Mental health awareness week; the perfect time to get #outofoffice

As this mental health awareness week focusses on stress, I’ve been thinking about what we do, and what we can do, to support each other in the workplace.

Many of us spend a considerable proportion of our lives at work and the environment that we work in can make a significant impact on our lives; the job we do, the conditions we work in, and the people we work with. Likewise, issues in our home lives can be made better or worse by the support that we get at work.

Our sector, consultancy, does have a bit of a reputation problem when it comes to the way the industry treats staff;

take talented, driven people – work ‘em hard, pay ‘em well, burn ‘em out, and then replace them with some shiny new ones…

Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation and there are plenty of amazing organisations out there, but it is something that we were mindful of when we got started.

Starting our company from scratch, with a handful of enthusiastic and values driven people, gave us the opportunity to really think about what we were building and the impact that each decision, process, procedure, and policy would have on our culture. We absolutely work hard, really hard, to deliver for our clients but we wanted to create a positive working environment where people matter. If we distil all our values into one, they basically come down to this; be a good human (or “be excellent to each other” as Bill and Ted would say!).

So how does this relate to stress? The nature of what we do means that it is stressful. Late nights, early mornings, being away from home, working non-stop to meet a deadline or deal with a curve ball. Our work is subject to intense scrutiny, sometimes in the public domain, and can become a Political football. Our work has consequences for other people, sometimes vulnerable people, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Plus, we all work in different locations, often on different projects, so there is a danger of feeling isolated. We put in the effort because we care about what we do and while a bit of stress is okay and can help to motivate us to get things done (and dare I say is enjoyable, or is that just me?!), it should not get the point of being overwhelming or detrimental to our health or home life.

And when you then add on all the other things that we have to deal with in life; health, happiness, family, money, getting through each day… it can take just one event or lots of little ones to push us over that tipping point.

But the way we build our organisations and treat each other; as colleagues, suppliers or clients, can make a positive difference in terms of preventing unhealthy levels of stress, and helping people to get back on track if things do escalate.


As an organisation:

There are so many ways to adapt your business processes and polices to support a healthy, happy workforce. Here are just a few that we’ve implemented:

Make it easy for people to access support. Stress can come from work or home life so it’s important to create an environment where people have the opportunity to tell you if something is wrong. Hopefully this happens day-to-day but creating designated space for regular 1-2-1s or catch ups is still important. But, not everyone wants to bring home life into the workplace and you’re not always best placed to help, so complementing this with external support, like an employee assistance programme, can really make a difference. At C.Co we’ve also introduced a ‘buddy system’ for new staff; a buddy is not a line manager but is simply a colleague whose job it to support newbies and help them to settle in by answering ‘silly’ questions or being there to chat something through.

Flexible, outcomes focussed working. We work anywhere, anytime.  Of course, we work to meet clients’ needs but we also try to tap into our own preferred rhythms of work and manage our personal work flows. This gives a far better work-life balance as people are also better able to juggle work with other commitments and interests.

Technology that supports not hinders. Having good technology allows people to work in different locations. We use super light but powerful laptops and cloud technology to safely and securely work anywhere, anytime. This has so many benefits for our stress levels because it means avoiding unnecessary travel, allows us to get tasks done on the move, and work in stimulating spaces that supports the type of task we’re doing.

Reward and recognition. We use our reward and bonus schemes to recognise, celebrate and pat people on the back for a job well done as well as encourage positive behaviour. Points earned through our reward scheme can be used contribute to things that make people to feel good; courses, books, fitness, fun in all shapes and sizes. We also call out achievements and publicly thank each other because a few kind words from a team mate can have the biggest impact.

Generous leave. We think it’s important to give people time and make sure they use it. We’ve also recently introduced a host of family policies to support people into parenthood, whatever the route, whatever your gender, to make sure that people have the time and support they need to adjust to a new or expanding family life. And to have the time to enjoy it! Feeling burnt out or forced back to work early is not good for the individual, the company, or the clients we serve. The same logic applies to other kinds of leave like sickness or bereavement. Supporting people through the hard times is the human thing to do but we also believe that it’s good for the company in terms of loyalty, productivity, and outcomes for clients.


As an individual:

There are also things that we can do as individuals to develop a positive and supportive culture. It could be a very long list but a few key ones that we encourage in our workplace:

Look out for each other. Does someone seem like they’re having a bad day? A tough project? Give them some encouragement and support and maybe hold off that feedback or constructive criticism for another day. Not spoken to a colleague in a while? Pick up the phone or Skype and have a chat; this is especially important if you work remotely and might go for days without speaking to anyone!

Failure is good. Mistakes happen, things don’t always work the way we intended; we’re all human. Learn from failure but try not to dwell on it. Did you try your best? Were your intentions in the right place? Most likely the answer is yes. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Most likely the answer is no. Words of encouragement and empathy can go a long way, especially as you never know what else people might be dealing with. As leaders and colleagues, sharing our mistakes and lessons learned with others can also help to develop an open, no blame culture that encourages people to give things a go and, ultimately, achieve more.

Try not to take it personally. The nature of our work means that we’re often invited into areas of conflict and sometimes get thrust into the firing line. We’re happy to be there because it’s not about us as individuals, it’s about trying to make things better and help different voices to be heard. However, it can still have a negative affect so a few kind words or a message of support after a tough session can make all the difference.

Switch off… and I mean properly off. This is the most important thing for me as it’s a serious risk in this line of work with 24/7 emails, an infinite task list, and a genuine love for the work you do. Yes, it great to be able to work flexibly at times that work for us, but when you’re supposed to be off be off; step away from the computer and delete the email app from your phone to avoid interruption or temptation.

It’s easy to get caught in our own hype of indispensability or feel that we’re showing a lack of commitment if we don’t respond to emails in the evening, on weekends, or when on leave. This is manifest in an unhealthy culture of wearing “busy” as a badge of honour or an indication of self-worth.

I’m absolutely not advocating a strict regime of working 9-5, Monday to Friday, and making it a crime to do work outside of that (see France for details). Working at random times of day, managing peaks and troughs, is great and helps us to have a better work-life balance. But, there is still a need to have designated non-work time, whether that’s certain evenings, weekends or when on leave. Being able to work anytime, anywhere does not mean at all times, everywhere.

So, take a deep breath and repeat after me:

“Taking time for myself does not undermine my commitment to my work.”

“Being busy and always plugged in does not make me better at my job.”

Trust that investing time in ourselves is better for everyone. It helps us to reduce our stress levels and build our personal resilience so that we can better deal with the things that life will inevitably throw at us.

I know it can hard to be the first one to step off the treadmill and we do need to look to our leaders to set a good example. But as the holiday season approaches (and the weekend!) it’s the perfect time to try to change the “busy” culture by being brave and showing each other that taking a proper break is more than okay, it can literally be a life saver.

I’ll go first. This weekend I will not be working or answering emails. If you want me, you can find me playing in the hills… see you there! #outofoffice


For more information on stress visit the Mental Health Foundation website

For more ways to think about wellbeing try the 5 steps to wellbeing by the NHS

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