Storytelling conjures up images of faraway lands overrun by beautiful princesses, gnarly goblins and blood-chilling ghosts. But, it can also be a powerful tool for employers looking to tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health and create an open and supportive workplace culture.
The statistics demonstrate why employers should address this issue: one in six working age adults is depressed, anxious or experiencing stress-related problems at any one time, with one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem every year. For employers, mental health problems represent an annual cost of up to £42 billion, and account for around 91 million lost working days every year.
These statistics mean that mental health problems are more prevalent in the workplace than just about every physical health issue bar the common cold. But, in spite of this, many employees do not feel able to talk about their mental health problems. In fact, up to 90% of employees aren’t comfortable admitting a mental health problem is the reason for their absence.
It’s not surprising that people keep schtum either. According to the Mental Health Foundation, nearly nine out of 10 people with mental ill-health say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.
Although masking mental health problems is understandable in this environment, it isn’t helpful. Hiding information negatively impacts mental health and prevents the employee from seeking help from the workplace. A sad consequence of this is that 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their jobs each year.
We need to talk
Encouraging employees to be open about their mental health issues is essential, with storytelling a valuable part of an employer’s strategy. Giving employees the confidence to share their experiences with their colleagues in short videos, blogs or articles can change perceptions about mental health and build a more supportive culture.
Importantly these stories don’t focus solely on their health issues. By juxtaposing their experiences with snippets such as their interests, hobbies and family life, it can really break down the stigmas and normalise mental health in the workplace.
A great example of this is the ‘This is Me’ initiative which was initially launched as a London-wide campaign by the Lord Mayor’s Appeal in 2016. Based on a campaign first developed by Barclays, 380 companies have now registered, with 80 organisations already sharing employee stories.
Implementing a storytelling initiative can also help an organisation meet the principles set out in mental health frameworks, which are guides for good mental health practice in the workplace. For example, This is Me can contribute to employers meeting three of the six core standards outlined in the Thriving at Work report (2017), and six of the seven principles set out in the Time to Change employer pledge.
Starting the conversation
Whether or not your organisation is based in London or the size of Barclays, it’s simple to launch your own ‘This is Me’ style storytelling initiative.
First, plan your activity. Find a sponsor, a senior person who will fly the flag at the right level and get a team together so you can determine your approach.
Thanks to modern technology – with smartphones able to produce good quality videos – it needn’t cost much to put together a campaign. However, it will require commitment, especially in the initial stages as you get it up and running.
For example, one challenge that many employers face is finding those first storytellers. Plugging into diversity and inclusion networks and using existing communication channels such as newsletters, intranet and posters can help. Similarly, if you’re a small organisation you might want to consider joining together with others from your area or industry to get the necessary scale.
It’s also worth considering who you approach. Having a senior colleague among the first to share their experiences can be incredibly powerful. As an example, at Aon, we launched our storytelling initiative with a manager who had been off work with depression. His story, important, interesting, relevant and real, was put on our intranet where it rapidly became the most liked and commented on piece ever. This really helped the campaign gain momentum but also made it much easier to find colleagues to tell their stories.
Once in this position, it’s good to help your storytellers craft their stories. You might want to have a template or script, or to share examples of effective storytelling videos. And, if you receive plenty of offers, don’t be afraid to manage submissions. By having a varied selection of stories you’ll reach out to more employees. You can always add new content later to keep the campaign fresh and engaging.
It’s also important to have the right infrastructure in place alongside this storytelling activity. With employees more confident to open up about their mental health issues, signposting support such as employee assistance programmes, medical insurance and employee relations teams is prudent. Mental Health First Aiders can also play a valuable role here.
Seeing a storytelling programme taking off and more and more employees feeling comfortable discussing their mental health issues is a success in its own right. But, for those companies that embrace storytelling as part of a wellbeing programme, the rewards can be far-reaching.
The average return on investment for workplace mental health interventions is more than four to one while a well-designed wellbeing programme can reduce staff turnover by 10% to 25%. It can even boost a company’s stock market value, with those organisations running award-winning wellbeing programmes seeing their value appreciate by 325% compared with 105% for their peers.
So, while storytelling might sound like a work of fiction, the hard facts demonstrate it’s an effective way to dispel the myths and normalise mental health in the workplace.
 Elizabeth Hampson and Sara Siegel (2017). Mental health and employers: the case for investment. Supporting study for the independent review. Monitor Deloitte. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/public-sector/deloitte-uk-mental-health-... Accessed February 2018
 PwC Building the case for wellness 2008 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/209547/hwwb-dwp-wellness-r... Accessed February 2018
 The stock performance of Koop Award winners compared with the Standard & Poor's 500 Index – JOEM, Volume 58, Number 1, January 2016
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