Normalising mental health: it all starts with conversation

Georgina Greenspan

14 May 2021

Why normalising the conversation around mental health needs to come from vulnerability at the very top. 

At the beginning of lockdown – at this point I’d have to guess if it was 1, 2 or 3! – I penned a piece about mental health, how the pandemic was impacting us all and the responsibility of employers to look after their team in a different way.

I ended on a positive note. An observation that the difficult situation we were all living through had encouraged us all to be more open about our challenges. The perfect social media personas disappeared as we all grappled with how to cope and an openness emerged amongst friends, family and colleagues as we all worked through the situation.

2020: a challenging year for our collective mental health

Since then it feels like everything and nothing has changed. We’ve continued to plough on, balancing the pressures of everyday life and work, with life in lockdown.

But again, underneath that facade of normality, more of us than ever before are struggling with managing our mental health.

According to Mind, more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) have said their mental health got worse during lockdown. And, according to NHS Digital, mental health problems account for four in 10 (41%) of all sick notes signed by GPs during the pandemic.

Personally, I can talk at length about the challenges I’ve faced trying to adjust to having so much time alone with my thoughts. And, as an extrovert by nature I’ve missed the company too (though, my two cats are clearly a delight to cuddle throughout the day). What I will happily tell you, is that I cannot recommend therapy enough. For me, recognising that it was something I needed to go back to – albeit belatedly – has been a lifeline for me over the last six months.

And I truly believe that it’s something we need to encourage more (all) people to do. We need to encourage everyone, from a young age, to engage with – and really feel – their emotions. We need to train ourselves to think of our mental health in the same way we consider our physical health. We need to have an ongoing ‘fitness’ plan – and we need to be honest with those around us about where we are on our journey.

Readjusting to life in a new hybrid world

And … in many ways, it’s all about to change again.

This week, I was lucky enough to spend some time in our new office, getting everything ready for our staggered return from next week. I loved it. But after a day and a half in the office, sitting back in my home office (which I recognise is a huge privilege to have) I found myself in a massive slump.

The absolute high of being able to be out of your house, being in a new space, seeing people I haven’t seen since last March … going and buying an actual coffee … is not to be underestimated.

On the flip side, by the time I got home both evenings I was exhausted. And that was literally just from commuting in and out. Commuting eats into the time and structure we’re now all used to and I found myself baffled by where time had gone and how little time I’d had for yoga / reading / sitting around and doing nothing. I don’t think we can underestimate the time it will take each of us to adjust to this ‘new world order.’ From childcare, to gym routines – everything is back up in the air and it’s going to take people time to get that back on track. Let’s try to remember to be kind to ourselves and patient with each other as we get back to it.

And then finally, we need to accept that adjusting to a new hybrid style might be tough. I suspect, many of us will feel that in many different ways over the coming months. Whether we realise that we’ve got used to home working and find being out and about a sensory overload; or we’re anxious and don’t want to commute until we have the vaccine, it’s on all us to be more cognizant of others and more empathetic than ever before.

What does this change mean for agencies?

In short, we need to keep evolving and we need to be mindful of how the world is changing around us and pivot to deliver the right support to our teams.

At Harvard, we have a host of Mental Health First Aiders from across the agency to offer a network for our team to lean on and speak to. We offer access to Calm, private medical care through Vitality, virtual (and real-life) gym memberships to decompress, Monday Yoga with our very own Harvard Yoga teacher and access to online courses to help people educate themselves further.

But, as always, we know we have more to do. This week, we hosted one of our quarterly Townhalls to talk to our team about just that – we’ll take these suggestions and use them to help build out an even bigger plan as we move forward. And, building on our MHFA offering, in the next month we’re training up our next bunch of our superstar team members to be Mental Health Champions.

And over the coming year, we’re committed to looking at the challenge of client demands on our work-life balance, and working with our clients to get them to sign up to our new client charter to create a better working environment for our teams.

In the short term though, for agency leaders, I think they key is to be flexible and empathetic and to allow people to celebrate any return to normality. As people are able to return to their lives, they are going to be distracted and they will want to spend time catching up with people they’ve missed. As leaders we need to give people the time, the space and the permission to adjust and accept (embrace even!) that how we work will evolve once again and that will bring both fresh challenges and new opportunities.

Why agency leaders need to open up and embrace change

And then finally, and perhaps most key, is that I think we need to normalise the conversation – which is what I entitled this blog. We, as senior leaders, need to continue to be open about our own challenges to help remove the stigma and encourage people to understand their own challenges and be empathetic to those around them. I’ve shared mine here, and you can read about what some more of our senior team had to say about the challenges they’ve faced and the best advice they were given to overcome them, here.