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How can companies create a happier culture?

20 May 2015 | Emma Bennett

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There are so many experts on Happiness at Work. I'm no specialist, I don't have any specific training on this topic - but I have had jobs where the culture made me very unhappy.

I've lived with and recovered from a period of severe depression & anxiety, and I now have a job that would have accommodated for me when I was ill. So, I would like to share some things that may have eased the difficulty during my own periods of mental ill-health.

Having a mental health difficulty, or even just having a rough period of unhappiness can make effective working near impossible. Contrary to the stereotypical 'head clutcher' image, mental ill-health is practically invisible and you almost certainly work with someone who has or has had a hidden mental health problem of some kind.

Most people work through these periods of illness without disclosing it to everyone they know. I hid my struggle as much as possible and perfected the Little Mary Sunshine persona to a fine art.

Mental health problems affect productivity. I've always described depression as a fog in the brain, where your mind no longer works how it did before. Accessing your intelligent thoughts involves wading through clouds of confusion and decision-making is tough.

Any attempt to make your workplace a friendly environment for people with mental health issues is good progress. A happy working environment will almost certainly improve productivity. Any training, awareness events or just a conversation is a positive step in the right direction.

Here are three workplaces that appear to be getting it right:

  • Adidas Wellness International. Adidas Headquarters in Stockport has a bespoke wellness centre run by a team of dedicated doctors and psychologists, providing a wide range of health and wellbeing services.
  • Google Headquarters. Google says it wants to make its employees life better and easier and that it cares about them and their family. It provides onsite medical services, free shuttle buses, free food, free advice, free wellness services and more.
  • Sweaty Betty. Sweaty Betty appears to have clear values that support a happier culture: they aim to 'bring out the best in each other', 'have a positive attitude' and 'love what they do'. Exercising is also a great way of managing symptoms of anxiety.

I'm not suggesting every company has the funds to provide extensive services for their entire workforce, but here are nine easy ideas that could help breed happiness in your workplace:

  1. Don't give up on people. Having a job in general, in my experience, was a help. Without a job I would have had no purpose at all. Lacking a purpose is a dangerous thing for anyone's wellbeing. "Days off are so daunting that I avoid them as much as possible. It's easier to be a cheery barmaid than spend time with myself"
  2. Managers should educate themselves. Anyone who manages or supervises others, in my opinion, has a personal responsibility to learn about the difficulties that could be faced by their staff. Do a first aid course, learn a few words of their first language, find out how accessible your building is, and research what to do when a staff member discloses their mental illness to you. If your first reaction is to say 'Cheer up' you could benefit from a little reading.
  3. Be flexible. Getting hold of a doctor's appointment or a session with a therapist is seriously difficult. If someone comes to you last minute and asks for an hour off, you'd be doing them a great favour letting them go without criticism. It will increase their productivity and happiness in the long term.
  4. Put leaflets in your loos. It took 6 months before I realised there was something wrong. Since I've been volunteering with mental health charities I know how many leaflets, flyers and stickers there are with information that could be invaluable. Just get a few NHS pamphlets and put them in your toilets. It could help someone without you really having do anything.
  5. Take a break from the booze. Bowling, baking, belly dancing… it doesn't matter; people who take medication should try to avoid alcohol. So make sure there are alcohol-free social activities planned too.
  6. Make time. People are busy, work is stressful and there aren't enough hours in the day. I know that. However, if you want to work in a supportive environment you need to make one-to-one time with your colleagues. If you don't, they are very unlikely to ever feel comfortable enough to disclose their needs to you. If you want to be a great colleague, or a great manager, you need to find the time.
  7. Give people freedom to move. Freedom of movement within the working environment would have been the number one cultural factor I would have asked for. Having a panic attack or 'black out moment' as I called them, is sweaty, messy and embarrassing. Let people could go for a little break without question rather than having to explain every detail of their ordeal.
  8. Make space. An open space for socialising, a quiet room for reading, a couple of sofas next to the water dispenser, a garden area, a clean kitchen stocked with teabags, a staff room without any negative noticeboards…. Any of these things will provide a space where people can have five minutes out of their work day to be calm and mindful.
  9. Don't forget what people are like at their best. According to Mind: "all people have the capacity to recover from mental health problems" and one thing I always felt was that it suddenly escaped people how productive I was when I was well. Before my circumstances had inconvenienced them slightly, I was running around mothering everyone and getting some seriously good work done. If you were my best employee, broke your toe and started limping, I wouldn't assume you were useless… I'd give you a chair and offer to carry your bag.

So those are my simple tips. If you have any success with these small changes then do pass them on and together we can make our workplaces a little happier. If you would like more information on being a mental-health friendly employer, you can find information from Mind.


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Emma Bennett works for an elearning company in Yorkshire, High Speed Training, who provide CPD accredited online courses in a variety of Safeguarding topics. Emma is a volunteer coordinator and trustee for CLASSS and former volunteer administrator and researcher for Young Lives Leeds and Voluntary Action Leeds.



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