Opinion

Telltale signs that your work isn't conducive to your mental health

And how to take action to protect your work culture

Sunday 10th October was World Mental Health Day and 11-15th October is National Work Life Week. So, after joining forces a few months ago to discuss ways to better support people at work, we at Spill and Caution Your Blast thought it a good time to reflect on how work can negatively impact our mental health and what steps we can take to mitigate the risk. If nothing else, it was a great opportunity for Spill to share the benefit of the extensive research they’ve done in pursuit of their goal to make emotional support available to everyone. Similarly, for CYB, it is always good to hold ourselves accountable in shaping a digital agency which knows that life outside work is just as important as your career and which continually strives to build a company that respects that.

In a survey Spill conducted this year, half of workers said they have experienced at least one symptom of burnout and four in ten said that work stress had impacted their personal lives this year alone.

You only have to look at recent headlines to see what happens if psychological safety isn’t taken seriously. A recent example is BrewDog. Over 200 current and former staff signed an open letter to the founder about its "rotten culture". In May 2021,  47 employees of design agency IDEO shared stories of "gaslighting, micro-aggressions [and] bullying" in this post.

An interesting commonality among these companies is they were all previously touted as progressive places to work. IDEO describes itself as a "human-centred organisation". BrewDog aspired to be the "best company to work for in the U.K.".

So, how did these companies which were dubbed some of the most progressive scale-ups in the UK end up being crowned the worst places to work?

When employees join progressive and mission-driven companies like these, two risky forces are at play:

  • Because the company has an already-entrenched internal culture, new joiners are at risk of feeling like they need to go along with how things are done.

  • Because employees are being given extra emotional rewards and non-monetary rewards, it can be more difficult for them to assert clear boundaries around basic rights like reasonable hours and being treated decently.

Essentially, the things that form a strong company culture also bring a higher risk of that culture turning sour.

So when building or joining a company that aims to put people at the heart of everything it does, there are a few things you can do to protect your culture and team. 

(1) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with the company

This starts with basic good practice when it comes to the structure of work. Clear expectations, reasonable demands, support: all the usual suspects.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines six key areas of work that, if not properly addressed, make us feel psychologically unsafe, stressed out and anxious:

  • Demands — this includes things like workload, work patterns and the working environment.

  • Control — how much say the person has in the way they do their work.

  • Support — the encouragement, recognition, training and resources provided by the company, manager and colleagues.

  • Relationships — this includes promoting understanding and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.

  • Role — whether people understand their role clearly, and whether the company ensures that there aren't conflicting or unnecessary roles.

  • Change — how change (large or small, and external or internal) is managed and communicated by senior people in the business.

HSE has a great workbook (PDF) that goes through each of these six areas in more detail. ‍In addition to the more standard practices around clear role descriptions and a staff handbook that evolves in line with the needs of our people, at Caution Your Blast we have three weekly meetings in place that serve as opportunities for the whole company to touch base on their plans for the week, double-check that those plans remain the most valuable based on the current needs of people and projects, and to ask for any help and support from our teammates.

(2) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with leaders and managers

Leaders and managers need to model safe interpersonal risk-taking for employees to feel like they can do it too. Here are some examples of what safe interpersonal risk-taking looks like:

  • Saying 'I don't know' in front of other people — This has a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.

  • Being clear with work-life boundaries — telling the team they're clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won't be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.

  • Admitting to mistakes and failures — whether light-hearted or serious be open about when they did something wrong, demonstrating that it's not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.

  • Asking for criticism and inviting conflict — hoping people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them isn't enough. It's the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

We know how fundamental it is for us to lead by example at Caution Your Blast. A small but significant example of this is how I maintains my backlog of work in a Trello board that’s visible to entire company and open to questions and challenges around prioritisation - as well as tracking where a task or approach didn’t work out - because it’s important that anybody can see their feedback factored into the plans that affect everybody.

(3) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with other employees.

Interestingly, this is where some employees can feel most psychologically unsafe, as competitiveness, office politics, misunderstanding and passive-aggressiveness can easily crop up between peers who work together — especially in the new remote or hybrid world.

The key here is to foster as much honesty and understanding as possible. The absolute bible when it comes to doing this is a book we mentioned earlier in this post, 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team'. It has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with each other at Spill, and we now even give the book to new joiners as part of their onboarding pack.

Here are two exercises that the book suggests for building team trust and openness, and two for building interpersonal understanding:

  • Personal histories exercise (~20 minutes per person). A low-risk exercise, where questions don't need to be too personal: number of siblings, what life was like growing up, experience at school, first job, worst job, and so on. Describing these relatively innocuous attributes and experiences helps team members see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. Ask each person to speak for 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions. Often the questions are the most interesting part.

  • Strengths and weaknesses exercise (~15 minutes per person). Best done in smaller teams (less than 10 people). Take some silent time for team members to write down the greatest contribution each other person makes to the team, and an area that person must either improve or eliminate. Everyone then speaks through their response, one person at a time. Ask the person hearing their responses to reflect on how they feel about it. The aim is for it to be at times uncomfortable, but never personal.

  • 'Life graph' drawing exercise (30 minutes in pairs, then 10minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Employees are put into pairs and go off for 30 minutes with the task of spending 15 minutes each talking about their life, from birth up until now. While one person is talking, the other listens and draws out the highs and lows of that person's life as they hear them. When presenting back to the group, each person shows and talks through the other person's graph — and then at the end the person hearing their own graph is asked how it felt to hear that.

  • 'Desert island discs' exercise (45 minutes in pairs, then 10 minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Inspired by Radio 4’s programme 'Desert Island Discs'. Employees are put into pairs and go off for 45 minutes to think about which five songs they would want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. They can take one luxury item (but nothing to help them to get off the island). After silently thinking about which songs to choose, each person takes the other through their song choices. When presenting back to the group, each person explains the other person's choices and summarises what they learned about the person.

At Caution Your Blast we’ve started creating ‘user manuals for me’ (as pioneered by DotEveryone) at the start of every new project so that the people working in newly-formed teams have an opportunity to share their working preferences so that they can be more mindful of their interactions and habits from the start.

(4) Don’t just talk about mental health on World Mental Health Day. Take action!

Pledges and promises are easy, action is not. It takes work and commitment to create workplaces that are truly psychologically safe.

  • Have a mental health policy that is widely communicated and accessible to all. Spill has created a complete guide to writing a mental health policy which has pointers on how to write your own policy, available here. Once you have your policy, make sure it’s well communicated to the entire team and is revisited throughout the year rather than sitting on a dusty old shelf to pull out once a year on Mental Health Awareness Day!

  • Make mental health OKRs and measure them. It’s important to have a sense of how you are doing. These might be centred around onboarding external mental health support, reworking management training, or introducing mental health days into your quarterly work calendar. Run regular surveys with your team to get their feedback on how they are feeling at work - we do this once a term at Spill - to track progress and give you early warning signs on any areas that could be a toxic danger zone.

 

(5) Remember that doing nothing is the biggest risk of all

A strong culture can be one of the organisation's most valuable assets but, if bad habits seep in, it can create feelings of fear among employees and morph into a toxic environment. By measuring psychological safety regularly, and by implementing processes and habits to embed it in your company, you can preserve your culture and keep it healthy too.

Spill provides all-in-one mental health support for businesses through an easy-to-use Slack or MS Teams integration. It’s used (and loved) by Huel, Citymapper, Moonpig and over 250 other progressive companies. Visit the Spill website for more information.