Employee Motivation

How we started talking about mental health at work

7 min read

On a Monday last September, I came back to work after a two-week vacation, and had a crippling panic attack.

It was a boys vacation, so naturally the two weeks started with a gin and soda in hand, and ended with a gin and soda in hand (mistake one). Mere hours after I got back, I was up bright and early to head into work and dive headfirst into all the things I had missed over the last two weeks (mistake two). The withdrawal from the alcohol, the sleep deprivation, the jet lag and the stress from jumping back into work was a perfect recipe for disaster: my first-ever, full-blown panic attack. And a serious onset of anxiety to follow.

That’s how I got involved in mental health at SoapBox. I realized I didn’t want people to go through what I was going through, and I wanted to find a way for us to be more proactive than reactive about our mental health.

It wasn’t that we were completely ignoring mental wellness at SoapBox. After all, our company’s core mission is to make it easier and more fun to be a manager – and have more motivated, engaged employees as a result. We have amazing benefits, we are committed to doing one-on-ones…we definitely care about our team members’ wellbeing. But I felt like it was time to put a more structured process in place for supporting the team when mental health issues arise.

It just so happened that a few weeks after my panic attack, we were doing a company-wide hackathon. So that’s how I found myself standing in front of the whole company, palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, and shared the struggle I’d been going through, and pitched the idea of creating some mental health resources for the team.

I got a few people on board, and we started BrainBox: SoapBox’s first-ever mental health committee. And as we started to build out the committee and start up initiatives, we learned a few things along the way.

Here’s how we started talking about mental health at work:

1. Create a committee

From the successes of the hackathon came BrainBox (clever I know), our very own mental health committee. The purpose of the committee is to tackle all things mental health within the workplace. This includes creating resources, educating all employees, planning events, creating processes, etc. Having a formal committee to take on these tasks means that nothing gets forgotten. It’s easy to de-prioritize these kinds of initiatives during our busy sprints, but having monthly committee meetings holds us all accountable.

2. Get members of the leadership team involved

It’s going to be hard for team members to get involved if leadership isn’t. Not only are people more likely to jump on board, it also becomes a whole lot easier to create processes, plan events and get budgeting when leadership is behind the cause! For us, that leadership team member is our COO, Jess Weiss. From the very beginning, Jess has been our advocate on the senior leadership team for getting budget approved and moving events forward.

(Also, let’s be real: it’s 2019. If your company leaders don’t support mental health at work, it may be time to…you know…I’m just going to leave this here.)

3. Create easy-to-access resources for employees (especially new hires!)

When the newly-formed Brainbox committee got up to present during the hackathon, the first thing we did was ask everyone if they knew what an Employee Assistance Program was – and whether they knew that we had one. No one did. It became clear that there was a definite lack of education around this subject. So, we created a one-stop document (we call it a toolkit) that outlined all the resources our team might need: details on our EAP and benefits, details on counselling services and therapists in the area, recommended books and articles, and even mindful exercises that you can do if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

It is really important to make this documentation easily accessible to all employees, and to make sure it’s prominently included in your onboarding package, so all new employees know of its existence as well.

4. Offer manager training

Education is key, especially for management. But a huge problem with management today is that many leaders don’t know much about mental health at work. They haven’t experienced their own issues in this realm, and might not know how to deal with it. How do you help out with something you have no experience with?

That’s why it’s extremely important to train your managers in handling mental health issues in the workplace. It’s important that they understand their role as the manager in these challenges, and provide them with the proper tools and guidelines to handle situations appropriately (and, know when it’s time to bring in HR or a professional). There are plenty of free resources and courses online that can help.

5. Create ongoing opportunities to encourage openness and vulnerability

Simply talking about your own mental health is a great way to get other team members to be more open about their own issues. We wouldn’t hesitate in talking about an injured ankle, yet how come we’re so afraid to talk about an injured brain? We’re not afraid to talk about going to physiotherapy, yet how come we’re so afraid to talk about going to psychotherapy? Creating that vulnerability takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.

For example, during the beginning of every BrainBox meeting, we start off by asking everyone to describe their state-of-mind in one word. It’s a great way to get people talking about how they’re feeling. For me personally, one of the greatest benefits to this openness is I no longer feel I need to make excuses as to why I won’t be at work, or why I need to take off for an hour or so to go to therapy. I’m no longer worried that my managers and colleagues think I’m making excuses – I know they can empathize with me.

6. Create time for mindfulness

Every day after lunch, a group of us head to a conference room and take 10 minutes to do guided meditation. We use Headspace, but there are plenty of guided meditations online. Putting the more spiritual aspect of meditating aside, we’ve seen a lot of benefits to taking this time on a daily basis to clear our head and prepare for the second half of the day. There’s some great science behind the benefits of meditating, too!

7. Make it fun

Mental health can be a serious topic, but it doesn’t always need to be portrayed that way. At SoapBox we like to keep it light and fun as well. We’re always planning events to keep the team engaged, active and happy. For example, last month our focus was on “beating the winter blues” and we organized chair yoga sessions, ice skating excursions, hot chocolate breakfasts and more.

You’ll find that people will be a lot more open to the idea of mental wellness when you remove the rigidness from the conversation and do it with some more candor.

8. Don’t force it

One final word of warning when integrating mental health initiatives into your office: don’t make it mandatory. Everyone is on a different journey when it comes to mental wellness and it’s important to let people experience it how they want.

At SoapBox, we make sure everyone feels welcome to join our committee meetings, meditations and events, but we know that it’s not for everyone. We try to make sure we’re mixing it up and offering a wide range of activities, and then let people take part only when they want to.

You made it to the end! Ready to put these lessons to good use? There is no time like the present to start!

Psst…Run your mental health committee meetings in SoapBox! Our free app makes it simple and easy to create shared agendas, take notes, assign next steps and more!

Bring mental health into the workplace with SoapBox