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Introducing the 'mental health sick day’ – how we built a mental health policy that makes a real difference

Supporting your team’s mental health in a way that makes a tangible impact is a messy and complex challenge. In many small companies, this can mean settling for paying lip service over actually changing behaviours. In this post, we explore Charlie's journey towards a mental health policy that makes a real difference.

For the first couple of years I worked at Charlie, we had a framed certificate hanging up in the office. We actually moved offices three or four times in that period, but somehow it would always find its way along with us to be mounted on a fresh wall in a new corner of London.

That certificate was the Sanctus Mental Health Pledge and it displayed this promise:

“We pledge to create an open environment where mental health is supported and people can bring their full selves to work."

Beneath were the signatures of Charlie’s founders, Rob O’Donovan, Ben Branson-Gateley and Tom Carrington-Smith.

Over the many months it hung in our office, I must have seen that pledge hundreds of times. Yet as time wore on, I felt it began to encapsulate many of Charlie’s shortcomings when it came to supporting our team’s mental health.

The pledge was there, hanging on the wall, saying all the right things – but it wasn’t having an effect on how we acted in reality. In the same way, we’d allowed there to become a disconnect between the promises we made on mental health and what was really happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Sanctus’ pledge is a fantastic initiative. It’s helped focus attention on the challenge of mental health at hundreds of small businesses, and the work they are doing is absolutely vital.

But I think their team would be first to recognise the trap we'd fallen into – we knew mental health was important, but we’d failed to grasp the nettle and make real changes.

Small companies and the challenge of mental health

That trap is something I think nearly everyone running a small business will recognise.

In 2020, we all understand that work and life have serious overlap. You do not leave your mental health ‘by the door’ when you arrive at work, and what happens in the office always comes home with you. Everyone working in Operations or HR roles at a small company understands better than ever that they have a responsibility to support their team’s mental health.

We all know we should be doing somethingit’s just not clear what that is.

It’s for this reason that most companies end up like we did at Charlie – talking around the mental health problem without it ever translating into real changes to attitude or behaviour.

At the start of the year, Charlie’s CEO Ben Gateley wrote about our commitment to make work better in 2020. One of Ben’s central points was that this mission began with ourselves and how we made work better for the people we had in the room.

If we were going to walk that walk, we needed to change the way we supported our team’s mental health.

‘If you don’t measure something, you can’t improve it’

The first step in changing anything is understanding how you’re going to measure it. Without a set of baseline metrics, we’d never know if our efforts were having an impact – that meant running a survey of our team to find out what was happening on the ground.

So back in November 2019 we ran this survey, asking our team to report on their experiences over the previous 6 months. If I’m honest, the results took me by surprise.

Here’s a breakdown of what we learned:

1 – Half of the Charlie team were using sick days to take time off for mental health reasons.

2 – Over 70% of us were not telling our manager the real reason for that time off...


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3 – ...and nearly a third of the Charlie team weren’t discussing their mental health with their manager at all.

4 – Most of the company had forced themselves to come to work even when their mental health didn’t feel up to it...


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5 – ...and nearly half of the company didn’t even know what they were meant to do in that situation.


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Having seen those numbers, I wasn’t feeling too great about how we were supporting our team at Charlie.

In many respects, Charlie is an incredibly open environment – when it comes to our company finances, our business strategy, hiring decisions and even firing decisions, we will always ‘default to transparency’.

Likewise, we had been successful in creating an honest dialogue around challenges we faced in our work – we’d always worked hard at respecting our team’s boundaries and I don’t think our team was overworked or overstressed.

But when it came to our mental health, those numbers painted a different picture – one of a company that kept mental health challenges from our teammates and hid problems from our managers.

This survey made it really clear that, when it came to building a mental health policy that really did change behaviours, we had plenty of work to do.

How Charlie is supporting our team’s mental health in 2020

Right from the outset of this process, we wanted our new mental health policy to be a catalyst for real change in our behaviours and not just an exercise in lip service.

We wanted to create a positive culture surrounding mental health; one where it’s not seen as taboo but as something we all have to deal with to varying degrees.

The policy we ended up building is very much a work in progress, but I’d like to think that we’re taking steps in the right direction.

If you’re interested in using Charlie’s policy as a reference point, you can download it here.


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One really significant change we made with this policy was the introduction of Personal Days — a new process we set up within Charlie’s HR software in order to bring our new mental health policy to life.

Introducing Personal Days – the ‘mental health sick day’

Using sick leave to take time off for mental health reasons is entirely understandable – all of us occasionally have those days when we just need to take a breather.

But it can also be a damaging habit for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, it means we carry on failing to discuss mental health, reinforcing the stigma that surrounds it.
  2. Secondly, it allows minor problems to go unnoticed until they become really serious challenges.

If we were going to begin dismantling the stigma that surrounds our mental health, we needed to encourage our team to label mental health days for what they really are.

That process began with introducing Personal Days – a special type of time off that allows our team to signal what is really happening in their lives rather than hide behind a ‘Sick Day’ catch-all.

Now, our team can book a Personal Day within our own Charlie account as easily as they’d book a holiday or tell us they were working from home.


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That booking would be logged in Charlie, making sure the rest of the company knows that team member is off work and needs some space.


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Booking a Personal Day in Charlie also creates a notification in our team’s Slack channel, just to make sure we’re not missing a beat.


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If you’d like to find out more about how to use Personal Days in Charlie, you can book a free demo with our team.


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Eight months on — what impact have we made?

The only way we would know if our policy had been successful in breaking down the stigma around mental health would be by measuring its impact.

So, in July 2020, we ran our initial survey for a second time — and we saw some numbers moving in the right direction:

The number of people booking sick leave for mental health reasons has dropped significantly...

This seems to be evidence that Personal Days are working. Now, instead of using sick days to keep mental health issues under wraps, team members have the option of signalling what's really going on in their lives by taking a Personal Day instead.

“I think they are brilliant – an example of our commitment to make work better. I love how they go beyond lip service and actually try and change real-life behaviour.” Anonymous Charlie team member

… and team members now have a much clearer idea of what to do if they experience mental health issues.

Encouragingly, the team’s feedback on Charlie’s introduction of Personal Days was broadly very  positive. The survey brought up two major wins:

1 – Personal Days have indeed helped to break down the stigma around mental health.

Personal Days have helped us build a more open and accepting environment where mental health is seen as part of everyday life:

“I think they're great at breaking down the stigma! It's been great to see people actually using them, it shows that when given the opportunity the team is able to be open and honest about it.” Anonymous Charlie team member

2 – Personal Days have had a real impact on our team's ability to deal with mental health challenges.

“Honestly, they’ve been such a game-changer. It really helps to lessen the guilt when you're just not feeling you can work. Everyone experiences mental health challenges to different degrees so realising that you're not alone, and it's ok to have bad days, really helps in recovery.” Anonymous Charlie team member

On the other hand, the survey also highlighted some areas we still need to improve on.

1 – Team members still aren't talking to their manager about their mental health as much as we'd like.

“I feel uncomfortable booking Personal Days because I feel like I need to explain myself every time, and I'm really worried about starting to look like I'm slacking or over-using the option.” Anonymous Charlie team member

2 – Most people are occasionally working even when their mental health is not up to it.

However – I don’t feel that confident in this latest result as we believe it was largely affected by Covid-19. In the past few months, we’ve all been under unprecedented pressure, self-isolating and working remotely during a pandemic. Most of us have worked at least one day while suffering from stress or anxiety.

However, apart from coronavirus-related issues, we learnt that some team members are not taking Personal Days because they are worried about falling behind on work if they do:

“There's been a couple of days when I probably should have taken a Personal Day, but I felt like I had too much work to do and had too many people relying on me showing up to the office.” Anonymous Charlie team member

While we got some significant wins, there’s still so much we can do to make work better for our team and support their emotional wellbeing. At least now we have a solid basis from which to work from.

The future of Charlie’s mental health policy

At Charlie, we believe that policies are living, breathing documents that need constant fine-tuning. And our mental health policy is no exception.

One of my objectives for the next few months is to review our policy to make sure team members feel comfortable taking Personal Days, without any fear of being judged.

1 - As a first step, we need to get better at supporting people managers and how they broach the subject of mental health with their team. If managers know what to do in these difficult circumstances, that will have a positive impact on the entire team.  

One way we’re planning to approach this is by:

  • Enrolling people managers in specialist external training.
  • Encouraging managers to set an example. This may include talking about their own mental health and booking more Personal Days.
  • Ensuring managers have their team’s mental health as a top priority. Nobody should fear they’ll fall behind on work if they take a Personal Day.
  • Putting mental health more front-and-centre during 1-1s.

I believe these steps will break down some of the barriers that are preventing people from taking Personal Days.

2 - But I’m also conscious we’re still a long way to go. How can we help team members who are taking a lot of Personal Days but are still struggling?

“It's hard to know whether people using personal days are getting support – especially those using them a lot. I think it could be helpful to know what the expectations are for anyone booking a personal day – what happens next?” Anonymous Charlie team member

Personal Days are useful for people who need some space, once in a while, to feel less overwhelmed. But for team members who experience long-term mental health issues, they’re only an initial signposting of the problem.

The future of Charlie’s mental health policy is to build a professional support plan for team members with long-standing mental health issues.

We’ll keep on sharing our journey and what we learn along the way — so watch this space!

If you're looking to build a mental health policy that works for your small business, it's worth checking out our HR Advice service. Our advisors work with you to create bespoke company policies built for your unique business context. To find out more, you can book in a call now.

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