Mental Health and Work: Creating a Culture for Your Team to Thrive

Every year, millions of Americans battle living with mental illness or a neurodiverse condition. That’s why this month, Mental Health Awareness Month, as stated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is key for helping to raise awareness and fight stigmas. The ongoing global pandemic created universal and lasting impacts on mental health. As a result, mental wellness remains an increasingly necessary way to measure our health, both on a personal level and at work.


To get our conversation started to mark this month, we sat down with a few of our Friends to discuss mental health and work, including how GS&F works to create a culture that promotes mental wellness and how you can take steps toward bringing this to the culture in your own company.

Normalizing the Impact of Mental Health in the Workplace

“As an agency, we have been hit particularly hard with the realities of mental wellness,” says Adam Winstead, VP, Human Resources and Operations. Even before the pandemic, “mental health had moved to the forefront for us.”


An area with very real consequences and outcomes, mental wellness must be normalized—and workplace leaders, from CEOs to individual managers and employees, can all do their part in creating a culture of mental wellness.


“Our culture is Friends-first and hearts-first overall,” says Liz Johnson, Integrated Producer. “That makes it very normal to reach out and check on our coworkers.” Creating an environment in which your employees talk about more than the work can go a long way in helping them feel the support they need to be mentally well.

Thinking Differently About Mental Health and Work

In the past year, we’ve been required to think differently about how, when and where we work—and mental wellness has also required new approaches. For example, leading the agency through changing needs Winstead incorporated the offering of Headspace, a guided meditation app, so that GS&F’s employees would have a free, easily accessible option for remaining centered and focused.


However, other policies that have always been in place at GS&F show an ongoing dedication to a culture of mental wellness. From three free paid counseling sessions with a local organization to a high-touch managerial structure, Winstead continually works to ensure the agency’s offerings match our desire to keep our employees well in body, mind and spirit.


“Because these options are made available and mentioned often, it normalizes the discussion around mental wellness,” says Megan Brittain, Group Account Director. “I know I’m not asking for a special request; these tools are just something we offer because we know people need them.”


Brittain points to the agency’s parental leave policy as falling under the category of mental wellness, even though some may not think of it that way on the surface.


Our policy includes up to 12 weeks of paid leave for birthing parents and up to four weeks of paid leave for non-birthing parents following the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption. Furthermore, an additional four weeks of flexible time are provided so that team members can transition back to work smoothly and intentionally. This structure is designed to provide as much of the substantial rest and recovery time that is needed as possible after such a significant life change.


“Allowing transition time for new parents is critical,” she says. “It’s not just the physical toll it takes; your mental capacity to take on the stressors of the job changes. I’m grateful GS&F creates space for the big transitions in life.”

For Leaders in Advertising, Mental Health Is Critical

Winstead points out that recent anonymous internal surveys have shown that the greatest area of diversity in our agency is neurodiversity. “You don’t know the realities of what people go through and the challenges that mental health brings,” he says, “and you may not notice neurodiversity without asking.”


That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that neurodiversity and mental wellness is likely affecting more of your employees than you think. In a survey completed by The Drum to measure mental health awareness trends, the majority of respondents said their employers weren’t doing enough to support their mental wellness and half of respondents said they felt uncomfortable discussing mental health in advertising with colleagues. It’s clear that we all have work to do in this area because trends in mental health awareness are much more than that—they will be support your employees come to expect.


Agency leaders can also think broadly about how to build a culture of mental wellness. Sometimes it’s not about offering counseling or other resources—often building community among your teams and offering connection points that allow them to take care of themselves is a great way to start.


Ultimately, developing a culture of mental wellness isn’t about simply doing the right thing; it’s about protecting and advocating for your company’s most valuable resource—your people.

Learning Before Leading: Start Where You Are

How can leaders start to create a culture that supports mental wellness? First of all, start where you are. You may already have some policies in place, or you may be starting from scratch. No matter what, starting conversations about the role of mental health in business and industry can’t be delayed. Here are a few additional ways to take the next step for your teams:


  1. Coach your managers. Train your leaders to create spaces of psychological safety so that their employees can reach out and be honest about their struggles. Encourage them to work with their teammates to mitigate challenges, tackling them head-on without creating shame or uncertainty. Consider how you can coach managers to respond to requests while making employees feel safe.
  2. Work with your healthcare providers. Winstead admits that these relationships can be challenging. “Always ask questions and push as much as you can,” he advises. Consider your employees’ mental wellness as much as their physical wellness when it comes to putting together benefits packages.
  3. Listen to and observe your employees. Anonymous surveys and feedback help, but often the true feedback you need comes from observation. Which pain points does your team experience? Does the workplace feel hurried, stressed or anxious? Take your observations and ask relevant questions on how to create change.
  4. Be willing to make uncomfortable changes. “During the pandemic, GS&F unbundled the work week,” Brittain explains, “which gave people space to do other things during work hours as needed.” It might feel uncomfortable, but freeing your teams to help their kids with schoolwork or even simply to take a walk during the day goes a long way. Unless they give you a reason not to, trust that the work will get done.


No matter the work you have to do towards creating a culture that focuses on mental wellness, it’s critical to start as the impact of mental health in the workplace cannot be underestimated. At GS&F, we’d all agree that we’re learning before leading, remaining open to new ways of working, new needs and new solutions so that our Friends remain well—physically, mentally and otherwise.


Look for more from Adam Winstead on retaining top talent and moving forward in 2021.


Contributors to this post include Adam Winstead, VP, Human Resources & Operations; Megan Brittain, Group Account Director; Liz Johnson, Integrated Producer; Elena Griffo, Account Supervisor, Social Media; and John Anderson, Senior Strategist

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