Leading with compassion: making every day Mental Health Day

To mark #WorldMentalHealthAwarenessDay, we welcome Sara Cremer, Senior Vice President of Content at WGSN and advocate for mental wellbeing in the workplace, to share her thoughts on how employers can make tangible investments in prioritising mental health in their organisations.  She talks openly and honestly about her own experiences with depression and anxiety, and shares some of the tools that can help achieve a good balance between an individual’s career and their personal life.

You have been an advocate for dispelling the stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace. Can you tell us a little more about what inspired you to talk so openly and honestly about this?

I have worked in the media for 25 years as a journalist, glossy magazine editor and CEO of a global branded content agency. The media is a very ‘up’ industry and I when I first had an episode of depression and anxiety many years ago, I was terrified that anyone would find out at work so I hid it from everyone, including family and friends, for years. I had a recurrent episode when I was a CEO and was coping with a stressful job and a very ill dad. There was no option but to tell my then boss, Dame Cilla Snowball. She was fantastically supportive and understanding.

Some time later, through contact with a movement called Minds at Work, Cilla heard that they were going to do the first event where CEOs talked about their own experience of mental ill health. She encouraged me to talk at this event and tell my story as she felt that it could really make a difference.

Because I was going to talk publicly about mental health, I felt that I really should tell my own team the reasons why I was doing this event. I stood up and told the whole 150 strong team what had happened to me. And the response was extraordinary. At least 12 other people suddenly felt free to say ‘me too’ and to talk openly about their experiences of mental illness – either themselves or in their close family.

That really showed me the immediate impact that being open about mental illness can have on a team. Every time I have spoken about it since, I know I am never on my own in a room and there is always at least one person who says “I’ve never said this before but…” I think being open about mental illness helps to normalise it which is incredibly important because it is normal.

According to the charity Mind, at least one in four of us in any year in the UK will experience some form of mental illness. If talking openly helps one more person ask for help then it’s been worth it. I also think it’s important to show that you can and do get better if you get the right help and it really doesn’t have to be career ending.

“I think being open about mental illness helps to normalise it which is incredibly important because it is normal.”

Mental health has been a significant talking point in recent years. What steps do you think companies should take to ensure their investment in employees’ mental wellbeing is made real through their values and company structure?

I think this is a really important question as it’s not enough to pay lip service to being supportive around mental health and then pursue company policies and allow behaviours that pull directly against that.

The only asset that many companies have, particularly creative industries, is people and the ideas in their heads. It’s so important that companies pursue a ‘people first’ policy.

Some things that I think can really help are:

  • Having a clear flexible working policy. Everyone has got other stuff going on in their lives – children, elderly parents, illness – or even just needing to go to the dentist. Allowing people to flex their work times around other commitments takes a level of stress out of everyone’s life.
  • Not lauding unhealthy behaviour such as working extreme hours. I once saw an email which was sent round congratulating a team on the extremes to which they had gone to win a pitch – including one man missing his best friends stag night. That is unbalanced and unhealthy.
  • Not expecting your team to be on 24/7.
  • Allowing some ‘come down’ time between intensive bouts of working. No one can work at a high stress level the whole time. And you do your best thinking when you are more relaxed.

“I once saw an email which was sent round congratulating a team on the extremes to which they had gone to win a pitch – including one man missing his best friends stag night. That is unbalanced and unhealthy.”

What measures should leaders put in place to protect staff well-being while remaining ambitious and forward looking in business decisions?

Don’t set unrealistic targets or keep moving the goalposts. Asking a committed and hardworking team to deliver 10% growth every year with 10% fewer staff is not ambitious, it’s cruel.

There’s an unpleasant tendency in some companies -– particularly those with distant parent companies – to think it’s clever not to listen to concerns around the demands being placed on staff and just demand the delivery of the numbers.

Put in place clear measures and targets but spend even more time on planning how you’re going to reach those targets with the resources you have. Talented people are attracted to, and very motivated by knowing that they are going to be able to go to a company and do some of their best work. Although all companies have constraints, you can look at these constraints as a way to bring out good creative thinking. But that needs flexibility and good creative thinking at all levels.

And plan beyond the next quarter so there is a clear direction and purpose that everyone on your team can buy into.

What advice would you give to someone who is keen to open up the conversation about mental health in their workplace?

It’s not a subject that you should Google and then appoint yourself an expert. I would start with contacting one of the many excellent mental health charities or organisations who can help to give companies great advice, support and pathways to opening up the conversation. Business in the Community has some excellent resources to help employers and managers, for example.

  • Make personal well-being and self-care at work a core part of your company training.
  • Encourage your team members to have a one-to-one mentor, either outside your company or, if you’re in a big group, within the broader company. It gives people a safe ‘third space’ to talk through any work challenges they may be having and to get a helpful outside perspective.
  • Have regular one to ones with your core team. Start the conversation with “how are you”, and actually listen to the response before you plough into work issues.
  • Discuss openly what you consider to be healthy and unhealthy behaviours. For example, let your team know that when they are on annual leave it is their JOB to relax and re-energise and not to keep on checking in with work. I used to have a rule that there is no such thing as an emergency e-mail – if you are really needed, I’ll ring you.
  • Get key managers to do mental health first aid training so they know how to look out for the signs of distress and how to start a conversation if they see someone in their team suffering.
  • Make sure that your company provides access to free mental health advice and counselling, talk about it, and ensure that everyone on your team knows how to access it.
  • Put together a team mental health committee to keep mental health firmly on the agenda – so that we don’t just think about it on World Mental Health Day. And celebrate World Mental Health Day as a way to start conversations.

Finally, can you share with us some of the techniques or systems you have encountered that might help individuals struggling to prioritise their mental wellbeing and that can help achieve a good balance between career and personal life?

These are just some of the things that have worked for me and I have passed on to others.

  • Write down each day what you’ve done at work that is of true value. You’ll find that it wasn’t being present for 10 hours. It could have been an idea, it could be in the 5 minute phone call you made to a client to head off a problem, it could have been the hour you spent helping your team improve a pitch….Try to see your value as what you contribute, not the time you spend at work.
  • Switch work off when you leave the office. Avoid taking your work mobile phone out of your work bag at home. It will eat as much time as you give it. Work on the train on the way in if you have to…never work on the way home. Keep boundaries.
  • Lead by example…arrive and leave on time if you are in the office. You will encourage healthy behaviours in others.
  • Work from home if you need to – you’ll probably be more productive anyway.
  • Eat well, take time to exercise and get outdoors as much as you can.
  • Don’t try to sort out work problems in your head at 4am. Remember that most things look better or at least clearer in the morning.
  • Finally, do something that’s just for you…that’s not about work or family obligation. Find or return to something that you love, that you’re passionate about, that you own just for yourself and can’t be taken away from you by a change in your work circumstances. Keep something that’s the core of you and gives you a sense of well-being, satisfaction, and strength and has nothing to do with achievement at work or other obligations.

“Put together a mental health committee to keep mental health firmly on the agenda – so that we don’t just think about it on World Mental Health Day.”