Alex Currie: An open and honest workplace culture is the key to addressing mental health at work

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Alex Currie, GoCompare
Alex Currie, head of HR at GoCompare, talks about his experiences with anxiety and how it has increased his commitment to an open discussion about mental health in the workplace.

If people living with mental health conditions had visible symptoms, would others be able to empathise better? Would it be easier for colleagues and managers to talk about mental health openly?

Research by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) published in October shows:

  • Rates of moderate to extreme anxiety and depression among employees has increased by 30.5% since 2013
  • Part-time employees appear to be worse off, with the figure among this group having risen by more than a third
  • Access to therapy remains restricted with only 17% of people with common mental health conditions currently able to access publically provided therapy services.

The numbers illustrate the need for HR leaders to take action in addressing mental health concerns in the workplace. Without the ability to effectively support staff members, we could easily experience an absence epidemic due to mental health issues, which could have a negative impact on business growth and profit.

Of course, my motivation to implement an effective mental health policy within my own workplace isn’t completely down to ensuring our staff retention and absence figures meet targets. I have had my own experiences with mental health which helped to open my eyes to the very real need for greater support within workplaces.

In 2012 I experienced my first panic attack while going about my day-to-day routine at work. I suddenly experienced tightness in my chest. I started to feel nauseous and attempted to make my way to the toilet. I began to hyperventilate, became dizzy and was overcome with a feeling of dread. At this moment, I honestly felt as if I were going to die. It took several panic attacks on a daily basis for several months for me to finally be diagnosed with acute general anxiety disorder.

I understand all too well the reluctance to tell a manager or team leader about mental health issues, as most of the time the person experiencing the mental health problem doesn’t understand it themselves. Often, worrying and hiding the condition will make it worse. When I finally plucked up the courage to talk about the issues I had, I felt relieved. Talking about my condition and how my manager could support me really lifted a weight.

At GoCompare, I’m proud that I’ve contributed to building an environment where there’s no stigma around talking about mental health, and want to help other businesses improve their own policies.

Below are some tips, which are taken from our own policies and initiatives.

Knowing your staff members

How can you improve staff wellbeing if you don’t know where the level is currently and don’t temperature check regularly? If you have a staff survey, check that there are questions in there centred on wellbeing and mental health. Do your employees feel they can talk about mental health? How often do they feel stressed at work?

Training

It’s important that a manager, at any level of the business, knows how to spot the signs of stress in their team members. Managers may well be the first point of contact for employees struggling with mental health and they see them on a daily basis, so ensure they’re trained in understanding mental health and offering support around the subject.

Of course, it’s all well and good for managers to be able to spot stress, but it’s important to also encourage employees to take note of their own mental wellbeing. Courses are available for businesses to give to their employees which educate them on mental robustness and coping mechanisms. We regularly hold these courses alongside other wellbeing initiatives, such as massage, boot camp and distributing healthy snacks to ensure our colleagues have a holistic approach to good mental wellbeing.

Access to support

If an employee felt like their mental health was at risk, do they have anyone to turn to who isn’t their line manager? We offer employees access to an impartial and entirely confidential counselling service, as well as a 24-hour helpline should they need support. Even signposting employees to these services in the local area can encourage conversation around the topic.

 

Every company has the ability to do something to support their employees with mental health struggles. You don’t need a huge budget or even a bespoke programme, simply creating a culture where people feel it’s ok to talk without being judged and that they’ll be supported is the biggest and perhaps the most powerful thing you can do.

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About Alex Currie

Alex Currie is head of human resources at GoCompare. Having studied law at university, Alex launched his career in HR and now has almost ten years of experience working with both big brands and smaller companies. He is committed to improving mental health in the workplace, and ensuring employees feel comfortable talking about any struggles without fear or stigma.

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