Mental Health Awareness Week: Why Businesses Can’t Afford Not to Be Kind

Be kind

Mental Health Awareness Week: Why Businesses Can’t Afford Not to Be Kind

As promised, we will be publishing a series of blogs in aid of the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

Our second blog comes from the wonderful Melanie Pritchard, who is an ex-lawyer turned corporate wellbeing coach. 

If you are looking to get some training in as lockdown eases, we could not recommend her enough!



Why Businesses Can’t Afford Not to Be Kind

In the face of a global pandemic, kindness has been revealed to be the greatest currency of all.

Nurses and carers continue to be revered for putting their lives on the line for others.

Companies like Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and Crocs have gone viral for offering free products and services to frontline workers.

Innovative movements like Scrub Hub South East London have garnered praise for creating personal protective equipment for our medical professionals from their kitchen tables.

On the other side of the coin, business owners like Richard Branson, Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham have drawn scorn for their seeming disregard for employee and taxpayer wellbeing when kindness should seem like a drop in the ocean of their privilege.

In short, against the backdrop of one of the biggest crises the world has ever seen, kindness has been feted as the jewel in the crown of humanity, lending credence to the notion that: “Your dreams will have greater meaning when they’re tied to the betterment of others.”

And with the pandemic putting mental health on everyone’s agenda, there has never been a more powerful time to reflect on the power of kindness to organisational success.

For while it’s easy for companies to fixate on bottom line results in a time of such gross economic flux, employers have a bigger pandemic on their hands – the psychological impact of Covid19. For though only a small percentage will contract the virus, 100% of employees will be psychologically affected by it. Whether exhausted home-schooling parent, fearful carer, isolated single dweller or bereaved relative, mental health triggers are across the board, disrupting the workplace like never before.

Now more than ever, companies have a duty of care to employees even if they are not in the office. If anything, they need to be more aware of stresses in employees’ lives.

According to Mental Health First Aid England, at least 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with stress, depression and anxiety costing businesses almost 70 million days off sick and UK employers £26 billion every year through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity. That’s roughly the value of the entire legal services economy in the UK.

And that was before the pandemic.

Simply put, businesses cannot afford not to be kind.

And if this sounds like mumbo jumbo, think again.

Kindness is endorsed by the number one New York Times bestselling author Tom Rath and renowned leadership consultant Barry Conchie in a study carried out with 10,000 followers who were asked what the most influential leaders contribute to their lives. They replied trust, compassion, stability and hope. You got it – kindness is key, supporting studies that show happy employees are the most productive employees. With over 85% of employees stating they would rather tell their boss they have the flu than mental illness and over 80% of managers admitting they are prejudiced against someone suffering from mental ill health, however, it seems we still have a way to go in the compassion stakes.

Brené Brown, the human connection specialist and one of the most popular Ted Talk speakers of all time also stresses the power of kindness in relationship building: ‘Empathy drives connection’. Think really listening to what someone is saying instead of rushing to a solution and reserving judgment about how they seem or how they should feel versus how they really are. For if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s how relative stress is.

One working mother’s stress home-schooling children may be a lonely widower’s dream while a furloughed employee’s desperation may seem a lifeline to someone who is unemployed or chronically ill. We are not the same. We all have different stressors and we are all affected by stress differently. The one common ground is mental health, as evidenced by every hand going up at the start of my Mental Health First Aid courses when I ask attendees if they know someone who has been affected by mental illness. Yet despite this prevalence and over 70% of line managers saying they feel responsible for employee wellbeing, only 20% of companies invest in Mental Health First Aid which helps employees spot the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to refer colleagues to professional help. This kind of training is essential in speeding recovery and minimising crisis occurring.

While our genes contribute some 50% to our vulnerability levels, there are other invisible factors at play beneath outward measures of ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ you may have no idea about in a colleague, such as their upbringing and personal circumstances at home. For one person, relationship breakdown may cause temporary stress, for another it may spark depression. While a build-up of challenges may strengthen resilience in one colleague, it may spark a breakdown in another. We are not the same.

So how can you spot the signs of mental illness versus stress?

In a word, kindness.

Taking an active interest beyond the niceties of surface level chit chat so you know what’s going on in someone’s life – as we have all been pushed to now.

Expressing concern if you notice a shift in someone’s norms be they the shy colleague who becomes exuberant or vice versa – these changes may just be temporary or they may be a giveaway for mental illness from anxiety or depression or something worse.

If someone seems down more than up for at least 14 days, they may be struggling with more than just stress. If in doubt, trust your gut and ask them how they are.

And though some assume mental illness is obvious, it can be a subtle and complex beast. Physical signs may include weight loss or weight gain, poor hygiene, sad body language, tiredness or fatigue while behavioural signs may include moodiness, irritability, tearfulness, withdrawal, poor performance, physical illness, taking sick days, turning up late for work, frequent complaints, moaning about aches and pains or aggression.

More complex still, mental illness can be entirely internal, hidden beneath the rather sinister phrase: ‘there were no signs’, sometimes heard after suicide. For while struggle may be obvious in one person, it may be entirely psychological in another hidden inside in irrational thoughts, low self-esteem or hopelessness about the future. Think the Robin Williams, life and soul of the party whose difficulties may be masked beneath the smile. When I ask Mental Health First Aid attendees if they can think of someone in their life like this, most hands go up.

This is pretty worrying when we consider 85 men take their lives every week in the UK (nearly 400 a month). In other words, we have a silent epidemic on our hands with far less coverage than Covid-19. It’s so often a kind word or gesture from a caring colleague or manager that bridges the gap between stress and crisis.

If in doubt, remember the aim of the game is simply to make colleagues feel cared for. And if you worry, as many do, that your words may make it worse, remember, being genuine is one of the core components of counselling for a reason so focus on more authenticity, less perfection. Besides, our words only amount to about 35% of the impact of our communication – the rest is determined by our tone of voice, pace, body language and sincerity. As Maya Angelou said: ‘People will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did but they’ll never forget how you made them feel’.

Mental health initiatives see a return of $4 for every $1 spent – with the average cost of unsupported mental health in the UK consuming 99 million sick days, at a cost of £1,300 per employee and £36billion to the UK economy – per year. That’s £130k a year for 100 employees. We cannot afford not to be kind.

If there’s one thing businesses can take from the true heroes of the pandemic, the NHS, let it be this: kindness is key to success in the truest sense. For as Aesop said: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”.