Saturday 10th October 2020 marks World Mental Health Day, and this year the theme is ‘Mental health for All’. The experiences we’ve had, and continue to have this year as we live through a global pandemic, are unsurprisingly challenging for even the strongest of minds. This theme, then, feels extremely fitting. Indeed, we’re all riding the same storm, but we must not forget that we’re not all in the same boat.
While on an autumnal evening walk with my dog, Louie, a moment of stillness came over me as I walked in nature; watching him run around with pure joy, totally ignorant to the state of the world. I began to reflect on how difficult 2020 has been for many people, physically of course, but also mentally, and wondered what I could do for world mental health day that would make a difference, even just a small one.
I had an idea: ‘What if we used our platform to run a survey to give us a snapshot of how individuals who work in start ups / scale ups are feeling, mentally?’. I felt confident that uncovering a real time snapshot of people’s mental state, would prove a few things:
everyone has mental health;
everyone feels different at different times – there is no ‘right’ way to feel;
coping mechanisms are as unique as the individual – but collecting ideas to share more widely could help others
Whilst passionate about mental health, we are by no means experts. So we decided to partner with Sanctus, who provide businesses with confidential 1-1 spaces where employees can talk openly and honestly about their mental health.
2020: A rollercoaster for mental health
We asked 87 people who live in London and work for a start or scale up, to choose three words to describe how they felt at the beginning of the year (prior to lock down), during lock down and at present. The results painted an interesting picture…
When looking at the results and the words people had chosen to describe how they feel, three things really stood out.
People’s mental state is so unique. At the start of the year, when COVID was in the news as a virus impacting other countries, some respondents felt energised, positive and productive and others felt anxious, lonely and tired.
People respond and interpret events very differently. During the UK lockdown, respondents reported a whole mixture of emotions, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some felt lonely, bored, concerned and uncertain and others felt relieved, relaxed and grateful.
Changes in our environment can make us physically and mentally tired. When asked to describe how they felt now, 12% of respondents used the word ‘tired’. Whilst we may not currently be in lock down, neither are we commuting into central London for work or staying at the pub until 00:00 at the weekend (due to UK pubs and restaurants closing at 22:00), we feel tired. Living in an uncertain, unpredictable and risky environment is tiring. And it seems to be a mutual feeling.
If you work, or have worked, in a start or scale up, you’ll know that they are busy. Not the ‘9 – 5’ busy, but the ‘wearing many hats, spinning plates and making quick (but informed) decisions’ busy. We were keen to understand how working for a start up/scale up and annual leave interacted this year, as research tells us how taking proper time off is beneficial to our mental health, so we asked.
Looks promising, doesn’t it? However, this does not tell us the whole picture…
This is interesting. Why are people taking less annual leave when, arguably, having time out from the business of working in a start / scale up is more important than ever?
It’s a fact that our ability to travel abroad for summer holidays or mini breaks has been reduced and, at times, virtually impossible. So, it’s natural that people would feel they didn’t have anything to use their annual leave for or, hadn’t thought about booking it. Typically, many of us will use annual leave for holidays…not just to sit at home watching Netflix in our pyjamas.
However, for the 27.6% saving their annual leave for the end of the year, this raises questions about how feasible this will be. For individuals – being realistic that a lock down may be placed upon us again or annual leave might be rejected if too many people request it or they don’t have time to take annual leave as workloads increase. For those in People Teams or Managers – it’s important to think about your organisation. How many people have outstanding annual leave? Will it be feasible for them to take it before the end of the year? How can you encourage people to take it? Our survey showed that over 30% of respondents had taken no annual leave since March.
0.3% reported not taking any annual leave as they had too much to do at work. While we’re all working remotely, it is even more important for managers to be checking in with individual team members and for individuals to reach out to their team when they need support. The onus is not on one, but both. Burnout is real, and it is a team effort to prevent it.
Every individual can encourage others, and themselves, to book annual leave. Which is important, because 53.3% of respondents said that taking annual leave had a positive or very positive impact on their mental health.
When we struggling with our mental health, it is natural that our ability to feel engaged at work is compromised. Through conversations with Sanctus it seemed to be a theme among their partners that employee engagement was low, so we decided to ask the question.
Almost a whopping 44% of respondents reported feeling ‘not very engaged’ or ‘totally disengaged’ at work. For individuals, feeling disengaged with something we spend the majority of our time doing is challenging.
What is interesting, is that of those who said they felt engaged or very engaged at work, almost 80% had taken annual leave. Whereas of those who said didn’t feel very engaged or totally disengaged, only 67% had taken annual leave…
Why did we decide to share these insights?
For employers and those in People Teams, almost 44% of respondents said they felt either totally disengaged or disengaged. If you sense this is the case for your organisation, you’re not alone. Low engagement appears to be a general trend among those working in start and scale ups.
If you are personally not feeling very engaged with your work, you’re not alone. Sometimes recognizing that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with you for feeling this way and that, in this instance, the majority feel the same, is reassuring.
Building your toolkit
It’s all well and good conducting research and gaining insights. However, it’s what you do with that data and insights that really matters.
Everyone is wonderfully unique. Just as our mental health is unique, so too are our chosen coping mechanisms. To help you to build an effective tool kit to manage your mental health, we asked individuals which forms of support they use and find useful…
We also asked respondents what tips they’d share with someone who was struggling…
What businesses can be doing to support employee mental health
At Attest, as with many other organisations, providing resources to support individual mental health is so important. Based on the results above, as well as some examples our respondents gave of new initiatives introduced to support mental well being, it may be worth thinking about the following:
Do you have any external mechanisms for individuals to have confidential 1-1 conversations about their mental health? Such as Sanctus coaching, Employee Assistance Programmes or access to counselors?
How well equipped are your managers at creating and nurturing a psychologically safe environment, where individuals feel comfortable to speak about their mental health?
Can you analyse employee annual leave this year and create guidance and support to encourage people to take it?
Looking at the engagement of your teams – do you think it’s lower than usual? Do you know it’s lower than usual? Why? Ask the question and identify the causes so you can brainstorm solutions.
How often is mental health on the agenda during 1-1s? What are your mechanisms for starting the conversation? Who is responsible for checking in with people on their mental health? Who is championing it?
Creating a sense of stability, in a world that is anything but. This could be regular fun team meet ups (in small groups), virtual fun check-ins, scheduled and recurring meetings, maintaining transparency even when it is not always easy to do so…
Encouraging people to make new connections and maintain their old ones. Humans, by nature, are sociable beings. Sitting behind a screen all day is not natural to us. Connection is key. Try Slack integrations such as Donut, create non-work related channels and groups for people to connect (gardening, book club, cooking, running… the list is endless!).
Reflect on how much fun you have, and impart, day to day. At the start of our weekly All Hands at Attest, we do one of two ice breakers. Guess the Baby (a baby photo of an Attester is shown on screen and everyone guesses in chat) or Guess the Attester (a fun fact or event is presented and everyone has to guess who it is) – it’s simple but creates energy and a bit of Friday fun! We also do monthly lunchtime Lightning Talks, where individuals give a short 5-10 minute presentation on anything of interest (think as random as Sourdough to Astrology!). Introduce free games like Countdown or Murder Mystery or organise a (remote) team activity such as Pizza Pilgrim making.
Mental health is not straightforward. It is complicated, often deep-rooted and varies from person to person. This year we are living through a global pandemic, which naturally has impacted our mental health in a variety of ways. And working remotely has created a barrier to read body language, facial expressions and picking up on people’s mental state.
There is no ‘correct’ way to feel or respond to the pandemic and the ever-changing regulations. There is no ‘correct’ way to manage your mental health.
As individuals, how we manage our mental health is often a process of trial and error… the right blend of tools, techniques, tricks and support can take time to find, but it is absolutely possible. As People Teams, Managers or employers, supporting our teams’ mental health can be daunting. The first step is acknowledging that there is not one solution to ‘solve’ mental health, but embracing that there are multiple approaches, resources and support that we can implement in our organisations to support one another as we navigate this current COVID-19 world.
Start the conversation today. We all have mental health and, as our respondents said, just talking and starting the conversation helps.