Reverie: Taking time out to care for you

Held in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR), this Astrea event took a light-hearted approach to understanding the value of taking time out to care for yourself.

I am relaxed … I am alert … I am relaxed and alert at the same time.

Reciting meditative platitudes with mobile phones clasped firmly between hands in prayer pose, Sophie Huckfield and Sophie Bullock (together known as Ambience Factory)’s portrayal of the modern worker’s idea of taking ‘time out’ was simultaneously eye-wateringly funny and alarmingly close to the bone.

While convincingly masquerading as Chief Happiness Officer and Chief Resilience Officer, the pair’s real aim is to use play and comedy to investigate work practices.

Kicking off Thursday’s Astrea workshop on taking time out, Ambience Factory’s performance parodied some of the ways in which modern organisations pay lip service to work life balance, from mandatory mindfulness to unhelpful advice such as “don’t give in to stress: get over it.”

The science behind rest

The ice-breaking introduction was followed by a panel discussion featuring Ambience Factory, Dr Caroline Kamau (Organizational Psychology), Prof Felicity Callard (director of BISR) and Lise Groenvold (former graduate intern of Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities and BISR), and chaired by Lou Miller, BISR manager. The panellists began by exploring our understanding of rest. The picture that each of us conjure into our minds with the word ‘rest’ is likely to be very different. As one panellist put it: “Doctors will prescribe rest to patients, but rest is an undetermined term. While for one person, going for a run at 6am will put them in the most restful state of mind, for someone else, that won’t be the case.”

Historically, scientists have had a very black and white view of rest: you’re either doing a task or you aren’t. But social scientists are now collaborating with neuroscientists to show that some parts of the brain are far more active when we’re off task, pointing to prolonged benefits of taking regular moments of rest.

You are not alone

Another key point that came out of the discussion was the idea that people often feel that they must deal with stress in isolation. Dr Caroline Kamau from the Department of Organizational Psychology, whose research explores burnout and stress in NHS doctors, highlighted the severity of the issue – doctors suffering sleep problems or alcohol abuse caused by stress may be struck off – but also the fact that this is surprisingly common: “We want to normalise stress for doctors and find out the mechanisms of it.”

Stigma and guilt

Audience questions focused on the feelings of guilt that are so common when we take time to rest. Often, we feel we are letting colleagues, friends and family members down by prioritising ourselves. These feelings of guilt are a symptom of a culture where success is equated with busy-ness. These issues are social and it is everyone’s responsibility, including employers’, to introduce policies and enforce rules around absence, sick leave and working hours, to ensure everyone is well rested enough to work at their best.

Stress less

Based on her research, Dr Kamau hosted an adapted version of her Working Stress board game and app. Playing head to head (or in this case, table to table), each team had to not only use their knowledge and understanding of stress to answer multiple-choice questions, but also have open discussions about how we deal with stress and whether our strategies might be helpful or maladaptive.

There was even a task to develop and draw a novel idea for stress-relief in the workplace. The results ranged from the sensible to the bizarre. Some of the innovative ideas – inspired by the tech solutions hailed by the likes of Google but satirised by Ambience Factory — included a sustainable outburst booth (or SOB) for controlled venting of frustration through crying, and the popular Positivity Portal for My Birkbeck, which displays positive messages to boost your motivation – no PIN required! It was a hilarious end to a stress-busting event.

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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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