Prioritising Mental Health From The Beginning

In the UK, there are more than 5 million small businesses, which account for almost three-fifths of all private sector employment. Mental Health At Work questioned Sarah Windrum, co-founder and CEO of Emerald Group, about her experiences starting and managing her own SME as part of their focus on smaller workplaces.

What would you do if you could create the culture of your company from scratch? While most of us may only dream of having our own business, individuals who make the leap have the opportunity to establish the foundation for their entire mental health strategy from the planning phases onward.

When Sarah Windrum, co-founder and CEO of The Emerald Group, started her IT support and project management company in 2009, she made this precise decision. “I always promised myself as an employer I would encourage open and honest conversations and I would never shut an employee down when they were talking about their feelings, however difficult that might sometimes be,” she explains.

“I also wanted to empower everyone to better manage their own mental health by sharing my own story and strategies and making information and mental health first aid training readily available.”

Poor employment experiences Sarah had led her to decide to make mental health a priority in her company. “I worked for a small publishing company during a very difficult time for me whilst I was having counselling and CBT to manage my depression and anxiety,” she says. “I tried to have an open and honest conversation with the managing director and I was closed down. It hurt, and made me question everything about my value in the organisation.”

Sarah started by setting a good example. She made the decision to share her personal experience and the methods she employs. “When people see my own management techniques and the flexibility available, they can see how to use it best for themselves,” she says.

To ensure that everyone understands the message, though, hasn’t always been simple. For instance, Sarah once spoke with a worker who instructed her to ‘leave your emotions at the door’. “On the flip side last year I heard one of our apprentices say to another, ‘if you’re late just say you’re struggling with your mental health – she forgives that’,” she says. Sarah was able to have a reasonable and constructive talk in both instances thanks to Emerald’s open and honest culture.

“Because it’s been embedded in the culture from early on, the people who have liked it flourish, and the people whom it doesn’t suit will leave,” she adds. “There has not been many who have chosen to leave, and when I see employees with mental health conditions really thrive and develop their own management techniques whilst delivering great work, it makes it worth it!”

Listening and being adaptable are crucial because those of us who are battling with our mental health will know what we can do to control it.

To better serve its employees, Emerald Group is still modifying and adapting its mental health policy. “Our current strategy is to maintain our open and honest culture by empowering the new second tier management under us as directors to continue the conversations,” Sarah explains. “They are completing mental health first aid training and having one to one coaching to support them.”

The best advice Sarah has for other businesses wanting to enhance their mental health culture is to not be hesitant to have open discussions and ask questions. “Those of us struggling with our mental health will know what we can do to manage it, so listening and being flexible is key,” she adds. “And you will need to invest in mental health training and coaching, just as you invest in skills training to do the job. This is a long term investment that will pay your business back ten-fold.”

At BetterGen we give employers give guidance, training and support on how you can help staff in your business cope with any issues that are playing on their mind. By letting your employees know about the mental health outreach program that BetterGen provides at no cost to them, you can support mental wellbeing at work.

About the author : Andrew Warren