We’re Work.Life, the workplace wellbeing experts. Over the last 5 years, we’ve been finding out the secrets to what makes people happy at work, creating our very own Work Happy podcast, and trying to measure happiness in our workspaces. In light of Covid-19, we wanted to take it one step further, and find out how some of our favourite businesses have been navigating the pandemic and keeping people happy and engaged at work.
The pandemic has created huge new challenges for mental wellbeing. So this week, we caught-up (virtually) with Chance Marshall, Founding Partner at Self Space. We spoke to Chance about the huge impact the pandemic’s had, how businesses can support mental wellbeing remotely, and some of the key warning signs employers should look out for.
Hi Chance! First of all, we’d love to hear a bit about you – where you were before Self Space, when you joined the company, and what you do there?
Before Self Space I was working as an Arts-based Psychotherapist in addiction centres across London and with an awesome charity called Play for Progress who support unaccompanied refugee and asylum seekers through music and creative therapies.
I was lucky enough to have joined Self Space right at the very beginning, we were operating out of an old workshop in Shoreditch and Jodie (our founder) offered me a day-a-week as a freelance therapist. Two and a half years later I’m now ‘Founding Partner’. I still work 1:1 with clients, but in true start-up style my week is made up of doing everything from recruiting new therapists, helping manage a team of 30 Clinical Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Counsellors and Coaches, leading on exciting new business, developing and delivering workshops and talks, writing content and watering plants.
Say I knew nothing about Self Space, what can you tell us about what the company do & why you do it?
We provide flexible, forward thinking therapy for individuals and some of the most progressive global companies from a broad range of creative and corporate industries, including tech, finance, advertising, marketing, hospitality and fashion. These are companies, like Work.Life, who want to help their people in maintaining good mental health and reaching their potential.
Therapy and mental health have historically been such grubby words. When we think of ‘mental health’ the first thing we often think of is ‘mental illness’ and accessing therapy has been seen as exclusively for people who are at rock bottom or extremely unwell. Added to this, therapy has been happening in some really shitty, stigmatising spaces that somehow all have that same stock image of a man with his head in his hands – they make you feel even worse.
We’re on a mission to change all of this. Therapy doesn’t just have to be a reaction to illness, but it can be an active engagement in wellness.
We’re out to revolutionise the culture around accessing mental health support, making it more commonplace and aspirational, in the same way most of us think about our physical health.
For us, this looks like no-long waiting lists, beautifully designed spaces, bookings made digitally via our app or website with no awkward receptionist encounters, flexibility with seeing us virtually or in person, the ability to choose and change your therapist and a forward-thinking approach to therapy.
Thinking back to pre-Corona, how would you advise employers on how to approach & manage mental health at work?
Pre-pandemic and now, this hasn’t changed for us. When it comes to advising employers on how to approach & manage mental health in the workplace, our stance has always been the same: action speaks louder than words. Real, tangible support for your people goes a long way. When you invest in your people’s mental health, it pays.
So when we partner with companies, we’re often conscious of being a partner and not just a perk. We have a bespoke way of working with them that includes confidential access to a good conversation with a qualified person (1:1 sessions), a programme of regular talks and therapist-held workshops that offer a space for employees to learn, share, connect and maintain their mental wellbeing, and access to regular ‘Content Care Packages’ written by our experts.
Adding to this: talk about feelings, make space to share how difficult things are sometimes. If you’re a leader, talk about how you are really doing. One of the most powerful and culture-shifting actions you can do when it comes to mental health is not by modelling perfection, but imperfection. We’re all messy, and it helps us feel less alone when we see others are experiencing a bit of what we might be.
“Boundaries between many things have become blurred at the moment: between work/home, between downtime and being ‘on’, between different parts of ourselves.
As soon as it becomes difficult to maintain a boundary we can begin to feel overwhelmed.”
What are some of the major changes in mental health you have seen due to the pandemic / lockdown?
- We are living in a time of great change and enormous adversity – and we are fatigued.
Not knowing what the future holds. Change, transition and uncertainty are exhausting. Each will initially lead us to feel low as we adapt to the new ways in which we are being asked to work and live. The challenges of occupying multiple roles: of being a parent, teacher, carer, and employee all at the same time rather than being able to separate them. For others living on their own, the monotony of the current circumstance is trying, and this coupled with restrictions on travel and seeing our families may cause tiredness and loneliness.
- We are facing a multitude of losses and we are grieving.
Grief sometimes shows up as unnamable sadness or irritating stress, but spend some time asking yourself what is underneath. You might notice re-emerging grief from past losses, grief being located within change, or grief in the fogginess of multiple ‘living losses’: lost routines, lost connections, lost habits and habitats, loss of family structures, loss of assumptions that everything will be okay, loss of trust in our political, benefit and governmental systems, loss of holidays, lost jobs and career progression, empathetic loss for other’s losses and, of course, the loss of loved ones.
- Our boundaries around work are doing pilates.
Expectations on ourselves have never been higher: self-judgement and feeling like we have to constantly overachieve to establish a sense of security. One day we might overwork, the next we can become paralysed by our to-do list. Boundaries between many things have become blurred at the moment: between work/home, between downtime and being ‘on’, between different parts of ourselves. As soon as it becomes difficult to maintain a boundary we can begin to feel overwhelmed. When things are uncertain, it’s becoming even more important to break things down into manageable chunks.
What do you think are some of the key warning signs of employees who might be struggling?
Often, when we are struggling and we don’t know what to do, we hide. With remote working this is all-the-easier to do. If you feel someone disengaging or avoiding team meetings then make sure you have open communication lines and are able to have a conversation about this before making assumptions about their behaviour.
Working super long hours and being constantly switched on and available might sound like a good thing, but it’s not. Your employee might be on the road to burnout. Demonstrate good working practices, tell them to switch off and make sure they are taking breaks.
- Confusion, distraction or lack of focus.
Often, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we tend to experience confusion, distraction or an inability to focus. It’s usually a good time to check-in, ask if things are okay and if any further support is needed.
- A change in usual behaviours or ways of being.
Working in isolation for so long has moved so many of us into unchartered territory in terms of our mental health. People who had previously not struggled are now finding that they are starting to struggle: lack of motivation, hopelessness about the future, feeling worried about job loss, money – it’s all present and we need to talk about this stuff. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away, I think we shy away from these conversations way too much and it contributes to a real sense of unease for employees.
How can employers create a supportive and open company culture?
Action, action, action. Have a strategy and implement it. Have tangible support in place for mental health; prioritise budget for and invest in this.
Offer at least an hour each week for your team to come together in a safe, open space to talk about how they’re really doing. Don’t rush in and offer solutions, challenge the urge to rush in and fix things, and sit with what might be coming up. Don’t underestimate the power of an employee feeling fully heard and listened to.
There are people in your company wanting to make a difference; they will be people who have often struggled with their own mental health and hungry to create positive change. Find out who these people are and listen to their ideas.
For teams working remotely you can do this via Zoom, making more time for stretching, breathing deeply and breaks away from the screen.
What advice are you giving to people working from home on how to manage their own mental wellbeing?
- There’s power in naps.
Sleep, structure, exercise. Structure is containment. It means we get up at the same time to ‘go to work’. Factor in breaks, stretch often, and get outside. More time outside = higher serotonin levels/ reduced cortisol levels which means improved cognitive functioning and a more effective workflow. Increased exercise means stronger immune system function. Sleep is a superpower! Prepare for good sleep, reduce blue light, breathe deeply and have rituals.
- Don’t try and Marie Kondo your feelings: it is okay to feel a lot.
When we repress emotion, it comes out in our body or in our relationships. Much of what we come into contact with in our culture tells us if we’re not happy, there’s something wrong. Avoid toxic positivity, allow yourself to feel (both heavy and light) without judgement and without rushing to your emotional exits. Sadness doesn’t need to be treated with the urgency of a shark attack; make space for grief; observe, notice and share. We know that this is what constitutes good mental health and emotional resilience/buoyancy.
- When it comes to anxiety, you can get practical.
Find grounding and safety: fear is a natural response which triggers our body into responding to danger. Finding ways to settle your body will move it out of its fight/flight response, helping you think and feel in a calmer way. Some ways to do this include deep breathing, yoga, aromatherapy, visualising a safe place from the past, doing art or walking in nature.
Breathing – you’re not going to breathe the problem away, but what it will do is send signals to your brain and body, communicating that you are safe. Then we can look at what’s going on rationally.
Ask yourself, what would happen if things went well. Think about what you would feel and what you would potentially receive from it. It might help to write these down.
- Remember, we’re good at adapting.
We really are the most capable, resourceful and resilient species that has ever lived on earth. History has shown that when change comes to humanity – either on the global level, like it’s happening now, or on the personal level – we’re really good at adapting. If we can remember that, it can help to actually mitigate the fear and anxiety we’re feeling. There is, and will be, pain. There will undoubtedly be an impact on our collective mental health, but there will also be some post-trying times resilience gained (we just can’t see or feel it yet because we’re still in the fire).
- No one gets there solo, call for backup.
We are all fragile, vulnerable human-beings trying our best to hold it together. We are all full of self-doubt, full of shame and confusion – but the brave face has been widely adopted, and it has made it so easy to assume that everyone is doing better than us. We think we are weird because we meet such filtered versions of each other. We should spare ourselves the burden of feeling alone in our suffering and make space to share how very difficult things can be when big changes are happening. Allow others to see a part of the reality of your life, and share things that matter.
Some companies will have a reduced people/culture budget at the moment; what can businesses be doing regardless of their budget?
First, for companies reducing budget for people/culture, I’d ask: what are you prioritising over people/culture and why? Is that other thing absolutely essential and more important?
Second, I’d remind them that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover (Deloitte, 2020).
So, even a little goes a long way. Something is better than nothing, and ‘good enough’ might actually be good enough right now.
Also, think about your internal resources – have you got a Mental Health Task Force? Do you do peer-led sharing spaces? Do you send out regular comms to keep mental wellbeing on people’s radars? Do you ask your people how they’re feeling and actually listen? Do you make space for dialogue? Do you think proactively and not reactively when it comes to your people’s mental health? Do you look after your own wellbeing and does this inspire others to do the same?
And finally, Chance – what makes you happy at work?!
I’ve spent so much time focusing on the things that I think will make me happy (this normally looks like achieving all of the things on my to-do list), that I’ve often forgotten all of the other things that matter. So what makes me happy (or find more meaning) in my work is paying attention to the important things outside of work too.
There’s this brilliant Florence and the Machine song, No Choir, in it she sings: “… cause, the older I get, I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject”. I resonate with this.
In our relentless ambition to feel good most of the time, I think we miss out on learning from our more complex and uncomfortable (therefore and often deemed negative) thoughts and feelings.
It all sounds so doom and gloom, but it is not meant to.
I think as a therapist I hear some of the most profoundly painful stories, and these don’t make me happy. But bearing witness to these stories, being trusted enough to hold them and walking alongside the people who tell them as they work out the messiness involved in being human – this does bring a deep sense of meaning to my work, which is much less fleeting than happiness.
If you are an employer or people person looking to support your people’s mental health, reach out to Self Space at: firstname.lastname@example.org. (as a partner of Self Space, we’d highly recommend it!)