One in four of your colleagues will suffer from a mental health issue this year – and most will do so privately. Leaders and internal comms have a role to play in creating a culture of openness.

11th April 2017

Ask your network and contacts to contribute and open up about their experiences – especially leaders. That’s an important signal. It can take time to build openness in an organisation.


Around 350 million people worldwide carry a black dog on their backs every day. The black dog goes by the name of depression. At its fiercest, it makes people feel isolated, worthless and devoid of feeling. It eats away at their confidence and concentration and makes everyday tasks and once-pleasurable activities a struggle. Without seeking professional help, the black dog gets bigger. 

Occupational health and safety has long focused on slips, trips and falls and dangerous machinery, but one of the biggest hazards, depression, is harder to spot. According to the Office for National Statistics, suicide is by far the biggest cause of death in males aged 15–34 in the UK. Although the number of suicides among women is much lower – about a third of that for men – the 2015 figure was the highest for a decade.  

With the stresses of workloads, competition and organisational uncertainty, the workplace is a haven for symptoms of mental health to fester. In a 2016 national survey by Business in the Community, more than three-quarters of employees said they had experienced poor mental health at some point, with 62 per cent of respondents attributing their symptoms to work or stating that work was a contributing factor.

For many, the biggest fear is being judged – but attitudes are changing. Depression, anxiety and stress are talked about in corporate circles beyond World Mental Health Day. Still, there remains a lack of understanding among managers about what support they can offer. Until there is greater clarity about mental health in the workplace, the stigma and misconceptions will remain at some level.

Increasingly, businesses are talking candidly about mental health, and senior leaders are taking the reins in creating a culture of openness. Internal communication has a key role to play in drilling the core messages down into the business, educating line managers and building resiliency to prepare and recover from ongoing stresses and challenges. 


It’s OK to talk about it

Mental health is increasingly prevalent in the finance sector because of the high stresses and long working hours relating to increased regulation, public negativity and the legacy of the economic crash. In a 2015 survey by trade union Unite, almost three-quarters of bank workers said they’d suffered from work-related depression, anxiety attacks, headaches or insomnia.

At HSBC. One of the bank’s employee resource groups, Ability, supports staff with their physical and mental healthcare needs. David Orford from the internal communication team is Ability’s mental health lead. He was browsing the intranet soon after joining HSBC and found a film of a senior leader relaying his experiences of depression and how HSBC had helped him.

“I’m passionate about the subject, because I’ve had periods of poor mental health myself,” says David. “I thought it was great to have a video internally telling employees this is something that’s OK to talk about.”

Since then, an internal awareness campaign and global webcast event have seen other senior leaders and experts talk about mental health issues. HSBC also launched a dedicated wellbeing website where employees can access information and free counselling. The Ability group produced a guide to mental health in the workplace based on its members’ own experiences. It includes personal stories, myths about mental health and tips about talking to colleagues and managers.

“Ask your network and contacts to contribute and open up about their experiences – especially leaders,” says David. “That’s an important signal. It can take time to build openness in an organisation. You might need to start with small steps, and get external speakers. Internal communication needs to partner with HR and get the business to own the issue.”


Getting the work/life balance right

Pharmaceutical company Janssen launched a One Life: Live It programme, which includes a two-day session on mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of wellbeing and The Little Book of Life Choices, which offers guidance on creating more time and energy and communicating more meaningfully and effectively.

The benefits are palpable, says Charlie Hamlin, organisation effectiveness manager. “People are more energised. We had some people tell us that this campaign has been life changing. Not only are they managing their work better, but they are happier at home. They are fully present with family members and children and able to have better personal relationships.”

Laura Wager, head of internal communications at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), agrees that getting that balance right is critical. “I remember reading once that most people can cope with a bit of stress at either work or home, but it’s when you experience both that we struggle,” she says. “That’s really stuck with me.”

At RCN, a trade union and professional body that employs over 900 employees who support nursing staff, the onus is on individuals to support their colleagues. “Our Be The Difference campaign was founded on five behaviours – learn, talk, listen, speak up and care – that we wanted all staff, especially managers, to practise,” says Laura. “Those behaviours appear everywhere in our communications.”

RCN launched its mental wellbeing policy in 2015 and, throughout 2016, its health and wellbeing programme, which usually has different monthly themes, focused on mental health elements for the entire 12 months. Several employees shared their personal stories in the monthly bulletin, from one suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder after the death of his father to another who shared how he built up his resilience and was supported by colleagues. One lady talked about workplace stress she’d experienced and how this informed her subsequent career choices. With support from the NHS, she now works as a counsellor for RCN members.

“We talk about mental health a lot,” says Laura. “We want to better understand where the problems lie – where the absences are, whether there are specific teams that struggle more than others and what would help them if they needed support. It’s wrong to assume we already know.”


Understanding physiological drivers

Internal communicators have a role to educate about the drivers of mental health – including the physiological drivers – to remove the stigma.

There are physical issues that drive burnout, explains Justin Buckthorp, founder of 360 Health & Performance, a team of clinical and healthcare experts who treat individuals and help organisations educate employees.

“Understanding that helps people realise that perhaps their mental health issues are not because they are somehow ‘broken’, but a result of longstanding stress on the body. I met one senior executive who described himself as upbeat and positive. He didn’t feel depressive, but he was withdrawing from his environment. We did lab tests and found his symptoms were a byproduct of underlying health issues affecting his brain function and resiliency.”

Charlie from Janssen agrees you can’t separate health from wellbeing. “The physiological and psychological markers go hand in hand. If you’re not eating or sleeping right, or you’re overweight or have high blood pressure – whatever the physiological measures – these can have an impact on how you’re feeling.”

Janssen invited employees to volunteer to have their biometrics tested – BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar levels – and complete an anonymous survey that provided them with a personalised report with links to various tools to support their health improvement goals. The aggregated data from the survey gave a temperature check of the physiological and psychological status of the organisation. With the results revealing healthier eating and a need for greater movement as priorities, Janssen has rolled out two global step challenge initiatives, a health and wellbeing app and sit-stand desks – desks that can be elevated or brought down so that employees can sit or stand at work. It has also worked with contract caterers to improve its restaurant offering.

Data is essential to 360’s work, too. The group has built an iOS application to measure and quantify underlying resiliency in individuals. It then supports them through preventative, proactive and personalised solutions. The app uses a 90-second mindfulness exercise and applies heartbeat analytics in the background. The results help make sense of stress levels and allow the team to make personal recommendations on that given day. “Objective feedback can prevent problems before they become a trend or result in excessive stress on the system,” says Justin. “It’s an evidence-based approach.”


Percentage of employees who had symptoms of poor mental health and experienced disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.
Source: Business in the Community: Mental Health at Work Report 2016

Of course, hosting events and arranging tests for office-based employees is relatively easy, but creating the same culture of openness from a distance is a challenge. Having the right technological infrastructure and a geographically spread network of wellbeing champions or advocates helps ensure frontline staff get the same tools, information and support as their colleagues in the office.

Many Royal College of Nursing employees work remotely and keeping them in touch with other voices is essential. The organisation’s lone-working policy requires these employees to have regular one-to-ones with line managers. And the internal comms team makes its channels as accessible as possible – the intranet can be read on mobile phones and all staff have devices to access emails.

“This year, we are introducing a dedicated health and wellbeing area to the intranet,” says Laura. “We need all staff to be able to access that from wherever they are, so that we can build a community and share stories and resources. If you’re not in the office, you need to feel a part of what’s going on. Make employees feel involved, and not restricted from information.”


This is the first part of a series of articles on mental health in the workplace. Look out for future articles on the subject on Voice Online.

Ask your network and contacts to contribute and open up about their experiences – especially leaders. That’s an important signal. It can take time to build openness in an organisation.


Leave a comment

To leave a comment on this article, please complete the form below. Your comment will be posted once verified by our editorial team.

If you are not an IoIC member and would like to join to receive Voice and other membership benefits, visit our Membership page.

Room Booking

Thanks for staying with us! Please fill out the form below and our staff will be in contact with your shortly. The see all of our room options please visit the link below.
See All Rooms