Suzanne Clarkson speaks to Trowers & Hamlins LLP about finding the right balance for employee support
It is telling that the number of medicines dispensed for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions has doubled1. Furthermore, mental health now accounts for £38bn of the total cost of productivity loss to business last year2. On a more positive note, however, evidence on the impact of exercise interventions on positive mood abound3.
So, should the increase in medication be a cause for concern? Or does it simply signify that more people are now opening up about their mental health problems and getting the help they need? Should we be prioritising push-ups over pill popping? Or simply accepting that there's no one fix it solution? And what can employers realistically do to help?
Henna Malik, Solicitor at Trowers & Hamlins LLP, was prescribed anti-anxiety medication after she developed depression in 2017. She believes there shouldn't be any stigma attached to taking medication for mental wellbeing: it should simply be viewed as part of self-care, as opposed to something to be ashamed of.
"Society wouldn't stigmatise someone who takes medication for diabetes and that person wouldn't stop taking their insulin out of fear of stigma. The same applies - or it should - to medication for mental health conditions. It's certainly not a standalone cure for conditions such as anxiety but it has helped me to regulate anxiety in a demanding profession and I personally haven't experienced any serious side effects, although I am aware that medication affects everyone differently."
Henna adds that the physical and mental health dichotomy is an important one to address both in the workplace and in society generally.
"Mental health is physical - it's a neurological condition. It's important to remove the stigma because anyone who suffers from mental health problems has enough to deal with without the extra guilt and pressure from society."
It just takes a helping hand
Henna is a great advocate of the need for parity between physical and psychological conditions after receiving a holistic response from her employer when she needed help.
She'd suffered from depression in the past after the death of two close family members. Her depression returned after a bout of anxiety when, as a mother of a four-year-old boy, she started work as a trainee solicitor.
"I felt a lot of guilt," explains Henna. "I felt I was falling short of being a good mum. And because I was a mum, to my mind I felt I needed to prove myself even more at work. I was putting in the hours but not being productive because I was always feeling anxious."
Support for Henna came when her supervisor noticed that she was struggling. "There was a noticeable change in my energy levels. I'm usually a very bubbly person but I became quiet and tearful. I was really struggling to get things done. At its worst, my anxiety was crippling - I was unable to even read a document as the words would go fuzzy on the page."
Henna's supervisor was very open and communicative. "She empowered me to tell her what was going on. She encouraged me to speak with a mental health first aider in the firm about counselling and made me feel like counselling really wasn't a big deal."
Through the mental health first aider, Henna learnt about the firm's employee assistance programme (EAP) and immediately gained access to six free face-to-face counselling sessions. These helped her understand her anxieties and fears and gave her coping mechanisms.
At the same time, Henna got involved in the company's Speednet teams: a five-a-side form of netball. She extols the positive impact of physical exercise on mental health. "I walk a lot - brisk walking - I try to fit this into daily life and I don't beat myself up about leaving the desk to go for a walk if I need to. I'm always more productive when I get back to the desk."
Flouting the legal sector stereotype
Interestingly, Henna was advised by an individual she met from another law firm not to disclose her past mental health problems to her future employer. Thankfully, Trowers & Hamlins didn't live up to the industry stereotypes.
The company strongly advocates a total wellbeing approach: encompassing the physical, mental, financial and social.
They secured senior management buy-in from the start for many of their mental wellbeing initiatives, with the firm's Senior Partner signing the Time to Change pledge.
Sue Brooks, head of reward at Trowers & Hamlins, adds: "I understand we were one of the first law firms to sign the pledge back in 2015. We wanted to see an improvement in the wellbeing of the firm and instil genuine passion and excitement about wellbeing, embedding it into the culture of the firm to bring a positive impact to both our people and our business."
Following this, the firm put in place various initiatives, including:
- Training for mental health first aiders
- The recruitment of volunteer wellbeing mentors from around the firm as part of ‘TrowersIncludes' - a series of networks of volunteers, each focused on a different ‘protected characteristic' including: the LGBTQ+ allies network; gender; work & family network; age & ethnicity network; physical and mental wellbeing network; religion and belief network and social mobility network
- Expanded their stress policy to include mental health wellbeing
- Incorporated wellbeing into their induction programme for all new joiners and returners from family leave, to include training on mental health wellbeing
- Regular resilience training
- Regular signposting to all the resources for wellbeing across the firm, including promoting the sports and social aspects
- One day a week agile working policy
The firm also works closely with its health insurer VitalityHealth to support employee engagement.
"Just this week, I've been working with the Physical and Mental Wellbeing Network as part of Mental Health Awareness Week," says Sue. "We've done a desk-drop where we list all the mental health support we provide, including information about Vitality's Big White Wall [online MH community support], along with a list of all our mental health first aiders. And all week our staff have a special computer screensaver raising awareness of this year's theme of body image. We've put out tips on physical and mental wellbeing this week too, as well as hosting a client event on mental wellbeing.
"We also identify and act upon any issues that are highlighted as part of our results in Vitality's annual Britain's Healthiest Workplace study. For example, our results showed that sleep was an issue, as were concerns about financial wellbeing.
"We worked with Vitality to address this. They put on sleep workshops, focusing on nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and the causes of sleeplessness. These included a really useful book for attendees called The Sleep Detective with tips on getting a better night's sleep. In addition, we're planning a pension seminar this June, a wills workshop and mortgage workshop."
Pippa Andrews, director, corporate business at VitalityHealth, swears by partnership working between client, consultant and insurer to help ensure positive wellbeing outcomes for all.
"This starts with a whole company approach," she adds. "And Trowers & Hamlins has got this nailed. Employees need to be willing and active participants. But it's just as important that the senior management team also lend their full support to any proposed wellness schemes. There are inevitably key decisions on workplace wellness implementation and budget allocation required. But more than this, seeing your CEO and senior team taking the issue of wellbeing seriously, and actively taking part in initiatives, goes a long way in driving awareness and acceptability."
1 Mental health: 10 charts on the scale of the problem, BBC News, Dec 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41125009
2 Britain's Healthiest Workplace, Vitality in partnership with RAND Europe and the University of Cambridge, April 2019 https://www.vitality.co.uk/business/healthiest-workplace/
3 Exercise for Depression NHS, March 2018 https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/exercise-for-depression/
Effects of exercise & physical activity on depression, Dinas, Koutedakis & Flouris 2011 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21076975
Let's get physical, Mental Health Foundation, 2013 (review of various studies) https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/lets-get-physical-report.pdf
Two million UK people estimated to have dementia by 2051
How can we achieve mental and physical health parity at work?
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