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?

Further Information:

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Bitcoin: Future or Fad?

First year BSc Economics student Lydia Evans provides a recap of an event organized by Birkbeck’s Economics + Finance Society, at which Financial Times journalist Isabella Kaminska discussed the future of Bitcoin.

What does Bitcoin mean to you?

To some, it epitomises the promise of the free market ­-  perhaps even, if one ‘mined’ it early enough, a path to becoming a millionaire. To others, it is reminiscent of Tulip Mania or the South Sea Bubble. The valuation graphs are eerily similar both in curve and timeline.

The Financial Times (FT) was started to help investors make informed decisions. Many were often victims of the Penny press. It was most germane to listen to what the FT’s Isabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) thinks about the most popular cryptocurrency and its underlying technology, Blockchain.

Kaminska thinks that Bitcoin has been good for engaging previously uninterested parties in banking and finance. The evolution of its ecosystem also highlights the importance of harnessing the ever-expanding abilities of technology. This is as far as Bitcoin can be considered ‘on the money’.

She said that most of us have had a form of digital currency for ages, ever since we first signed up to a bank; the very basic concept of Bitcoin is not, therefore, a new one. However, unlike the technological advancement in traditional banks, she believes that Bitcoin might take us backwards.

We have no idea as to the actual asset structure or as to where it is being invested. But if capital has to be reinvested to create value, where is Bitcoin being invested?  Similarly, although Bitcoin appears to promise a dissolution of typical dealer/broker relationships, they are still very much in place.

Details regarding any potential intermediary from an established, regulated institution are readily available. There is rarely transparency when it comes to those associated with a Bitcoin Exchange. Kaminska’s research into the companies that sell and process Bitcoin showed that the vetting process is astoundingly lax.

Another claim is that it is free and easy. Kaminska thinks Bitcoin is still not user-friendly for the general public. The increasing costs could even lead to it becoming a luxury lifestyle product. Maybe, she jokingly suggested, one that could be featured in magazines such as ‘How to Spend It’.

Regulation will be the catalyst of all its future developments. It could even dismantle key principles of the whole project. This leads to a crucial question: Does Bitcoin serve a purpose or is it a solution looking for a purpose?

Perhaps Blockchain offers a solution. It has provided a means to mass collaboration that is hard, if not impossible, to get with traditional banks. But this depends upon who is collaborating and for what reasons. Due diligence is not an option in this very closed world – you are only as strong as the weakest member.

Kaminska opines that volatility undermines a currency’s usefulness. This can be demonstrated by examining any chart documenting the cryptocurrency’s history. She sees Bitcoin as a utopia for those disillusioned by, or unwilling to participate with, the mainstream banking system. Utopia is rarely what it seems.

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Cyber Security professionals offer students advice and insights at Birkbeck Careers event

This post was written by Jenna Davies from Birkbeck Careers

cyber-2

Students were exposed to plenty of practical advice, industry insights and networking opportunities this week as professionals from the world of cyber security shared their experiences as well as their thoughts on getting into the sector at a panel discussion organised by Birkbeck Careers.

The fundamental message was extremely positive, with every panellist indicating that there is a route for anyone to get into the industry; it’s a case of finding the right one for you.

Nigel Jones, CEO of IAAC (Information Assurance Advisory Council) highlighted that companies are often looking for bothnon techie’ as well as techie people. He revealed his outlook that there’s always a way to map your route into cyber and no matter what your background, there’s a career in cyber if you want to go down this path.

The ever growing skills shortage was a hot topic of conversation and Nick Wilding, General Manager of Cyber Resilience at AXELOS Global Best Practice (a joint venture between the UK Government and Capita plc) highlighted the demand for the skills today’s students have. Being a geography graduate, Nick emphasised that the skills required are multi-faceted and the growth of the industry demonstrates the need for those in the audience to put their skills to use in this arena.

Fellow panellist Erin Jones – Senior Associate at PwC UK cyber security practice – took her teaching role developing computer science and IT schemes and turned it into a career within cyber. Erin spoke of her own education at an all-girls school, indicating that tech was never advertised as a career option, which is controversial given the low number of women currently working within technology. The barrier for Erin isn’t the lack of women in the industry; it’s the lack of awareness as cyber is often seen as the ‘dark art’.

Nick reiterated Erin’s description and the need to change its perception with organisations, who are often tired of hearing about the threats they face and need holistic approaches from those who can support them.

Daryl Flack, CIO of Blockphish facilitated the event and touched on the vast range of roles available within cyber security; management alone provides lots of opportunities such as working as a consultant, within sales, as a creative addition to the team, an entrepreneur or within the ethical side of the industry. He advised the audience to start getting into something remotely cyber to kick off their path, or checking out new websites that need something more secure and finding your route in this way.

Like the majority of successful professionals it starts with passion and commitment, and regardless of your chosen course of study it seems very plausible to get into this ever growing industry.  Erin pointed out that one of her current colleagues does threat intelligence and studied geography at university while another studied Spanish and now works in their technical response team. Anything applies as long as you have that passion.

The conversation continued over networking and undoubtedly left some attendees with the motivation and belief that they can very effectively contribute to this field of work. So more of us can now step forward to stop the hackers, fight the phishing emails and join this exciting and valuable sector that impacts just about everyone in this day and age.

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Women Talk Tech: Continued…

This post was contributed by Birkbeck MSc computer Science student Liudmila Veshneva. She attended the Women talk Tech event organised between Birkbeck’s Careers & Employability service and Girls in Tech. This blog follows from fellow student, Aida Zibaite’s recent blog article.

Women in TechI have recently attended “Women Talk Tech – How I transformed my career”, an event organised by Birkbeck and Girls in Tech. Because I found the speakers so incredibly inspiring and because I believe so much of what was said will resonate not only with many women on their journey into tech world, but also with anyone going through career change I decided to share my own thoughts on the subject.

Sinead Mac Manus, Founder & CEO of Fluency, Nathalie Richards, Founder & CEO of Edukit and Harveen Chugh, Entrepreneurship Consultant to universities, start-ups and government shared their experiences of leaving successful corporate careers and well-paid jobs to start their own businesses in the social enterprise sector.

A number of interesting issues came up during the talk. One that had me nodding in agreement was on the topic of confidence. It seems that women are particularly prone to suffer from lack of confidence and I am not an exception. On numerous occasions it has been mentioned to me that I need to be more vocal. Knowing about this shortcoming and making conscious effort to overcome it has definitely helped. I have never done anything as drastic as Nathalie Richards who became a stand-up comedian to overcome her fear of public speaking, but even small steps can make a big difference and open new opportunities which women are systematically missing because they underestimate what they are capable of. Rita Usanga, Digital Media Specialist and Cofounder of InvestWell, who was moderating the event, encouraged everyone to “feel the fear” and do something outside of their comfort zone as a way to improve on the front of confidence.

Finding a mentor was another good piece of advice shared during the talk. It is especially relevant at the start of one’s career. Having had a supportive and encouraging manager myself, I appreciate the impact he had on my professional journey. Unfortunately, finding the right mentor can be a challenge, at least in my recent experience, even with numerous schemes set up to encourage women into tech. Of course it is not the reason to stop looking; the benefits of support and guidance are irrefutable.

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

Women in Tech (l-r) Rita Usanga, Nathalie Richards, Harveen Chugh and Sinead Mac Manus

One question from the audience that I would like to highlight was whether sharing your ideas with other entrepreneurs is good practice. And Sinead was very adamant in answering: “yes”. She explained that majority of success in starting your own business comes from right and swift implementation. Share your ideas without revealing your “secret sauce” was Nathalie’s advice. I would like to expand on this topic and encourage sharing good advice, experiences and opportunities.

Listening to these strong-willed, hardworking and purpose-driven women, their stories, learning about challenges they overcome on daily basis and seeing how determined they are to persevere made me feel less alone and, to put it mildly, “insane” about starting my own journey into tech. It certainly was not an easy choice in my case, especially after some reactions I got from my friends, family and colleagues when I told them about my decision to quit my hard-earned job in banking and start all over again in a completely unrelated industry. When I am feeling particularly doubtful about my choice to take a plunge, I only need to imagine what my life would have been like if I didn’t and it all falls back into place. It also helps to remember a quote by Beverly Sills: “You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try”. For me personally, regret is one of the worst feelings I had to deal with, and regret of not trying your best has very long shelf life.

Read more about the Women in Tech event here

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