Looking after your colleagues' wellbeing doesn't need to be a costly investment. Here Lindsay Kohler, lead behavioural scientist at scarlettabbott, reflects on how the agency started an open and honest conversation to support workmate and lead consultant Alastair Atkinson when he told them he was struggling.


14th December 2020

As people seek employers who make meaningful commitments and start the conversation, employees who don’t have this support will be more likely to vote with their feet.


“In the weeks leading up to my initial diagnosis, I genuinely thought I was just becoming more stupid. I had no idea that this was a symptom of anxiety and depression.” 

Five years ago, before he joined scarlettabbott, my colleague, Alastair, hit a wall.

Stress had been building and he found himself backed into a corner, paralysed by intrusive thoughts and self-doubt.

At the time, he knew something was wrong, but he didn’t know what it was or how to fix it. Regularly finding himself crying when he was alone, losing weight and struggling to sleep more than four hours a night, Alastair felt like he had an overwhelming mountain to climb. Support from his family helped him to get the perspective he needed to seek help.

It took two months for Alastair to begin functioning again with some degree of normality, and even longer to fully bounce back. He now admits that, had he felt able to speak up sooner, things could have been different.

Reaching out to colleagues

Fast forward to 2018. Now at scarlettabbott, Alastair reached out to colleagues in his new workplace when he felt the warning signs of anxiety and depression returning.

“I spoke with one of my peers first, explaining that I was struggling,” Alastair told me. “After that, I went to the leadership team. I opened up about how I was feeling and what I needed, which was some time out of the business.

“They were incredibly supportive, encouraging me to get the counselling I’d mentioned and to keep in touch, but without pressure. On the day I was due to return, they met me for a coffee away from the office so we could have a proper chat, and they reassured me that they, and the wider business, would do what was needed to help me get back to myself.”

Before coming back, a teammate had asked Alastair what he would like his colleagues to know, or not know, about his time off. He gave permission for his teammate to be honest when approaching the subject and returned to work with the weight of explanation lifted.

“Being open about my experience saved any awkward conversations. I was happy for people to know because I trusted that they would be kind and supportive.

“In my first team meeting back, I explained that I still wasn’t in great shape and it would take time before they would see the normal me. I was honest and said, ‘I’ll need you to carry me for a bit.' And they completely understood.”

Reflecting on this time, Alastair (pictured) is clear that this open and honest communication was key to helping him recover much more quickly than after his first diagnosis. Now, he is passionate about opening up the conversation around mental health in the workplace, from small businesses to global organisations.

“We’re a small team at scarlettabbott. But I don’t think a business needs to be small to be supportive.

“It’s about creating an environment where people feel safe to ask for help, and any business can do that if they are willing to do the work.”

Opening the conversation

After a year of scrutinising how businesses have, or haven’t, supported their people, we may start to see a wave of change when it comes to approaching discussions on mental health. As people seek employers who make meaningful commitments and start the conversation, employees who don’t have this support will be more likely to vote with their feet.

On average, people are now experiencing burnout by the age of 32. One in three people cite work as their biggest source of stress. And while work will always have its pressure points, what employers do to help alleviate them is increasingly important. At the heart of that work is the need to normalise the conversation – something Alastair wholly agrees with.

“A lot of the time, I think organisations absolutely have the right intentions at heart, but they fall down when it comes to communicating them. It’s not enough to include a link to the 24/7 counselling hotline on the intranet."

Mental health and wellbeing have to regularly weave through an internal comms narrative, Alastair adds. “Think about the airtime health and safety gets in lots of manufacturing and logistics businesses. Why shouldn’t employers of all kinds adopt the same approach to mental health and safety?”

Communicating the value

Good intentions surrounding the support of colleagues’ mental health have often been thwarted by perceptions of value. Now, as budgets tighten, it’s vital to communicate the importance of good mental health support.

“A lot of businesses shy away from taking meaningful strides to support mental health because a clear ROI can be hard to connect,” says Alastair. “But can any business really afford not to invest in wellbeing? From increased productivity and better retention, to happier people, the benefits are clear.”

A strong strategy to support mental health doesn’t have to involve deep pockets. Bespoke health services and counselling, mindfulness apps and discounted gym memberships are all useful tools that show colleagues you’re being proactive in putting mental health first.

But it’s equally important that you build a supportive, thriving community within your business that can signpost colleagues to helpful resources. You might not have the money to invest in the perks, but you can absolutely spend time surfacing helpful resources that can be meaningful to your people or encouraging passionate people to become mental health first aiders to online wellbeing champions.

“Ultimately, there’s only so much a business can do,” Alastair explains. “Maintaining your mental health is up to you as an individual, but your success can be vastly improved when your employer meets you halfway, demonstrates willingness to support and creates an environment that empowers you. “

Making a start

The surge in demand for better mental health support in businesses shows no signs of slowing down, nor should it. But knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. So what should internal comms professionals do next?

“It depends on your organisation and how far down the road you are,” reflects Alastair. “For those who may be behind the curve, speak to HR and other senior leaders about how this gap, if left unchecked, could negatively impact not only your people, but productivity, performance and profit. Then, commit to creating an action plan together that can introduce meaningful change.

“If you’re further along, keep that momentum up, measure what’s working and build on it. In both instances, keep asking your people what they need. The most important thing is that the conversation is a two-way street and that’s what can make the biggest difference.”

As people seek employers who make meaningful commitments and start the conversation, employees who don’t have this support will be more likely to vote with their feet.


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