On 15 June 2022 we held a webinar – “The sticking plaster and the stairwell” – in collaboration with the mental wellbeing charity Jonathan’s Voice and Illuminate VR Services. It explored how organisations can best look after their employees’ mental wellbeing. Penelope Aspinall (Jonathan’s Voice) and Lisa Whittleton (Illuminate) led the presentations. These were followed by a discussion panel of IP professionals, chaired by Graham McCartney, co-founder of Jonathan’s Voice.
This blog post written by Susan Nelson (an intern for IP Inclusive) highlights the key points that were discussed. You can access a recording of the main presentations, and the speakers’ slides, here.
The presentation opened with a discussion of the metaphor of a sticking plaster and a stairwell. This is a helpful tool that enables us to understand the type of mental wellbeing support that an organisation should be providing. A sticking plaster is used to control the bleeding of a minor cut. Similarly, some measures that deal with mental wellbeing act like a plaster. They simply react to one problem and do not address the whole issue. Contrastingly, a stairwell is a structure which is stable, provides solidarity and enables you to access an entire building. This reflects what mental wellbeing policies should be. They should go through the entire organisation and provide stability. In short, organisations should be adopting a stairwell approach to mental wellbeing rather than a sticking plaster.
What do we mean by mental health?
Before analysing the stairwell metaphor in greater detail, the presenters discussed the meaning of mental wellbeing. It was made clear that mental health should be thought of in the same way as physical health. Like physical health, our mental health is on a continuum. We can think of our mental health as a sliding scale. At the one end is poor mental health and at the other, good. At any point, we can be anywhere on the scale. But it is complex, and just like with our physical health, we could be living with a mental health condition, such as Bipolar Affective Disorder, and experience good day-to-day mental wellbeing. Similarly, even if we have generally “good” mental health, it doesn’t mean we don’t have times when we feel down, worried, angry etc. That’s just about being human.
The presenters then moved on to discuss the stairwell metaphor in more depth. As mentioned above, a stairwell approach to mental wellbeing can be thought of as measures taken throughout the whole organisation which aim to achieve a positive mental wellbeing culture. This approach comprises three tiers: preventative measures, proactive measures, and reactive measures.
Preventative measures are the most important measures an organisation can implement. These measures are aimed at all staff and seek to create an environment that enables everyone’s mental health to thrive. Examples of preventative measures include ensuring staff feel valued, appreciated and respected; developing a psychologically safe environment where people feel able to discuss mental wellbeing; having policies in place which promote a good work-life balance, such as sickness absence policies and flexible working arrangements; realistic job designs and workloads; and management actively reviewing employees’ workloads.
Proactive measures involve anticipating and taking action to address certain areas where staff mental health is likely to be more vulnerable. For example, this could involve looking at which employees are under additional pressure and finding tailored solutions which suit them and mitigate their risk of poor mental health. Similarly, if an organisation is aware that a challenging event is coming up (such as a tight deadline), they can ensure there are measures in place that promote good mental health in the period leading up to the event. Another proactive measure is to train managers to recognise when their colleagues are struggling. Employees can then intervene early and provide reasonable adjustments before poor mental health escalates.
Reactive measures are those which respond to an employee who is starting to suffer from poor mental health (sticking plaster measures). These are the policies which many organisations put in place. Examples of these include signposting to relevant help; providing access to counselling; having mental health first aiders; and providing supportive measures such as sickness absence policies. They can be useful, but are much more effective if underpinned by the other two.
This three-tiered approach is explained in more detail in the excellent Jonathan’s Voice guide for senior leaders in the IP profession, which is available to download for free from their website.
Why it matters
Discussions then turned to the benefits of establishing a culture that supports mental wellbeing. Firstly, an organisation that is supportive of mental wellbeing is attractive to would-be employees. This is an important consideration to many when deciding which organisation they want to work for. Secondly, it is good for an organisation’s staff retention rates. The happier employees are, the more likely they are to stay. Thirdly, good mental health boosts productivity and is therefore cost-effective. Finally, ethically it is the right thing to do.
How to do it
It was acknowledged that creating a positive mental wellbeing culture can be challenging. There needs to be full commitment by senior leaders within the organisation who are genuinely motivated to do things differently. Similarly, there needs to be an awareness that this culture must be embedded within everything the company does going forward.
Lisa Whittleton highlighted some examples of things that commonly go wrong within organisations, alongside practical steps that can be taken to resolve these issues.
Abandonment was recognised as being a key issue. This occurs when an organisation will not take responsibility for an individual’s wellbeing. Often organisations believe that it is an individual’s responsibility to cope. To avoid this, organisations should recognise that mental wellbeing is a joint responsibility and communicate this to its employees.
Another issue is coddling. Here, the organisation avoids dealing with an issue out of fear that they may get it wrong. For example, an organisation may not record absences because they do not want to make things worse for someone who is already struggling. However, this can result in individuals’ issues going unnoticed. Instead, organisations should facilitate an open dialogue surrounding mental health and enable this to be brought up within performance reviews.
The third issue discussed was toxic positivity. This occurs when negative feelings are denied within an organisation. Organisations can overcome this by encouraging an emotionally agile workplace which enables individuals to speak about poor mental health without being judged. Organisations can also provide support measures to help deal with poor mental health issues.
A once-and-done approach to mental wellbeing was another issue that was raised. These are occasional disjointed measures with no clear narrative. These measures are also not reflective of what people want and need. Instead, regular small scale positive change is better.
Finally, perks and diversions were noted as another measure which does not directly deal with mental wellbeing. These include providing one-off activities such as yoga classes or free breakfasts. Instead, a climate of wellbeing is a more favourable approach. Here, managers and leaders are well equipped to build a positive working environment. Change at the top will then feed down into the organisation.
Where to start
The starting point for any organisation wishing to create a positive mental wellbeing culture is to make a commitment to addressing mental wellbeing. This involves the board considering a range of questions: why wellbeing is important; what wellbeing means to the organisation; how mental wellbeing fits within its values; what problems the organisation is trying to fix; and what our current data is telling us.
Organisations should engage with their employees to understand what is working and what is not when it comes to mental wellbeing. Once this information is gathered, they should choose a few key priorities. The organisation should then communicate to employees one or two actions they will take in order to address these priorities.
After the presentation, there was a panel discussion where various topics were considered.
Firstly, it was noted that mental health first aiders are a key tool for promoting good mental wellbeing within an organisation. However, there was a recognition that these individuals are not counsellors and need support too. It was recognised that IP Inclusive’s mental health first aiders’ network provides a strong support community for these individuals.
Secondly, it was discussed that support staff within an organisation also need support surrounding mental wellbeing. It was felt that in some organisations there is an expectation that because fee earners are coping with their workloads then support staff should be too. Jonathan’s Voice are currently working, with business support professionals in the IP sector, on a new guide specifically for IP paralegals and non-fee earners; keep an eye on their website for updates.
Finally, the panel shared some positive measures their organisations have adopted to promote good mental wellbeing. Hybrid working was praised with video conferencing platforms allowing team members to meet often. This created a sense of community within organisations. Affinity groups were also said to work well within organisations since they enable individuals to share experiences and advice. Equally, mentoring schemes were praised as another way for individuals to support each other.
Overall, organisations should aim to adopt a stairwell approach to mental wellbeing rather than a sticking plaster. A stairwell approach involves introducing a variety of preventative, proactive and reactive measures, all reinforcing one another, which together create a positive mental wellbeing culture throughout the workplace. The first step for any organisation wishing to have a stairwell approach is to make a commitment to address mental wellbeing. After this, the organisation will be well on its way to ensuring it is best looking after its employees’ mental wellbeing.
Please get in touch
Both Jonathan’s Voice and Illuminate VR would be delighted to hear from you if you’d like to discuss your own organisation’s needs in more detail.
- The Jonathan’s Voice team can provide free advice, seminars, workshops, talks and other forms of support and are happy to visit you in person: contact them via their website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Lisa and her team at Illuminate can provide organisational wellbeing strategy guidance, specialist training and mental health first aid (MHFA) training. You can contact them by email at email@example.com, phone them on 07784 558 552 or visit their website for more information. Illuminate will also be providing an online MHFA refresher course for IP Inclusive supporters in November: keep an eye on our events page for details.