Each week, we ask readers of The Drum, from brands, agencies, and everything in between, for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, they tell us how leaders should be supporting the mental health of their colleagues during this stressful time.
Amid concerns about the physical health of our co-workers during a pandemic, working from home as a historic recession unfolds has likely increased the strain on everyone’s mental wellbeing.
As Guru Gowrappan, the chief executive officer of Verizon Media, wrote here just a few weeks ago, the mental health of staff should surely be among the top priorities of every organisation.
So, to see what companies across the marketing world are doing to support their staff, we asked ad, media, PR, and design agencies, industry bodies and SAAS firms how they were making sure colleagues get through the pandemic.
How do you solve a problem like... supporting your team’s mental health?
Patrick Affleck, chief executive officer, Havas Media Group
When the pandemic hit, our aim was to anchor our staff back to normality as closely as possible, to stop the situation becoming overwhelming. Adapting our Havas Equalise wellbeing programme, we focused on providing a clear message, simply asking that people do their best in difficult circumstances and emphasising that we trusted work would get done.
Over-communication was key, so we used our Wellness Champions to better understand how people were feeling and ran regular leadership Q&A sessions online to address people’s concerns. In addition, we continued to signpost options for support, including line managers, mental health first aiders and our industry charity NABS.
Emma Brock, global head of organisational effectiveness at Wavemaker
There is a long list of factors that have impacted our employees mental health over the past few months. Working remotely, feeling isolated, financial stress, juggling care commitments, job insecurity, health concerns... the list goes on. In many ways, wellbeing and mental health support was seen as a ‘nice to have’ HR bolt-on fringe benefit pre-coronavirus.
This has been flipped on its head and it is now seen as vital in order for us to sustain a healthy, happy, and productive workforce. We’ve ramped up support for our employees in a number of ways – through Mental Health First Aiders on hand to support colleagues, guidance to line managers, access to Employee Assistance Programmes as well as guided meditation, virtual yoga, email curfews, and wellbeing days. There will continue to be turbulence as the world readjusts next year and beyond but our focus on mental health and wellbeing must remain if we want to continue to grow.
Louise Lang, managing director Northern Europe at Virtue
Pretty much all of the fun we usually like to have outside work got cancelled this year. Which left us all with a much bigger amount of available mental space for work to fill – which let’s be honest, is a stressful place to be. In some ways, work has become a bigger presence in everyone’s lives.
You have to up the ante on the things that help. Establish that being empathetic is not just for one appointed person to be good at, it’s a foundational skill in leadership. You have to work at creating an atmosphere where people feel it’s OK to come forward with their struggles. Ultimately people need to feel their issues are legitimate and heard, and they work for an employer who believes it is worthy of their time to help them with.
Ayesha Walawalkar, chief strategy officer at MullenLowe Group
Communication, communication, communication. Adjusting to remote working has shown me that not just checking in but over-communicating is key to making sure struggles don’t go unvoiced
When it comes to mental health, it’s best to put down the Zoom link – we’re all aware of the technical hitches that can happen and actually, an old-fashioned phone call can feel much more natural and personal, and allows you to pick up more easily on verbal cues. Back in the days of office working, policies were in place for people in need of mental health support – but with staff dotted all over now the conversation needs to become as routine and regular as account check-ins.
Nadine Young, chief executive officer, Starcom
In 2020 people’s mental health has been affected by so many more things than usual: work-life balance, worry over physical health, insecurity over jobs, not to mention the emotional exhaustion for the many affected by BLM. Any company worth its salt would by now have committed considerable resource to support people; whether online resources, leadership training, employee helplines.
We offer all of these and more, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year is that ‘initiatives’ are not enough on their own. Company leaders have to create a culture where people feel like they belong because only this will make people feel safe enough to take the first step – seeking help. If that culture of belonging isn’t there, no online training, no ‘initiatives’ are going to make any difference.
Queenie Lo, chief executive officer, Uxus
We sought to support each employee on an individual basis, offering phone calls away from the camera or one-to-one meet-ups for coffee when Covid restrictions permitted. The real difference we noticed was the shift from solely professional communication lines to more personal conversations that perhaps didn’t exist to the same extent.
We learnt more about one another’s lives away from work, discovering we have a lot more in common than being simply colleagues. One great initiative that emerged from these conversations was ‘The Uxus Cookbook’, where each team member submitted a recipe to reflect their home cuisine and nationality, and we printed it, sending it out to each team member. I think during these times there was a real appreciation to receive something physical, and it was great to celebrate Uxus’ diversity in such a creative way.
Dave King, chief marketing officer, Asana
With the uncertainty of the pandemic, shift to remote work, and ongoing social injustice, supporting the team’s mental health and wellness has never been more important. We expanded our global benefits to offer therapy through Modern Health in addition to free executive and life coaching. In addition to our policy of No Meeting Wednesdays, we established regular company-wide days off and continuously encourage Asanas to take time to rest and recharge. Lastly, we have ongoing manager training on inclusive leadership and team wellness. We’re all getting better at regularly asking the question ’how are you doing, really?’
Diana Tickell, chief executive officer, NABS
While we support the industry’s wellbeing, we must also support the wellbeing of everybody on the NABS team. We’ve learned that online it’s more helpful to create structured spaces to do that, rather than the more relaxed social sessions we enjoyed in the office. To that end, we introduced NABS Reconnects, a popular monthly wellbeing session to bring the team together, where staff benefit from guided activities and conversations to help them reflect on and share experiences. This encourages interaction between colleagues who aren’t getting to see each other, and the sessions give everybody a real boost.
Anne Stagg, UK chief executive officer, Merkle
Our leadership team quickly doubled down on how best to support our people, who were making significant shifts to support their clients. We were visible, accessible, and human.
Initially, there was intense over-communication to provide transparency, reassurance, and stability and we created forums for people to share experiences and concerns. We were open about the challenges we were seeing and experiencing. We made it ok for people to say: “I’m struggling”.
We led the way on taking breaks, and getting outside and away from our desks to ensure we were ‘working from home’ not ‘living at work’. We set boundaries and times when we were not available and with family.
Being seen in our own homes was a great leveller. Dogs barking, doorbells ringing and babies crying during calls were made light of and became the norm. Homeschooling was a huge challenge so being flexible on working hours and deadlines showed we care.
Victoria Usher, founder and chief executive officer, GingerMay
Promoting a healthy work-life balance has been at the heart of our business since it was founded and our trained mental health first aiders are always on hand to give extra support, particularly during Covid-19.
We know a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for everyone; flexibility and listening are key. We’ve implemented daily check in calls, afternoon tea and chats sessions, and optional virtual socials to help relieve the pressure of working in the lockdown. More recently, the shorter days have taken priority so we’re supporting staff who want to take extended lunch breaks for some time outside in the daylight.
Michelle Miller, director of people and culture, Madwell
2020 has been a trying year for mental health and the workplace. But the circumstances have also pressured us to experiment, and for that reason, it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve been pushed into greater flexibility and forced to examine long-held beliefs about what work “should” look like. We’ve learned the difference that talking openly about mental health makes.
Making sure staff know how to access our mental health resources seems simple, but it’s crucial. Covid-19 has also accelerated loneliness as a trend, so making a point to check on employees living alone, and creating opportunities to connect, is a must.
Sue Roche, chief talent officer, McKinney
The pandemic caused “work” and “home” to become inextricably intertwined, so we pivoted, shifting and stepping up our EMEX team’s efforts, making sure our people (and their families) had everything needed to stay healthy and happy while working from home.
This includes everything from free-to-employee counseling, a kids’ storytime via Zoom that creates moments of joy (hopefully making working/parenting a little easier), virtual cocktails or coffee with our chief executive Joe Maglio, as well as McKinney Mixers: we created an algorithm that links employees with similar interests so they can enjoy after-hours get-togethers. And we make sure to celebrate employee milestones — everything from marriages to new homes, or even a new puppy. All little things that add up to a lot. Basically, we want our employees to know our EMEX team is with them every step of the way.