Experts discuss how to look after your mental health at work

October 10th saw the celebration of the annual World Mental Health Day – intended to educate, reduce stigma and raise awareness of mental illness in its many varied forms. Mental illness can affect someone in any number of ways – their social life, their relationships, their self care or their work life.

This week at Virgin HQ, I chatted to a number of experts – Vanessa King, positive psychologist and board member for Action for Happiness, Vanessa Boachie, founder & creative director of charity Inside Out, Poppy Jamie, founder of the Happy Not Perfect app, and Andrew Brown, head of corporate partnerships at mental health charity CALM – on how to manage mental health in the workplace.

The work environment can be a particularly stressful place, as Poppy pointed out. She referenced the burnout and stress that many people feel – particularly if they’re running their own business and feel under pressure to succeed. Social media doesn’t help, she argued – we tend to compare ourselves to others, making us feel inadequate and unable to cope.

By now we all know that anybody can experience mental illness. But that doesn’t mean that we all experience it in the same way – which Andrew and Vanessa B both spoke passionately about.

CALM focuses on male mental health – in particular male suicide, which they say is the biggest killer of men under 45. There are a set of particular challenges when it comes to talking to men about their mental health, Andrew explained – they’re less likely to speak out or open up about depression, and less likely to respond well to campaigns that are explicitly about ‘mental health’.

He also pointed out that many of us exist in a sort of bubble – living in London or working in progressive fields. Some men still work in traditional fields – and reaching them can be even more challenging. It’s important that we tailor conversations to reach these demographics, he said – and it requires action from the top down.

Vanessa B’s charity, Inside Out, focuses on BAME youth – so what do companies need to do to ensure the conversations they’re having around mental health are inclusive? She stressed the need for representation across the board – there’s no point setting up diversity initiatives if they’re led by people who don’t understand the cultures they’re trying to reach. This is top down: we need a complete cultural shift in the workplace.

Illustration of a person with a rainbow pattern coming out of their head to represent mental health by Llanakila for

So how do you broach the topic if you’re feeling stressed, burned out or unwell? Vanessa K stressed just how important it was to speak to someone. If you’re in a crisis, that could be the person sitting next to you. But if your problem is less urgent, she suggests taking the time away from your desk to open up to somebody you really trust. Often, she says, the person you open up to has experienced or is currently experiencing a similar problem – reaching out is the best way to start that dialogue. Giving your time to someone else also has a positive impact on your own mental health – so there’s no reason not reach out.

Vanessa also spoke of the benefits of such an open, trustworthy and supportive work environment – it can improve morale and even increase creativity and communication within teams.

We also had questions from the audience – one, from LinkedIn, asking how to help a colleague with anxiety. Are there initiatives you can put in place to make someone’s work life easier?

Vanessa B’s suggestion was simple but effective: ask them. After all, what better way to find out what kind of support someone might find helpful? Some people find talking helps them; others don’t. The easiest way to find out is through having a simple, honest, discreet conversation with them. Simple!

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