‘We’re humans every day’: how to prioritise mental health all year round

Petra Velzeboer, CEO and founder of mental health consultancy PVL, shares her thoughts on how organisations can proactively prioritise mental health and wellbeing

Why is it so important for organisations to prioritise wellbeing every day, not just when staff face difficulties?

Because we’re humans every day! Not just once a quarter, or once a year, or whenever the initiative days are. Those are great for building awareness among people who don’t know much about it and I’d always say that’s a great place to start, but we’re humans every day. We’re dealing with challenges every day and our mental health moves up and down every day. So, why are we not talking about mental health every day? 

That doesn’t mean every day we have to do three hours of deep therapeutic tears or meditating on a hill. It means taking advantage of the small opportunities every day that just allow us to show up as who we are.

Is there often a disconnect between what organisations say about their stance on mental health and the actual culture?

There are many companies that are doing wonderful things and there are many companies that are saying they’re doing wonderful things. They’ll say: “We’ve got this ERG [employee resource group], we’ve got this committee, we’ve got mental health first aiders.” It looks like they’re ticking all the boxes and having it covered. 

But within five minutes, I can scratch beneath the surface and say: “I’m really curious. When you have those ERG meetings or when you have those champion get-togethers, do any of them check in about each other’s mental health or talk about it?” And they’ll say: “No, no, nobody talks about it.” 

I’ll say: “Have you ever accessed the resources?” And if there’s a minority that says yes, many say no. Then I’ll ask: “Does anyone know that?” They’ll say: “Oh, no, I haven’t told anyone.” These are the signs that I notice. You’ve got all the bells and whistles, but it’s how you show up. If it’s still deeply uncomfortable to do any of those things, that tells me that you’ve got a bit of a way to go.

If many people still don’t feel comfortable opening up at work, what are your tips for businesses to create a more approachable and open culture?

The way to create a more open culture is, first of all, to get the buy-in from the top. You need senior-level leadership to get it, to understand the business case. And if they have experienced poor mental health themselves, they may be extra passionate and bring the topic forward. 

But it’s the small ways of practising it [that make a difference]. For example, when a leader, but also any person, is open themselves in small ways throughout their day. It doesn’t have to be this big “I’ve got a story to tell” moment, it can just be “I really struggled getting my kids off to school this morning, it really affected my mental health and I’m going to try and get an early night to help manage that.”

In the age of hybrid working, how can businesses support their staff when they are in the office less frequently?

Some [organisations] are saying you are required to be in the office from this time to this time on these days. It could be that those are different days from their team, or that, if their team are all coming in, they’re all on video calls because of the 30% that are still virtual. 

We’re losing the opportunity to engage in an intentional way. Whereas before it could be quite organic – grab a cup of tea, have those conversations in that way – these days, we’ve actually got to put some structure around it. That means welcoming people, having a little bit of space for small talk, asking perhaps a question or going into breakout groups.

I’m an advocate for the conversation with your team of “let’s discuss how we work, not just what we do,” and take a collaborative approach to what that looks like for you, in your team, in your industry. And then keep connecting on it every quarter to just check in. Are we still getting it right? How are people feeling? What do we need to do differently?