How to keep your office mentally healthy

Even small changes in the office can reduce stress levels, but a supportive company attitude towards personal issues is vital

However well-meaning you may be as an employer, it is difficult to know what to do when confronted with a mental health problem in the office. How should you raise the subject with an individual or the office generally? I recently  wrote about one architect with mental health problems where it was clear the workplace played a major role. So what does good practice look like for a mentally healthy workplace?

There are a number of techniques for raising the issue of mental health, and it really is a case of finding the one that works for you as an employer or employee. As a rule, talking is good. Creating an atmosphere in the office where people feel able to raise their personal issues without feeling threatened or undermined is fundamental.  

Sarah is a junior in a medium sized practice and has suffered from anxiety for many years. She has a healthy ‘sharing’ approach to her mental health and has worked out a way of working that suits her and works well for her current practice. She feels that her ability to spot the signs when her stress levels rise, along with the ability to communicate with her superiors, has meant that she can prevent her anxiety escalating. Sarah has worked previously for practices and individuals who were not sympathetic, resulting in her needing to take time off from work. Her advice (other than working for a practice which takes mental health seriously) is to have a plan for when problems arise. She agreed her plan with the senior team, and considered that this proactive approach to her problems was welcomed.

When Sarah is having a bad day, she reports to her line manager. If she does not feel able to get out of her bedroom then she works from home with remote access to the server. This has significantly reduced her sick days and enables her to work effectively, as well as creating in her a very loyal member of staff.

Sarah benefits from having a ‘safety net’ of friends and colleagues and a practice mentoring programme, as well as a personality that enables her to ask for and accept help when required. This is not the case for everyone. Workplace designer and fit out specialist Morgan Lovell recognises that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to promoting good mental health in the workplace. What suits one person may not help another because of their personality or specific illness. However the firm says there are a number of adjustments that could be made to workplace environments to foster psychological wellbeing – for example separate spaces in which to contemplate and concentrate, or encouragement to take a break or socialise and chat with colleagues.

Diffusing office stress

Change doesn’t need to be drastic; small things like a clean office, a good filing system and low levels of noise can help create a less stressful environment. Working from home, as suggested by Sarah, can also help diffuse a build-up of office stress, and the corporate attitude to this is very important. While in the office, the ability to take time out during the day to release stress can have huge benefits. I would like to invent a non-smoking equivalent of the cigarette break, where people leave the office, get some fresh air, talk to others and build up a bond with a group. Any suggestions?

Some architectural practices make mental wellbeing a priority. At Yelo Architects, based in Brighton, the emotional well-being of staff is paramount. Founder Andy Parsons says: ‘Our philosophy is very much focused on ensuring our staff are happy and healthy. We don’t have a culture of long hours. In fact, my remit for business is to try and reduce stress as much as possible.’ This philosophy extends to whether they will accept a commission from a client. ‘I will go with my gut feeling whether they are going to be a right fit for the office,’ says Parsons, who is adamant that he will not work for clients who bully members of staff. He is convinced this approach has not harmed his profitability.

As well as the office lunches and trips that are commonly provided, Yelo Architects runs regular meditation sessions and monthly lunches focusing on well-being, where invited speakers discuss such subjects as mindfulness, nutrition and sleep.

Creating an atmosphere in the office where people feel able to raise their personal issues without feeling threatened or undermined is fundamental

Having someone who is trained in mental health first aid (MHFA) provides a designated person to seek help from and will give a clear signal to staff that this subject is taken seriously within the office.  Companies such as Mental Health First Aid England run training courses to teach people to spot the symptoms of mental health issues. Healthy people are happier, more engaged and more productive, the company says.  The training will not teach you to be therapists but, just like physical first aid, you will be taught to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis. If this can help retain a valued member of staff or reduce the number of sick days, surely this is worth a couple of days of someone’s time.

In the macho  world of construction it is refreshing to hear of Building Site to Boardroom, a not-for-profit organisation founded by builders, company owners, developers and therapists who believe their combined experience helps them understand the industry's language, needs and challenges. BS2B, along with many in the industry, believes a culture change on building sites is necessary. This can be achieved by introducing self-awareness and mindfulness tools that help support mental wellbeing, improve relationships and create safer, happier working environments.

BS2B has created an engaging online self-awareness training programme for employers and employees to help cultivate that change. It provides simple, relevant and interactive training aimed at helping to maintain well-being/mental health by providing the tools to deal with conflict or stressful and challenging situations.

Communication is key to engendering a positive supportive environment. Letting staff know that there is supportive leadership can be very empowering. It might be, for example, a well-phrased email to staff saying the directors are aware they are all working particularly hard to meet deadlines and that if they need to discuss their workload then the directors’ doors are always open. Or maybe a round robin email to remind staff that there is an employers assistance programme in place and noting that mental health support is included.

So, take a careful look at that person who is always first in/last out at work and who always responds to emails out of hours or when on holiday. This might be the sign that something is not right and a bit of TLC now may prevent a long-term absence due to something more serious.

I would be very interested in hearing of any specific techniques that you have found work for you or your practice in dealing with mental health issues. Let’s share and improve everyone’s life.

Virginia Newman is RIBA ambassador for equality, diversity and inclusion.