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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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: email@example.com. (as a partner of Self Space, we’d highly recommend it!)