Why has Cicero launched our mental health initiative and what do we hope to achieve?

This autumn has seen the roll-out of Cicero’s office manas programme. We could have could called it our office wellness programme, but that wouldn’t have been very creative. So why manas? Taken from Buddhism, it is one of three overlapping terms used in relation to the mind. ‘Manas’ often indicates the general thinking faculty, which is what Cicero office manas is all about. As a company, we already do a lot of things to help people maintain their health: private medical insurance, yoga classes, subsidised gym membership, free fruit, and much more. But this focuses on the physical wellbeing more than the mental wellbeing. Neglecting to take care of our minds is unacceptable on a human level – particularly when people work in pressurised environments. As an employer, it doesn’t make good business sense either. Millions of working days are lost each year to sickness absence relating to mental health. This is a particular problem in high pressure industries where people have lots of demands and deadlines. The PRCA, the professional association for media professionals, recently published data suggesting that as many as 59 percent of industry practitioners suffer with mental illnesses during their career.

So where to start? We figured it is best to start by talking about it. Being open and transparent takes the fear and shame away.  People don’t need to worry about what impact a mental illness might have on their career, when their boss and colleagues know about it and know how to accommodate it. Learning to accommodate it is what the Disability Discrimination Act, passed in the UK in 2002, is all about. Employers now have a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments. The Equalities Act in 2010 built on the legal protections against discrimination in the workplace. But what does that even mean if people aren’t prepared to open up and talk about it? Employers can’t treat people fairly if we don’t even know what we’re dealing with.

As a company director, I have had periods of depression on and off over the past 25 years. I would have found it hard to launch a programme like manas, highlighting the importance of creating an open and tolerant culture in the workplace, while being secretive about my own situation. So, I decided to talk frankly about how it feels to live with depression. I also talked about the human cost of not dealing with these feeling. The cost of hiding it, and not asking for help. Statistically, people with mental illnesses are more likely to lose their jobs, their homes, even end up in prison. But this vicious circle can be broken. It isn’t inevitable. It is often a by-product for how society chooses to deal with mental health (or not deal with it). If you tell colleagues you have cancer, that evokes a deep sense of sympathy, maybe even empathy. Tell them you have general anxiety disorder and people feel confused or wary. They don’t have a ‘normalised’ response. Only by talking about mental illness and normalising it can we hope to make sympathy or empathy the universal response.

People said it was brave to share my experience with colleagues. But I felt it was necessary to demonstrate, through my own example, that it is possible to combine mental illness with a successful career. Having spent weeks thinking about it, I was prepared for an emotional experience. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sight of colleagues with tears welling up their eyes. It served as a sudden reminder, if one were needed, that we are all human at the end of the day.  We don’t just work on projects together. But we connect with each other emotionally on a daily basis.  That means asking people how they really feel and being prepared to help them as an employer to deal with the consequences.

Our company has crossed the Rubicon. We have mentioned the “m” word. The genie is out there and it cannot be placed back in the bottle. And we wouldn’t want it to. Immediately after our launch event, colleagues told me how they feel more proud to work at Cicero. People are talking more about their feelings and communicate when they’re not feeling in top form without the fear of being told to “man up”.

Over the course of the next year we’ll be bringing in external speakers to share their own experiences. We kicked off with a great talk from Jack Green, the Olympic 400m hurdler who represented Team GB in 2012 and 2016. Having lost two seasons to depression after London 2012 he came back to win a bronze medal at the World Championships at London 2017. Inspirational stuff! We will also be kicking off with our mental health first aid training so that we’re all better at spotting the tell-tale signs of mental illness in ourselves and in our co-workers. We have also begun a review of occupational benefits.  This means looking at physical and mental health in a holistic ‘whole person’ manner.

We won’t be able to do everything. But we can create a supportive culture. And we can align the different parts of our business – client relationship management, flexible working hours, flexible benefits, standards of acceptable language and behaviour, to make sure that this produces a genuine change in the way people think and behave.

Get in Touch

Mark Twigg

Executive Director

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