How to Create a Mentally Healthy Workplace
Sarah Restall is Director of the InsideOut Charter, which works with senior leaders to have important conversations about the mental health of their workforce, tackling stigma and inaction. An active artist and campaigner, she has had a wonderfully creative and empowering journey, embracing life’s wonder and sharing her infectious energy with the world.
Our mental health has always been important to look after, but as the lasting effects of COVID-19 are still unknown, it’s crucial to share our lived experience with those who can offer support. As our workplaces are changing and isolation is increasingly felt across the world, how can we help create a mentally healthy environment for ourselves and others? I caught up with Sarah to find out more about her story and her fierce determination to make social change on the top of everyone’s agenda.
Who are you and what’s your story?
I arrived in the UK 15 years ago as a high school art teacher and left teaching after one a half years. I was teaching in a variety of schools with children that were difficult to help, experiencing mental health problems and difficult home stories. As a teacher I had a strength in art, as I’m also a working artist. I was good at developing programmes for helping young people to create, and I was good at people management through motivating and inspiring people through empathy. That was my real gift.
I left to work for Ingeus, which would make bids to the government to work with client lists of long term unemployed people including; rough sleepers, refugees, ex offenders, lone parents and people with disabilities. We would work with them on one to one basis to get long term sustainable employment. Through that work I started working with employers -because there’s a symbiosis there. When you’re looking at sustainable employment, it needs to add value to the employer and the employee. I would ask them to give me their list of everything they could dream of as we wanted to place people in jobs that worked for them, their families, and for where they lived.
I delivered a course for young people called Gateway to Work, which was about personal development, confidence building, communication skills and self awareness. It looked at the partnership between who you are as a human being and understanding the value that adds to anything you do in life, including work. I’m interested in how we take a special individual human being, and add to their lives by working with employers. Working is good for people, it can provide people with purpose, an income, an understanding of the world. The amount of people I've met that I wouldn't have met if I wasn't employed is wonderful. It has added such diversity and enrichment to my life and my horizons have been broadened because of it. The best way to not be forced into a job is to find something that plays to your strengths and encourages you to be as much of your authentic self as you possibly can.
How can workplaces encourage conversations around their wellbeing?
A quote that still inspires me to this day is from Sir Ian McKellen who said that when he came out, he became a better actor, because he didn’t need to act twice. (Sarah notes that she has been using this quote for YEARS now but can't find the exact quote so caveats it with that she may have made it up herself!)
I believe we are at our best when we’re not performing beneath a layer. What I do in my current job is to really encourage people to bring your whole self to the workplace, for the sake of wellbeing and performance. The whole point is to be open about mental wellbeing but you need to be self aware first. We teach people how to have open conversations, not to be afraid of judgement, and to value differences in the workplace. If you set up an inclusive environment with a framework, people can be themselves and abide by the cultural framework. A part of building a positive mental health strategy is starting with it being a culture piece. It’s not just an add-on that addresses mental health. You can say it’s a cultural piece and commit to it as an umbrella that sits over diversity.
My pet peeve is the use of diversity and inclusion. I would love to see it changed to diversity and enrichment. The world inclusion in itself is quite excluding. Like tolerance. The word itself is divisive. Speak about the enriching qualities that people from different backgrounds and experiences can actually bring. This is important because we're a world filled with different people and different experiences and there’s value in that. Open up conversations and encourage people to speak openly about how they’re doing.
You’re now Director of the Inside Out Charter - can you tell us what that is?
I’m the Director of the Inside Out Charter, and the associated social enterprise is InsideOut LeaderBoard. It was started by Rob Stephenson who originally pulled it together because he wanted senior leaders to address stigma for people leading the way through lived experiences. I now manage the leaderboard as well. Every year we publish a list of senior leaders who are happy to be open about their personal experience of mental health problems.
InsideOut Charter Leadership Principles (source:https://inside-out.org/charter/)
As a result of the Thriving at Work report released in 2017, the Stephenson / Farmer Review, Rob decided he wanted a charter to put together. We know why senior leadership is important - you can't move forward without buy in from stakeholders. The leaderboard provides a framework of support for people to really engage leadership boards with the mental health agenda. I work with senior leaders to share their stories and tackle that stigma through the leaderboard. I work with heads of HR and diversity and inclusion(Including PWC, Tesco, Investors in People) to engage mental health strategy to get senior leaders to back that agenda.
You’re also a very talented artist. Can you tell us about your creative process and what it means to you?
My father’s a photographer and my mum’s an artist. I was raised in a yacht in the Marlborough Sounds and was home schooled. I think I learned to read music before I read words. Art and music have been stitched into my daily life, in the same way that spirituality can be stitched into daily life. What is it about this one thing that humans do, what is creativity? For me I’m trying to explore ideas. I use the medium of paint as a way of resolving ideas I have in my head. Someone else might want to communicate something, sharing their imagination with the outside world but I don’t do it for the audience. Art, music, baking, tapestry, dancing, it’s a bridge to another universe. It’s our way of communicating with another universe, or a universe in our own selves with the outside world. The result of the creativity is the bridge, but those two modes - what’s reality and what’s happening in another swirling wonderful universe of psyches and consciousness- is creativity for me.
Sarah at her latest sell-out exhibition in Margate
The art I’m developing at the moment is a journey, so you can follow it as a chronological road that explores spontaneous pattern making. Someone left a book in my studio when I was 19 on chinese philosophy. I was taken by the idea of how everything is linked. That idea of impact and influence and that spontaneous pattern making idea has stayed with me. It's something in nature you can explore - one star does influence another star on the other side of the universe. I’m very inspired by nature and the idea of organic shape making that can together form larger patterns. At the moment because of where I live (Margate) I’m inspired by the light, the way it hits the water.
My artwork takes me a really long time to do, a part of that is my meditation. It accesses that same calm spot in my brain. I almost go into a meditative trance, building up surfaces. The longer I can make that experience, the better it feels to me. Tranquil bliss that the receivers in my brain are tuning into.
How do you look after your own mental health?
Mental health is health. So the way I look after myself is that I look after the body that my brain lives in as well. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a good night's sleep. I need around 6 hours, ideally 7. Understanding your sleep pattern is really important - a dark room, a go to bed routine. Looking after what I eat - I eat delicious food, I don't diet, but I think about what food is doing to me. Not overeating too much grease or sugar, or processed food. I appreciate what I need. I don’t abuse alcohol or drugs but don’t have judgement on that. I check in with my form lately (see the wonderful Form Score app developed by Rob for info). Every day I take a note of how I’m doing. If I see myself drop two days in a row, I look at what’s happening and try to rectify that. Getting outside into the light is what keeps me well. I also have a really good relationship with my boss. The work that the charter takes could be as big or as small as I want to make it - my boss trusts me to do what I can and not work too hard. I make time in my life to make art, to see people, to walk.
I understand that the nature of my job allows that, but look at your role. Have a look at what provides you with money and think about ‘what is it that I can do to improve my life but not take away from my job?’ It actually improved my job because it makes me like my job more. Also being honest with myself, being allowed to be wrong. Being right all the time is very exhausting.
The conversation around mental health has rightly become a central topic for workplaces. Do you think there was a catalyst, or what changed the tide in that regard?
Often cultural change is slow so no catalyst. It takes a bunch of things to make cultural change happen including government action. Government needs to make legislation to add to the curriculum. We need cultural groups, churches and community groups. The media plays an important role. If you look back to 15 years ago people would frown upon talking about homosexuality in the workplace. But the government published the Equalities Act so it became illegal to discriminate due to sexuality. Schools were teaching sexuality in schools, challenging homophobia in the classroom. Then you see it in the media - Stephen Fry, Eastenders, Friends etc. They were speaking about it and making it part of the conversations.
Time to Change was revolutionary (a mental health campaign in England, launched in 2007 with the objective of reducing mental health-related stigma and discrimination). Rethink and Mind were two charities behind the campaign but their remit was to be there when people reached crisis point. They wanted to attack stigma and start campaigning. Time to Change campaigned in schools, workplaces and communities., challenging media storylines, and its use of language to take away the stigma.
Time to Change Video
It’s become more amplified since COVID-19 - what’s had to happen is a quick knee jerk reaction to a very swift change to how we work as a nation and globally. Organisations already saw this as important as there was evidence to suggest that the benefit of mental health support was of financial benefit. It is a slow stone rolling down a gentle slope. But Covid was a cliff, and the stone went over the cliff to magnify the importance of mental health during the pandemic. No-one is going through this without a mental shift.
What are the most common challenges that organisations experience when looking after the mental health of their workforce? And how can they be overcome?
I think a big common challenge is that it will never be a 'one size fits all'. It's worth noting that this is a WONDERFUL issue to have. Diversity within your workforce is not limited to race and gender etc but also comes with the value of diversity of working styles and ways people communicate. As a challenge it means that some careful steps need to be managed. In the first instance, temperature check your audience and do a stock-take of what you already have on offer. Speak with your comms team (or if you are small, speak to all your employees) and find out how best to communicate with them. You may find that putting something on the intranet only reaches one person where a poster in the staff bathroom hits 90%! With changes to our working style, are your staff who work from home interested in emails? Have you tried Whatsapp groups? Do apps tick the boxes or are your staff more about a casual weekly catch up over Zoom? It is worth knowing all of this before you embark on a wellbeing programme.
What advice would you give to micro businesses that may not have time, resources or budget to develop a mental health policy, or don’t know where to start?
If you are small then you are at an advantage as you will be able to know all of your colleagues personally. Start with building mental health into your culture and see if you can do it as a group. Policy means something that is embedded. So look to have a line in your vision and values that addresses mental wellbeing and make sure you are including a question on mental wellbeing in your one to ones. Really useful resources are available online too (see: https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/) and you are welcome to book a call with me to chat through options also. The InsideOut Charter is an ideal way to start your journey as you will receive bespoke support as a part of your membership and a framework based on the Thriving at Work report.
If you would like to find out more about mental health in the workplace, visit the links below or drop Sarah a message here: https://inside-out.org/contact/
Inside Out Charter: https://inside-out.org/charter/
Inside Out Leaderboard: https://inside-out.org/leaderboard/
Mental Health At Work: https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/
Form Score: https://www.formscore.today/