Marking Mental Health Awareness Week

Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum

Diane Lightfoot looks at camera

Monday 18 May marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week and the good news is that mental health is more talked about than ever in a way that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But there can still be a stigma and the fear of being judged for admitting a “weakness”, which is why awareness weeks are so important in helping to normalise the conversation.

And much of that conversation needs to happen in and around work. Most of us spend much of our life at work even if, in the current climate with Covid-19, that means working from home! So, employers have a crucial role to play in supporting their employees to manage their mental health and to support them through periods of mental ill health – including in lockdown with all the additional complexities that it brings.

Culture is key. We talk about encouraging a culture where people can be their “whole selves” at work and don’t feel they have to pretend to be something they are not. Awareness weeks can play a huge role here in providing a platform or a hook for a conversation. It’s also important to recognise that people may not want to talk about their mental health and that’s OK too. So, do what you can so that people who don’t want to, don’t have to. Consider new policies and procedures through a mental health (as well as a broader disability) lens. That means thinking upfront about whether your new initiative will work for someone who has a mental health condition – and if not, doing what you can to change it.

Raising awareness of preventative aspects of mental wellbeing like healthy eating, regular breaks and exercise is important too – but equally importantly, make sure that these are modelled from the top; if the boss never takes a lunch break, their team is unlikely to do so!

Of course, awareness weeks and days are not an end in themselves. They need to be backed up by practical action to support people who become unwell. Here people managers are key, and employers need to equip them with both the tools to have the conversation with someone who seems to be struggling and the practical knowledge of support that is available. Our Mental Health Toolkit contains a wealth of resources for people managers (as well as HR teams and senior leaders) and we have recently completely updated our People Manager Guide to Mental Health to support non HR or D&I professionals to support employees with a wide range of mental health conditions. Do contact our Head of Disability Partnerships Adrian Ward, to find out more about the latter.

One of the key things covered in the guide is how to spot the signs that someone may be struggling or are becoming unwell. For example, changes in routine, appearance, punctuality, communication. But if you are working remotely, how can you tell if someone is struggling? Our Covid-19 toolkit contains a wealth of practical information including how to support employees’ mental health during lockdown. Signs to notice might be the way in which the person behaves or talks about physical symptoms or changes in behaviour, such as missing deadlines, forgetting tasks or seeming emotional or withdrawn. Or not turning the camera on during video calls if they normally do this (note: there are lots of reasons why people may not want to have their video on during calls, and unless another participant needs to see people to support communication – e.g. to lipread – we recommend that this is not mandated). None of these alone indicate that someone might be experiencing ill-health, but you should be wondering whether something might be wrong if the behaviour is out of character or unusual for that individual or carries on for a long period of time.

One of the positives from how we are all working now is that we are all having to be more human. Our workplace “armour” has gone and the intimacy of letting people into our homes (if we are comfortable with turning our camera on) is a powerful thing. Given the importance of culture, I really hope that this will have a lasting legacy in encouraging all of us to be more open about the support we need. As somebody once said, “It’s good to talk”. And I hope that this Mental Health Awareness Week, you will encourage all around you to do just that.

How will you mark Mental Health Awareness Week?

One of the topics that has been coming up for us recently is how to celebrate awareness days remotely when we are not able to physically get together. As well as Mental Health Awareness Week, 21 May also marks Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and I was lucky enough to record a podcast with Neil Milliken, Global Head of Accessibility at Atos, to mark the occasion. Atos’s theme for GAAD this year is “Inclusive communications in uncertain times” and I explore that with Neil as well as his plans to celebrate and mark GAAD remotely! Of course, GAAD and Atos is heavily focused on technology and so lends itself perhaps more than some subjects to remote and digital access. But, as I discuss with Neil, it isn’t just about technology; whilst tools are very important it’s also about being human and working differently. You can listen to the podcast here. I hope you enjoy it!

How will you be covering awareness days in lockdown?

Ebunola Adenipekun, Business Disability Forum

Under “normal circumstances” (pre COVID-19) awareness days offer organisations an opportunity to celebrate difference and to increase understanding of a disability or a long-term condition. And there are lots of them! Indeed, we list a number of awareness days on our website.

Bulb and cloud on blackboard

Typically, awareness days are about coming together – via a workshop or events, conversations with people managers, out-of-house experts providing a day of learning or visual cues – such as Purple Light Up – to spark informal conversations.

For example, one awareness period is National Work Life Week which offers “an opportunity for both employers and employees to focus on well-being at work and work-life balance. Employers can use the week to provide activities for staff, and to showcase their flexible working policies and practices”.

Importantly, to make real and lasting change, awareness days need to be backed up by practical action and the confidence to make workplace adjustments, for example. But they can be a great way of shining a light on difference and particularly of boosting understanding of less well-known conditions.

It can be enough of a challenge when employees are all office-based, but how can we keep this going in lockdown?

Businesses should focus on how everyone in their organisation can benefit from learning about how disability may affect their colleagues or customers, bringing understanding and where necessary, change. This could prove to be a challenge or opportunity when colleagues may not be in a collective space physically, but it can also provide more time and opportunity for a tailored approach via technology. To take the example of National Work Life Week, this could be a great opportunity to put the theory (around work life balance and flexible working) into practice!

Your organisation may find that awareness days are a good opportunity not only to talk about one particular disability or long-term condition that may not have come to the forefront before, but also to show that listening, support and adjustments are embedded in your organisational culture, by equipping managers to support employees with the disabilities or long-term conditions that they have talked about. This could perhaps happen in a teleconferencing call or via webinars to skill-up people managers with the right expert knowledge.

We know that in some cases, awareness days may highlight the fact that practical support is not there. But tackled in the right way, with an honest acknowledgement that there is more to do and a senior-level commitment to learning, improving and getting it right, they can still present an opportunity. And we are here to help! We can support you to put in place the practical action and building blocks that will help you make meaningful change for all your employees. Our Business Partners, Advice Service and Consultants are all on hand to provide the tailored support you need to ensure awareness raising and eradicating stigma is backed by action.

Businesses may also find it relevant to talk about awareness days with their customers if the options are available to get in touch in some virtual format, this could help to build an internal and external culture of trust.

Coming up in May is Mental Health Awareness Week (18 to 24 May 2020) – a great opportunity to promote, or improve, wellbeing in the workplace. Arguably that’s more important than ever in these strange and worrying times and so don’t forget that we have created a dedicated Mental Health toolkit for line managers, D&I teams and senior leaders packed with practical advice to help you get to the heart of mental health in your workplace.

Of course, businesses need to ensure that they have actions that take place throughout the year – not just on one day. But this period of uncertainty, it may be a better time than ever to get involved.

Take a look at some of the services we provide and do get in touch


Blue Monday: fake, but useful

By Jacob Spargo-Mabbs, Business Disability Forum

Most people can vaguely recall having heard about a day of the year when everyone’s mental health is at its worst, and may even know that it’s in January. Many people may even be able to tell you when it falls: the third Monday of January. This year, that is today (20 January 2020).

Given how widely recognised Blue Monday is among the general public, it may come as a surprise to hear that it doesn’t actually exist at all. At least, not in the sense of being a genuine phenomenon where everyone tends to feel at their lowest point of the year. In fact, Blue Monday was the invention of a PR firm working with a travel company, using a questionable formula (including variables such as “time since failing New Year’s resolutions” and “the need to take action”) to sell people holidays.

Despite its unscientific origins, Blue Monday has persisted in the popular imagination, and every year companies run new Blue Monday promotional campaigns. My personal favourite is Star Wars’ 2016 tweet:

So, while 20 January 2020 isn’t the mental health low point it’s portrayed as, it is nonetheless a useful opportunity to take stock of your mental health, and the mental health of your employees and colleagues.

Because of this, we’re adding a new resource to our Mental Health Toolkit. Entitled ‘Why having friends at work matters’, our new resource emphasises the role workplace friends play in supporting employees’ mental health, and encourages employers to consider the ways in which they could make their workplaces more sociable.

Consider looking at how your office is laid out: is there somewhere for people to sit together and eat lunch? Do break out spaces allow for more casual chats? Perhaps look around at the atmosphere in your workplace: are people comfortable to have casual chats with their colleagues?

There’s no reason your mental health would be worse on the 20th than any other day – but it is a good opportunity to take stock. You or the people you work with may be struggling with mental ill-health and having a friendly atmosphere at work could really boost everyone’s wellbeing.

Not only is it Blue Monday, it’s also the start of a fresh decade; and while those things may be social constructs, why not take this opportunity to reappraise how your business is performing at supporting mental wellbeing, while everyone is talking about it? And if you see ways people’s mental wellbeing could be improved, speak up. Make the changes you can and talk to those who can make changes you can’t. Be a voice for positivity in a conversation dominated by cynical opportunism.