Work Happy: Mental Health in the Workplace

Office space & design Workplace wellness
Author: Work.Life
Estimated read time: 9 mins
Published: 25/04/2019

On 24th April, we held the third event in our Work Happy event series, this time honing in on the huge topic of mental health at work.

Work.Life’s mission is to be the UK leaders in workplace happiness and in our Work Happy event series, we hear from experts in the happiness field who make it their mission to help people find their best work and life selves.

So far, we’ve heard from Henry Stewart of Happy Ltd. on empowering your people and owning up to your mistakes, Sally Lovett on how what you eat at lunch might ruin your day (a hard one to swallow) and a whole host of other clever humans on the highs and lows of engaging the future workforce.     

This month, our speaker was Jodie Cariss. Jodie is the Founder and Creative Director of Self Space, a therapy service based in Shoreditch, who make having a good conversation with a qualified person easy. She also runs CarrisCreative which offers businesses and schools creative and contemporary therapeutic support.

Here’s what we learned:

Jodie kicked off by telling us that she’s interested in reclaiming the words ‘mental health’. Rather than aligning it with affliction or illness, Jodie wants society to get to a place where “we talk about mental health and we feel proud”.

Mental health is not a given

Just like physical health, gaining mental strength and staying on top of your mental health is a process that requires attention and effort. Rather than accepting how you feel on the surface, Jodie suggests probing deeper to find the root of that feeling: “When you say you’re busy, what does that term really mean for you?”

In the workplace, Jodie sees a detachment between our actions and our feelings, “we’re all human, we all have feelings but [at work] we become so task-oriented that we forget the person behind the task […] Make eye contact, put your hand on their shoulder”.

Remembering the person beyond the project ahead and grounding yourself in the moment is a way of maintaining a healthy appreciation of the mental health of those around you.

Jodie also pointed out that it isn’t the job of our employer to make us happy, “always start with yourself”. It is, however, an employers job to create an ecosystem where there is no shame in expressing our concerns over our own mental health.

The fact that people in creative industries are three times more likely to experience a mental health problem probably isn’t a surprising statistic to most. She believes a lot of this is down to the aggression of client culture, “Agencies say ‘We’re going to make the best work of our lives!’ but what does that mean?”. She questions this culture and how a person is equipped to recover from the supposed failure of bringing their best work to the table and have it be rejected.

‘I feel…’

In an effort to combat this culture of constantly demanding ‘success’ from ourselves, Jodie suggests taking two minutes out of your day to ask yourself what you’re truly feeling, “We can be confused as to what that is. You might think you feel angry but when you probe it, you realise you’re actually sad. This reflection will seep into your workplace”.

The more people share their feelings and explain that they’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t know what they’re doing at that moment (especially at a senior level), the more able everyone will feel to do their job comfortably.

Self Space spent time observing office receptions and found a huge number of people asked how someone was and walked away before they’d even heard the answer, “it’s about reminding yourself to be curious and wondering about the other”.


Jodie emphasised the importance of self-reflection in the context of your actions. She suggests asking yourself if you might have behaved better in a situation. Although it can at first feel quite shaming, she believes it’s a vital step towards self-improvement and acceptance, “We can sometimes bludgeon on in the same way and get the same results. Think: ‘How might I have done that differently?’”

She has found that companies with a culture of taking personal responsibility for things they might have done differently-“these subtle human behaviours”– can make a huge difference to the way a working environment functions.

Part of taking responsibility is showing up on time and working out how it is you can be performing at your best, “Lateness is disrespectful in a workplace […] We forget how nice it is when someone’s there waiting for you. Plus, we get really stressed when we’re late”.

Making the unsaid said

When it comes to issues causing you stress or concern at work, often facing the things that are not being discussed head on is the only way to prevent them from causing deeper problems down the line: “don’t talk about people behind their backs, find a way of saying it”.

Jodie has found that noticing your breathing can help with this, “We always have our breath and the floor beneath us”. So, breathe and take the time to think about what you’re going to say and how you’ll manage it.

Jodie says that when it comes to bringing up issues at work, “start with ‘I’ not ‘you’”. That way, rather than accusing someone of something, you are taking responsibility for what is happening. The conversation should be less hostile and “the challenge and conflict is productive”.

Not speaking up and harbouring resentment leads to people leaving companies and holding onto that trauma as they carry on with their lives. The same goes for saying yes to things you don’t want to do, “Say no but make sure you explain why […] or it will cause anxiety from the moment it happens”.

Good enough, is good enough

Jodie believes that personally believing that we are good enough “changes the way work can make us feel- which is not good enough”. She explained that we can only do our best and connecting with that truth and accepting it is vital to feeling mentally stable at work and at home.

To help with this self-acceptance, Jodie says to practice gratitude, “Say thank you, it matters”. She also advises being generous (“particularly when you’re feeling ungenerous”), raising people up and being thankful that others possess qualities that you may not, “tell them why you’re thankful that they’re there”.

Jodie’s final comment was one of grounding our experiences in the here and now, and who we are as people: “Systems can forget about the people. We talk about ‘the people’ but forget what that actually means. What matters in life is how you feel and how you make other people feel.”

Panel Discussion:

For our panellist discussion, Jodie was joined by Samantha Clarke and Toni Jones, as our host Angelica Malin, Editor in Chief  of About Time Magazine, probed the trio on how we can actively promote positive mental health and wellbeing at work.

Samantha is a Happiness Consultant and Founder of the Growth & Happiness School. She describes her mission as “helping people discover what it actually means to support people to be their best at work and empowering leaders to have those difficult conversations”.

Toni is a freelance writer and Founder of Shelf Help, an online and offline community who share a monthly book club dedicated to self-help and self-development. Toni’s journey started after she left a journalist job where she believed the toxic atmosphere was making her unhappy, “I was either at work or going out. When I left, I thought I’d slide out of a toxic situation into life, but it turned out it wasn’t the job”. Toni read a Paul McKenna self-help book and was hooked, “It was about how you talk to yourself and what plans or dreams you have for yourself. I started the book club for people I knew and then I realised it was something a lot of people needed”.

Similarly, Samantha removed herself from a damaging work environment and followed her creative interests into shoe design, “then the recession happened […] I studied psychology and took coaching courses […] As a happiness consultant, I bring an outside perspective, a refreshing outlook to tackle the problem”.

So, what’s going wrong with mental health in the workplace?

Jodie believes people are feeling vulnerable, “I feel there’s a lot of disenchantment with life and a general feeling of being quite vulnerable […] and a bit unsafe in the bigger picture of the world”She explained that this can be projected into the workplace, “People say they hate their job or someone they work with but that takes the ownership out of it”.

She also believes the pressure on people to succeed at work is massive, especially in London, “we want to be associated with these brilliant companies (or we think we do) and the expectation of doing that is really huge and bloody hard work”.

Samantha sees a lot of confusion over how people should present themselves and their mental health at work, “What do I show and what do I conceal? People are also conflicted about what it means to be happy at work. If there’s something I don’t like, can I ask for it?”

When she goes into organisations, Samantha will ask them to analyse happiness across four pillars of happiness and she almost always finds the biggest issues around digital communications, “There’s too much tech. We’re on a treadmill of emails and only speaking to people for basic conversations which don’t get out what we’re trying to say”.

Toni believes we have problems setting boundaries, “No one’s going to say not to check your emails out of work hours. If you’re answering emails at ten o’clock then they’ll expect that again and again”

When it comes to smaller businesses, Samantha has found that founders struggle with putting on a strong front for their team: “They ask how they can show vulnerability when they’re trying to recruit people and bring them on a journey”.

Jodie believes that the message that senior teams always know what they’re doing can be alienating, “If I say to my team that I don’t have all the answers at this moment, it often helps to thaw things”. She described it as the difference between softness and hardness, “When we’re soft, we’re very strong and when we’re hard, we’re brittle. Softness works when we’re brave enough to be it”.

Toni agreed that everyone has different skills and therefore different struggles, “people don’t know you need help until you ask”.

On a practical level, what can we do to help?

For Jodie, it’s as seemingly simple as really listening to what people have to say, “Don’t be afraid to hear the answers about what’s not working for people”. Samantha said that following through after hearing problems is vital: “if the conversation is there and nothing changes, that’s worse”.   

Toni mentioned a study by Work.Life members, People Insight, who asked what would make people happier at work, “It wasn’t a pay rise! It was offering opportunities for staff to be creative and to connect with each other. Things like books and sewing clubs”. Jodie said she was “anti the ‘let’s-get-everyone-pissed-to-say-thank-you’ culture”. She explained, We need to get more creative with it”.

What does good leadership look like?

For Toni, it’s communication, “Be communicating all the time. Celebrate wins and allow for failure. The more you try the more you fail but you’ll bring in new ideas”. Samantha agrees, “Engage with your team and make sure your visions are aligned. You should be speaking and learning with them”.

To avoid burnout, preserving your mental health by not overworking and recognising your own mental patterns is key. Toni said that means “showing up as your best you”. She explained, “If you’re hungover or tired then you won’t get the best out of yourself. Remember you are your own responsibility”.

Jodie thinks purpose is key to keeping on top of where you’re at mentally, “Keep remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you don’t know then work it out, we often avoid doing this digging”.

On a personal level, our guests all had a few structures in place to keep themselves in touch with themselves. Samantha has an established morning and evening routine, “Meditation in the morning allows me to visualise what I want from the day and ground myself. At the end of the day, I reflect on what worked well and what I need to let go of”.

Jodie uses therapy and yoga, “I’m not a yogi […] but I find it useful to connect with my body and I do notice the busier I am, the less self-care I do. Also, don’t forget about sleep”.

For Toni, it comes from saying no, “You don’t need to say why. It’s either a fuck yeah or a no!”

Work.Life is focused on providing happy workspaces and we hope that this event series will help others to understand how better to promote happiness in the their workplace. Next in the series we have Work Happy: Building a Happy Company Culture taking place in our Fitzrovia space on May 16th.

Thanks to everyone who made our third Work Happy event so great and we hope to see you all at the next one – take a look at our events page for more details!

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