and talking about things, I felt so much better. Sharing my story was the easiest way to raise awareness.”

Steven’s reasons for writing were similar. “I thought it was really important to get the message across that anxiety and depression can come in any form. And at the same time, I wanted to encourage others to open up to each other. If we talk about our struggles, they can be much easier to deal with. I wish I’d talked to people sooner.”

When you share your story, people welcome you

“When you share your story and show your vulnerability, people really welcome you,” Emmanouil told me. And everyone who wrote and shared a blog within Octopus was blown away by the amount of people who got in touch with them afterwards.

“The day my blog came out, I spent most of the day responding to people,” Steven said. “People were saying how much they related and to call them if I ever needed to chat. At the same time, people were sharing their own stories with me, so it’s great knowing others have a point of contact if they need it.”

“There was one person in particular who got in touch,” Emmanouil continued. “I didn’t know them before, but they’d read my blog and opened up to me about what they were going through. I told them what I had found helpful and they were able to find similar services through their GP. The fact I could point even one person in the right direction made writing the blog worth it.”

George had a similar experience. “Writing my blog felt really liberating. And what’s even better was the reaction from people. Lots of people sent me messages and I’ve had deeper conversations too. I think for a lot of people who’ve been through something similar, sharing my story could give them a bit of hope.”

Tackling stigma in business

“I really hope businesses like ours can help fight wider stigmas around mental health,” Kirstie told me. “I’m really proud of what we’ve done so far, but there’s still lots more we can do.

“I’m always thinking about ways we can make Octopus people happier and healthier. I’m always looking for new services that could make their lives better. It’s really important for me to find providers who fit with our values and can really offer something unique, useful and easy to access. I massively buy into the people who run and work in each of our providers. When looking for partners, I want raw, honest, vulnerable and grounded people that can relate to tough times. That way, they’ll be able to help people at Octopus work through things.”

In the future, we’re planning lots more (virtual for now) Sanctus sessions, Headspace meditations, workshops with Cognacity and sessions with Parent Cloud. At the same time, Kirstie is encouraging more people around the business to be open and share their stories. “I know how hard it is to write these blogs,” Kirstie added. “It can take you right back to the place when you were feeling all these emotions. I’m so proud of the people who have been and are sharing, and so proud of their courage.

“People struggle in all sorts of different ways. No one person’s situation is the same as someone else’s, but everyone has something they’re dealing with. It can be so hard to admit to ourselves when we’re struggling. Sharing with others should be beneficial, it shouldn’t be another hurdle, so there will never be any judgement when we talk about mental health at Octopus.”