Building better workplace wellness: a practical guide

On World Mental Health Day 2019, Birkbeck and CIPR Greater London Group came together to discuss how to manage the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

Work, Workaholic, Writer, Programmer, One, Laptop

In the 26th year of World Mental Health Day, CIPR’s Steve Shepperson-Smith acknowledged that organisations are starting to take the issue more seriously – and rightly so, when mental health is the number one concern raised by PR practitioners, above finding or keeping work. More concerning still, is the fact that nearly a quarter of those in the industry who did raise mental health concerns with their managers reported that nothing had happened as a result. Clearly, then, there is more to be done.

In an evening of discussion between experts in workplace mental health and PR, we looked for practical solutions to combatting the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

A key refrain of the evening was that actions speak louder than words – it is, of course, fantastic that organisations are acknowledging the importance of mental health, but this must translate into concrete steps to support their workers.

A case study of good mental health practice

Darryl Sparey, Business Development Director at Hotwire UK’s honest account of his company’s approach to mental health showed ways that well-meaning words can become more through a company-wide approach.

What will people think of me? is something that people ask themselves too often before they’re honest about their mental health in the workplace”, he said. Hotwire UK have developed a thoughtful working policy, where “We see work as a thing you do, not a place you go. We treat our staff as adults and let them do what works for them – if that means taking a break in the middle of the day for a run and returning to work later, then that’s what you do.”

Staff can also access a number of benefits that focus on mental health: the employee assistance programme includes a free helpline providing confidential support, both directly related to mental health and on issues that cause stress, such as legal and financial concerns.

From the top down, Hotwire UK have also worked to create a culture of openness, with everyone from the CEO to junior colleagues talking openly about their mental health day-to-day. Through actions as well as words, then, the organisation have shown their commitment to creating an environment of openness, where everyone can bring their whole self to work.

Mental health support at Birkbeck

The impact of leadership on workplace wellness was picked up by Charlotte Williams, head of Birkbeck’s counselling service. She shared the work of Birkbeck’s mental health consultancy, who are considering how leadership impacts workplace wellbeing, as well as how leaders can look after their mental health.

Williams stressed that mental health, like physical health, is a continuum, and when one in six British workers are affected by a mental health problem every year, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. As the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is suicide, she spoke of the need for people to talk about their problems – “There’s a misconception that talking to a suicidal person might prompt them to take drastic action, but in fact talking about mental health almost always diffuses the issue,” she said.

While self-care is important on the side of the individual, Charlotte also had some practical advice for employers: “Value health and wellbeing as core assets in the workplace; train compassionate line managers so they are equipped to support their employees; address discrimination so that the wellbeing policy doesn’t just sit on the shelf; and ensure the CEO sets the tone for the organisation by talking about mental health.”

The research behind the ‘always-on’ culture

Almuth McDowall, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, shared how the changing world of work is fuelling the ‘always-on’ culture. She addressed the ‘double-bind’ that technology brings, providing at once greater opportunities for flexible working and a way of being forced to continue working outside designated hours.

“There is a culture of longer working hours developing, where it’s almost a badge of honour to have been in the office the longest,” she explained, “but in actual fact, once we work for longer than 50 hours a week, our productivity and performance nosedives, and the worst thing is that we don’t realise it.”

A few attempts have been made across Europe to address this new working culture. A law has been created in France where employees have the right to disconnect from their devices outside working hours. Meanwhile, in Germany, some companies are opting for systems where emails are held on the server and not sent to recipients during the evening or overnight.

Professor McDowall is sceptical of these one size fits all approaches, calling instead for organisations to work with employees to develop strategies for their unique setting and for everyone to build up their e-resilience by pursuing purposeful engagement with technology and e-communications, so that it is healthy and sustainable.

How to go about doing that? Professor McDowall advises beginning with the questions below, then starting a conversation in the workplace about mental health.

Some Questions:

  • Do you check your phone on the toilet?
  • Do you regularly take sneaky peeks at your laptop/tablet/phone while doing other tasks?
  • Do you multi-task on other gadgets while watching TV/films on your laptop?
  • Are you more likely to be on your gadgets at night than read a book?
  • Do you tell your kids off for always being on the phone, but don’t hear it when they speak to you because you’re checking emails?
  • Do others comment on your message checking behaviours?
  • Are you more likely to check your messages first thing in the morning than cuddle your partner or do other things?
  • Do you talk to others about, and if necessary negotiate, your technology and gadget use?
  • Is your bedroom a gadget-free zone?
  • Do you consciously think about how you use technology?
  • Do you set an example to your staff/co-workers about when and how to use technology for communications?
  • Have you communicated clear expectations about e-comms at work?
  • Would you rather speak to people than write an email?
  • Do you set yourself actual limits/boundaries for how and when to use technology?

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Birkbeck launches One World Festival

New students came together to network and find out more about the College’s diverse community.

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On Monday 23 September, Birkbeck hosted its inaugural event of the One World Festival 2019/20 – a year-long programme designed to celebrate the College’s international community.

The event was introduced by Professor Kevin Ibeh, Pro Vice-Master (International), who offered his congratulations to arriving students. This was followed by a talk from Lucy Robinson from Birkbeck Futures on the importance of networking for career success.

Students were then given the opportunity to put their networking skills to the test at a welcome reception organised by Andrea Williams and La Young Jackson.

This year’s One World Festival is now officially underway with a variety of events planned throughout the year to celebrate and support Birkbeck’s thriving international student community.

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Birkbeck School of Business International London Bus Tour

New international students to the School of Business, Economics and Informatics (BEI) were treated to a tour of London on a 1950s red Routemaster bus.

On Tuesday 8 October, thirty of Birkbeck’s new international students embarked on a whirlwind tour of London on this year’s BEI Bus Tour.

From St. Paul’s Cathedral to the glitz of Piccadilly, newly enrolled students were treated to a comprehensive tour of London’s key sights and streets. What’s more, with a classic 1950s red Routemaster, this was a tour completed in the most quintessentially British way.

After a quick stop off outside City Hall, students were given a walking tour of the eastern Southbank – besides HMS Belfast – before looping into the beating heart of Britain’s financial district. A quick photo opportunity outside St. Paul’s Cathedral doubled as the perfect rest stop before the tour headed towards the West End and Victoria.

Hyde Park Corner saw the students on their home straight before this year’s tour passed along Shaftesbury Avenue and back into Bloomsbury.

Luckily this year the weather was on Birkbeck’s side, for most of the tour anyway…

Here are some shots from an action-packed afternoon of sightseeing.

Birkbeck's red Routemaster bus

 

International students at Birkbeck were treated to a tour of London. Birkbeck international students in front of London Bridge.

The classic red Routemaster bus.

Birkbeck students at the end of the bus tour.

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Me, Human: ‘The Big Discussion’

Dr Gillian Forrester presented ‘Me, Human: The Big Discussion’ at London’s Science Museum, where an expert panel reflected on questions of developmental psychology.

The event was held in the Hans Rousing Lecture Theatre and began with an introduction to the Me, Human project, a set of live experiments currently being held at Live Science at the museum. Dr Forrester demonstrated evolution through a set of handmade puppets that are on display in the Me, Human gallery and then went on to introduce her esteemed panel which included Professor Uta Frith, a developmental psychologist, Professor Ben Garrod, an evolutionary biologist, primatologist and broadcaster, and Tony King, an independent researcher with the Aspinall Foundation.

 

In her introduction, Dr Forrester noted both the number and the diversity and of attendees, the Science Museum had welcomed over the course of the project, which will yield a rich source of data to be released in the coming months. The Me, Human experiments include a number of stations which investigate how different sides of our brains are involved in various functions in our day-to-day lives. Earlier that day attendees of the discussion were invited to attend the Me, Human gallery and take part in these experiments in order to understand whether they are dominant in their left or right brain.

The Me, Human team and evolution puppets

The conversation was informal with comments and questions welcomed throughout the discussion. Dr Forrester started the discussion with a question on developmental psychology, which was followed up with a question from a member of the audience who asked simply, “What’s next for us in terms of evolution?” – something the panel said was hard to predict! The panel highlighted the importance of experiments like the Me, Human project and the need for human and animal behavioural psychology to be researched in tandem as Professor Garrod exclaimed: “We are animals!”  Other questions posed to the panel included; what’s next for humans? How does social media impact our need to be social in a time where we are increasingly connecting to others through technology?

Later in the panel, Dr Forrester questioned Professor Frith on her theory of ‘slow science’ – her belief that academics should only publish once a year to ensure a quality over quantity approach to research in order to sustain the practice.

It is clear that the Me, Human project has garnered invaluable results and it was positive to see a mix of academics and the general public in the audience. During the conversation, Professor Garrod asked how many of the audience are researchers and not, and highlighted the need for the non-researchers in the continuation of the field of psychology.

The Me, Human project be at the Science Museum London until 30 September 2019.

 

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