Mental Health at Work Expert: Companies Need to Talk About Mental Health Openly

Katy Mrvova
Jo Hooper mental health at work

She was a successful Head of Communications. She worked at a high pace, she was driven, always striving to perform her best.

Until one day, she realized she can’t go on any longer. She wasn’t okay.

She got caught up in a whirlwind of anxiety and depression.

Two breakdowns later, Jo Hooper decided to leave her comms job and set up Mad and Sad Club.

Since then, she helps companies understand, talk about and take action on mental health at work. She trains managers and internal communications teams. She writes and speaks about mental health.

I recently had a chance to speak to this inspiring woman.

I wanted to know how we can break the stigma of mental health in the workplace, what companies can do to help their employees deal with their mental health and why it’s so important that we talk about it.

Read more in this compelling interview.

Q: Mental health is becoming a highly discussed topic in many companies nowadays. What’s the reason behind it?

It’s a bit of a zeitgeisty issue. As multiple studies have found, the number of mental health issues reported in workplaces is growing year over year. That’s alarming. Plus, mental health is getting much more public attention, which means it’s gradually starting to destigmatize and normalize the conversation around the topic.

Q: Do we just talk about it more or is it because the number of people suffering from mental health issues is increasing?

It’s both really. The modern world can and does exacerbate and perpetuate poor mental health. Our fast-paced lifestyles, endless notifications, emails, tight deadlines, and stressful environment can get the better of us. Our bodies are being constantly flooded with hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, or dopamine. That can be extremely overwhelming for some.

At the same time, we’re better informed about mental health, we understand mental health issues more and people are very gradually starting to feel more confident about talking about these issues.

Q: Are people generally open to talk about their mental health problems at work?

Sadly, many aren’t. The primary reason being that they don’t feel comfortable to go and talk to their managers. They fear they wouldn’t be understood or supported.

To illustrate, the CIPD research showed that only 30% of managers are having conversations with their teams about mental health. That is a massive issue. In part, that’s the reason why I do what I do.

Q: What should companies do to tackle mental health issues in their workplaces?

There are tons of things. At the very base, the leadership team needs to recognize the need to do something about mental health in the organization and work towards creating an open culture where people understand that it’s an issue they can talk about.

Also, it’s important to educate managers to be able to spot the fact that their employees might be unwell and train them to provide support to their teams, from the earliest point of conversation to actively supporting them along the way.

Internal comms also plays a huge role here, running strategic comms campaigns around mental health in the workplace, building awareness around the issue, and helping people to see that the company cares about mental health.

In many companies, even small companies, they’re having employee assistance programs that allow employees to talk confidentially about these issues or offer free counseling support.

Q: You’ve mentioned open culture. What role does company culture play in the state of mental health in the workplace?

Company culture has an enormous impact on mental health at work. It all comes down to building an environment where people feel safe to admit that they are stressed, tired, or getting to the point where they can’t cope with what they’ve got on their plates.

Indeed, culture change is a thorny path to take for companies. It takes time and effort. It often requires companies to reprioritize based on what their people need, as opposed to the needs of the company.

But ignoring mental health of its employees can cost companies so much more, given that any mental health illness hugely affects a person’s productivity and performance.

People are not robots, and companies have to keep that in mind. You can’t squeeze every last drop out of a person and then ask and expect them to perform at a fantastically high level again the next day.

Q: What are the most common mental health issues in the work environment?

Anxiety and depression are very common. Sadly, these are often mistaken or misdiagnosed for symptoms of stress which gives way for the illness to fester and get worse in time.

And, of course, burnout syndrome is a widespread problem in workplaces nowadays. What makes it more dangerous is that it can be a precursor to other mental health issues. People affected by burnout often develop depression or different types of anxieties.

It’s hard to say what triggers mental health issues, but since work is an important part of our lives, our mental health is always affected by it. It certainly was for me.

Q: Suffering from mental health issues affects our mood, our emotional state. How, in your opinion, are emotions perceived in the workplace?

I think that showing emotion at work is still a taboo. From my own experience, people tend to be shocked and surprised when they see someone cry or be melancholy because it’s something that you don’t usually see in the workplace.

The strength of emotion can often be seen as a weakness. As having let your guard down. While in fact, showing emotions means being a human, being honest. And you can’t build an open culture without honesty.

By acknowledging the fact that people’s mental health fluctuates, we have to acknowledge that people have emotions. If companies want people to bring their whole selves to work, then they have to be comfortable with the fact that people cry sometimes. And that’s perfectly okay.

Q: Still more and more people today are working remotely. Do you think there’s a link between working alone and developing mental health issues?

One of the pillars of mental wellbeing is the connection with other human beings, which the remote workers may often lack. It’s hard to say whether they are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, but working remotely may definitely trigger feelings of loneliness and alienation.

Again, it comes back to culture. Companies need to think cleverly about how they will engage remote workers and make them feel part of the organization.

Q: What are some of the ways in which companies can make their remote employees feel involved?

The key is not forgetting about remote workers and actively engaging with them every day.

Run video call team meetings rather than physical team meetings so people who work remotely don’t feel left out. Take your team, or part of the team, to where the remote workers are based. Make sure that they’re involved in team activities.

There are also some great digital tools out there that can help you connect remote workers with the rest of the team on an everyday basis like Slack or Slido.

Q: Now that you’ve mentioned technology. How, in your opinion, do tools like Slido help improve mental health at work?

The reason why I use Slido and recommend it to lots of my clients is that, as I mentioned earlier, people usually don’t feel comfortable talking openly about mental health in the workplace.

Slido allows people to join in the conversation digitally and, crucially, anonymously. They can be honest and open, even if they have a tough question on their mind that they wouldn’t normally dare to ask in person.

More especially when it comes to mental health, where there aren’t easy questions. Giving people the opportunity to ask through Slido helps to bring these questions to light and discuss them.

I think Slido is an amazing tool when it comes to getting that conversation going around mental health at work and also get in some really useful feedback from employees.

Thank you, Jo, for this inspiring talk.

Check out Mad and Sad Club or contact Jo at jo@madandsadclub.co.uk.

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