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Practical strategies to create a mentally healthy work culture  

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Feeling overwhelmed creating a mentally healthy work culture? Learn 5 practical strategies for HR to educate staff, lead by example, and build a culture of wellbeing.

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Petra Velzeboer

Holding responsibility for mental health at work can feel overwhelming – even for HR. There’s an assumption that HR should be able to deal with everything and you may not feel equipped when it comes to mental health. It can feel like leaders or managers, afraid of dealing with something they’re not sure of, will just send people to HR whenever anything personal or potentially difficult comes up and you might be left frustrated and thinking these conversations should be held within teams not outside of them!  

It can feel like an uphill struggle to educate, manage and support when the issues showing up just seem to be getting bigger and bigger – not to mention the vast burnout levels going on in HR. So where do we start?  

Here’s a few tips to help you create a mentally healthy work culture. Let’s start from the basics:  

  1. Education  

You will probably already have events, seminars, webinars and experts coming in to talk about mental health. But are they really talking about mental health or are they talking about mental illness? 

There’s a difference between linking the state of our mind, our physical health, emotional intelligence etc to our performance, helping people take responsibility for the culture and doing a webinar on suicide or depression. Our job is to help people connect the dots between doing good work, sustaining success long term and our mental health

Make sure the education you offer is balanced – of course you need to let people know where they can go for support when struggling but remember this should just be 20% of the offer.  A mentally healthy culture is about everybody and you want a consistent message to be going out across your leadership training, policies and awareness events.  

  1. Lead by Example  

So many HR leaders that I see feel like they have to be there for everyone else and they don’t want to show any signs of struggle themselves. You might be asking your leaders to be vulnerable and lead by example but do you lead by example with your team?  

The ripple-effect that occurs when we do what we say not just what we tell others to do is powerful and cannot be underestimated – yes, even from HR!  

Showing your leaders how to open up, manage stress, access resources and openly talk about good mental health is a powerful way to impact culture. Ask yourself ‘where can I practise being brave and showing the way rather than telling today’? 

  1. Create a story from your data  

You might have engagement surveys, pulse surveys or other ways to gather data from your people about how they’re feeling or what they need – but what happens next?  Do you create an effective story from your data that has clear points of action?

This starts with asking the right questions – asking people how stressed they are for example doesn’t give you information about where to go next, asking instead about whether people know where to go for support gives you more information about the structure within your business. The next stage is to present your data in language that links to organisational objectives so that it feels aligned with the mission and your executive team are more likely to back your approach.  

  1. Find your influencers 

We often create an ‘us vs them’ feeling between the executive team and the people team, when in fact, there will be people high up who are already bought in to the topic of investing in people, you might just not know their stories or they may not know how to help. 

Network internally and get personal, finding out about personal motivations connected to the people topic is a great way to nurture influencers at varying levels of the business who can help.   

In summary, get back to basics! The World Health Organisation definition of mental health is ‘a state of wellbeing that enables people to cope with the normal stresses of life, realise their potential and contribute to their community’ – this is the basis of creating a mentally healthy culture.

Understanding that mental health is about everybody, modelling behaviours which might include questioning working practices (i.e. meeting culture) and challenging brave conversations and actions for both yourself and leaders, will lead to a ripple effect of change build over time.  

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