Navigating the Evolution of Mental Health Conversations in the Workplace

13 May 2024

I’ve been at Steps for over 15 years.  That’s a long time – and people often ask me why I’ve stayed!  Aside from feeling a part of a brilliant, curious and passionate team of genuinely lovely colleagues – the work is so, so interesting.  No two days ever feel the same, the role continues to stretch and inspire me and the work we do is ever evolving – so there are always new challenges to face, new topics to explore and new clients to share our approach with.  Personally I find the work we do hugely rewarding and valuable too.  As someone that passionately believes in relationships, communication and the power of human connection – I’m so lucky that my job allows me to deliver what I believe in, everyday.

Before this all gets too self-indulgent – let me also broaden the lens…  There are programmes we design at Steps that I genuinely believe are life-changing for people.  We work across a number of different topic areas – but one topic that has increased significantly over the past few years is our approach to effective Mental Health conversations.  We have delivered programmes on this topic for over 10 years, but as the external pressures change – so has our approach and, having seen this ‘evolution’ I really believe that what we create is unique and unrivalled in its ability to connect and inspire change in individuals around this vital aspect of our health and lives.

We know the pandemic had a significant effect on individuals, with marginalised groups often disproportionately affected.  The transition to remote or hybrid working has also not been without challenge, and this has also made it more challenging for managers and leaders to spot the warning signs of mental ill health and for colleagues to remain ‘connected’ as they work disparately.  From school age children to students and from graduates to seniors – it’s well documented that our mental health is under pressure across the generations, and due to a range of pressures.  It is, undoubtedly, an issue for our society and our age – and one that needs careful thought and compassion across the board if we are to effect meaningful change.

For a lot of our clients, they’re unsure how to tackle this topic.  It’s sensitive.  It’s deeply personal for people.  There are fears and stigmas that play out within organisations and there are HR legalities and compliance issues that arise when we talk about health, absence and adjustments.  How do we make this difficult topic a part of everyday conversation?  How do we help people to build trust and relationships that allow for honest disclosure and discussion?  How can we create division-wide or firm-wide change, when the topic is so incredibly personal and unique to each individual?  How do we avoid perpetuating fear or stigma in the content we create, and how do we deliver this in ways that feel safe and supportive for learners?

These are important questions – and ones that, I’m happy to say, can most certainly be overcome.  Firstly, it might be surprising to know that large-group approaches can actually work really well when addressing the topic of mental health at work.  Though it’s a highly personal subject, there is a sense of ‘safety in numbers’ and a degree of positive ‘anonymity’ that is afforded when working in a large group.  Carefully crafted approaches will ensure that individuals do not ‘hide’ in a group – but rather feel their experience/s can be validated through larger group sharing, and the fact that they do not feel over-exposed can actually be liberating in how they can explore their own mental wellness and their approach to the mental health of others.

We delivered in this way for BAE Systems – who opted for a one-day live conference approach – using drama to bring behaviours to life and group discussions and interactions to elicit responses, build trust in team groups and encourage honest conversations.  MD Steve Fogg reflected; “People forget they’re in a programme.  Here they have the chance to suggest change and learn from it – and that’s the real beauty of using Steps. We had 120 people in there [who will now] convince all their colleagues to go on this programme. If we just change one attitude, if it means one person feels they can seek support – then that’s an excellent outcome. ’

Secondly, you might think that what I’ve said about human connection means that working in person would be vital.  Sure, there’s a power and energy in being together – but it’s not always practical.  The success of working ‘live’ on a topic such as mental health depends on many factors – not least the size of the teams/organisation, how ‘disparate’ teams are in terms of location and working hours – but also the prevailing culture – which might help or hinder honest conversations.  You might be surprised to know that scalable, self-led learning can work in this space – providing that it’s carefully designed and thoughtfully produced.

I was lucky enough to work with a leading retail bank who, having delivered live sessions for their manager population, responded to overwhelming feedback from their people that the whole company should experience the programme.  In collaboration, together we developed a bank-wide digital self-led and on-demand modular programme – using video, drama techniques and characterisations to bring mental health conversations to life in a way that felt authentic and resonant for their people.  The programme received 5* feedback ratings across the board and we are hugely proud of its impact.  Learners told us it ‘didn’t shy away from the real-life difficult conversations leaders and managers need to have’ and; ‘It was amazing.  In my 15 years at the bank, it is by far the best self-led learning I’ve ever done’.

Of course I would say that our work is unrivalled in this space – but it’s too important a topic to be flippant in that assertion. I say it, because I’ve seen change happen.  I’ve heard of instances where the outcomes from our session have been life-changing and even life-saving for individuals.  We are often asked about how we evaluate our work – and there are ways we can do that – but there are also times when the impact of our work cannot be quantified through standard ‘measures’ of success – and never moreso than when we are talking about mental health conversations.

If you would like to see our experiential approach to this topic in action – you’re very welcome to join the open session on 23 May (event joining details here), alternatively we’d welcome the chance to connect with you and chat further about making mental health conversations an integral part of your organisation.

Meet the Author