Earning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

By David Penney

There have been striking improvements in attitudes towards mental health in recent years.

The very concept of wellbeing was almost unheard of a couple of decades ago and yet today it is an inescapable movement that has penetrated all aspects of our lives.

From a workplace perspective, it has become a primary consideration for every reputable employer and has become as important as ensuring employees have the right tech, training and all the other things that are hopefully going to make them productive – and happy.

But when we talk about wellbeing in the workplace, there are clearly a number of facets to consider.

Creating the right physical environment is clearly hugely important with offices focusing on creating comfortable spaces to work and relax, with perhaps lots of greenery to create cleaner air and bring people closer to nature – a well established factor in creating good mental health.

But as important as it is, creating the right physical environment for people to work is just one part of promoting and supporting employee wellbeing.

Being fairly renumerated, respected and secure are also important aspects of creating a sense of wellbeing within the workplace.

And yet despite this major shift in emphasis from employers in terms of understanding the importance of wellbeing and taking positive action to promote good mental health, we remain in the grip of a mental health crisis that will affect one of four of us in our lifetimes and one in six of us during any given week.

The truth is that all businesses can tick the wellbeing boxes, but how people feel about their work may only play a small part in why people are having challenges with their mental health.

Paying above the market rate and filling the office with a pallet load of pot plants are undoubtedly positive, but happiness is something that comes from within and those who are struggling are not necessarily looking for a pay rise or a swanky new office.

For all the initiatives that businesses may consider when looking to support the wellbeing of their employees, the most important is creating a culture where people believe that it is ok not to feel ok.

The stigma of mental illness and has hugely dissipated in recent years, but it would be foolish to pretend that it has gone away.

One of the real challenges of poor mental health in the workplace is that in many ways it is self-fulfilling – the more unwell you feel, the more you worry about how it will be perceived, the more unwell you feel.

As the philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.”

Most people are aware of the many things that we can do as individuals to improve our mental health, such regular exercise, having a good diet, making plans and spending quality time with our friends and family.

But according to recent Danish research, one of the most important aspects of tackling poor mental health isn’t necessarily about taking the actions listed above – for many people they are easier said than done – but through just believing that things can be better, and being able to be honest about how you are feeling, particularly at work, is a big part of that. 

It is now more than a quarter of century since Bob Hoskins led the famous BT “It’s good to talk” campaign, a phrase which subsequently became a call to arms in the face of the growing mental health crisis and it is something that employers must embrace if they are really serious about wellbeing.

Creating a culture where reassurance, honesty and authenticity are prioritised and vulnerability is actually celebrated rather than condemned, are vital ingredients when we talk about promoting well-being in the workplace. 

It was the excellent author and thinker Brene Brown who first espoused the empowering benefits of vulnerability in the workplace in her famous Ted Talk (which has been a viewed a mere 57 million times) which explored among other things the positive impact of encouraging team members to bring their whole selves to work.

Not surprisingly people want to work in a place that acknowledges them as human beings, where their vulnerability won’t be perceived as weakness – a particular issue in performance-orientated cultures.

Creating this culture is not necessarily easy and it is important that the right balance is struck in terms of how much we share as leaders – Brown is clear that encouraging all out vulnerability can be as counter-productive as a culture where nobody is empowered. 

But as employers, we must have the courage to share ourselves and create the environment where employees are happy to reciprocate.

It may not always be comfortable and for some it may even be downright uncomfortable, but it is part of building those important relationships that more often than not will pay dividends in building a business.

We have come a long way in our understanding and acceptance of the challenges of mental health – now we need more words (remember it’s good to talk) rather than just actions to show that we are truly serious about wellbeing in the workplace.  

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