Get your month-by-month career action plan straight to your inbox
When considering the topic of mental health, wellbeing and diversity in the workplace, I thought of no-one better to speak to than the Project Manager of the ‘FIR’ Programme in my company, Tolu Oke.
“With the exception of very few professions, like the medical profession, fire service, health service, whatever. Not a lot of what we do is life or death.”
Tolu Oke has been delivering the FIR programme for one and a half years to Construction professionals on wellbeing, diversity and combating discrimination in a male-dominated workplace.
She continued; “I think especially in the UK we add so much pressure in certain kinds of jobs and environments; and it’s almost that we train people to think pressure is just part of being in the job. And it’s not.”
I had never seen the bigger picture of workplace stress this way; these days the debilitating impact of stress is often underestimated or gets lost within the chaos of day-to-day modernity. “The medical profession say that stress is one of four mental illnesses:stress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Yet, In the working world, we assume that stress is something we should be under or if someone is in a low place and stressed, we forget that these are common mental illnesses.”
I remember Tolu being my first colleague to send me a smiley face over email when I started as a Digital Marketing Apprentice at the consultancy firm Action Sustainability. “What we really look at is how can we treat people with ‘FIR’, which is“’F’ for fairness, ‘I’ for inclusion and ‘R’ for respect.” The FIR Programme is a scheme created by ‘The Supply Chain Sustainability School’ in partnership with ‘CITB’ to deliver workshops, videos and E-Learning modules to professionals within the Built Environment industries. FIR has grown rapidly in the year and a half it has been operating, with over 1,000 professionals having received face-to-face training on the matter. Almost 450 of those have gone onto become what is known as a ‘FIR Ambassador’, accredited with badges and certificates to promote fairness, inclusion and respect within their organisations. This is partially to do with the fact that “Inclusive groups are proven to be more profitable, much more productive as well”. Therefore, businesses benefit just as much as employees do from the wellbeing of their staff.
At our most recent Action Sustainability Team Day, we participated in a social value training session around putting a monetary price tag on workplace wellbeing. ACAS have estimated that the cost of replacing an employee totals to around £30,000, mainly due to the time it takes to recruit and re-train another person into the same role. Hence, businesses these days certainly have to prioritise their workforce’s wellbeing in order to retain talent.
I asked Tolu to explain a bit more about the challenges FIR aims to overcome, especially regarding her line of work: “In our industry we have a very high suicide rate. Lighthouse Club: they’re a charity working primarily in raising suicide awareness and suicide prevention. And they estimate that 2 people commit suicide in construction every single day. We all know by now that suicide is the biggest killer of men, and we work in an industry that has 88% men.” The statistic is harrowing, and really does bring home why programmes like ‘FIR’ need to exist. Especially in construction, better relationships and workplace social culture between co-workers undoubtedly makes the building work itself safer: “[The workers] are more likely to have each other’s backs, call out things that might be safety issues for instance because you actually realise it can affect someone else.” She may not be a firefighter or a neurosurgeon, but Tolu’s work does save lives, builds safer construction sites and makes a difference.
As the lead trainer for FIR, Tolu has a real way of making people feel at ease whilst also being the chattiest, funniest person in the office. During our interview that ran over by half an hour, she told me about her friend, and her own work: “She said to me she works 9 to 5. I can’t even remember the last time I worked 9 to 5,” Tolu chuckled. We had spoken prior to our interview at work drinks, when I told her I was writing this article. I had told her how I was worried about my workload and feeling quite down on myself, so she shared her own concerns in a comical way, probably to make me feel a bit lighter about it all. At the time she had an extremely important report due and reflected on how this pressure made her feel now the deadline was fast approaching: “They’re gonna be on my neck – they’re gonna be here (gestures to her neck) in my oesophagus if I don’t get it done, they’re going to be at my throat.” Although her delivery somehow never fails to entertain me, her analogy for this stress we all feel sometimes is upsetting. Even Tolu felt stressed, as she preached to everyone else that stress doesn’t belong in a high functioning workplace; “pressure is usually because you don’t use your resources or your team effectively”.
This led her to speculate on the ideal working conditions which many of us require but miss out on due to stress. “Realistically,why should somebody not be able to work an 8-hour day and take an hour for lunch and have their 15-minute breaks and stretches?” She echoed her superior’s words; “But no. It has to get done, it better get done.”
Throughout our conversation, we also discussed the changes she would like to see in the modern workplace, especially in terms of how we monitor our colleagues’ wellbeing.
“you may see that person – you may not even know them that well – and you can say “I’m really sorry to intrude and if I’m over-stepping the boundary please feel free to let me know. But I’ve noticed that you seem to be in a low place, you seem to be struggling. How can I help you?” And sometimes asking that person is what helps.”
The Built Environment industries being made up of 88% men, many of whom fall into the category of being also white and middle-aged, it’s understandable that mental health may be a very difficult topic to raise amongst a stoic, macho social culture. In my experience dealing with Depression and anxiety as a young female, I have aimed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by raising awareness through my writing and my story. For those who have never suffered with mental health in this way, it can be almost impossible to empathise. “That person may say, “Actually, I’m alright. I’m fine." They may not want to be open, to be transparent in that way. That’s fine. But if you notice it, and it continues, you might want to say: “I’m here if you need me. If you need to talk, come and let me know.”" Tolu and I both seemed to agree that being that listening ear is the most valuable help you can give in most cases.
When asking Tolu about the best way to achieve ‘work-life’ balance it became apparent that this stress can be self-inflicted much of the time. “As a culture, what we should be saying to you is, “Amie, it’s getting late, you need to be gone.”” Tolu manages one of our colleagues, Sara Gouveia, who is the Events and Marketing Officer for the FIR Programme. Even as a Project Manager, Tolu can rationalise the importance of wellbeing over workload. “Sometimes I say to Sara, “Why are you still sitting there? You’ve got to go. It’s gone 5 o’clock”. We need to be saying that, “You shouldn’t be here!” Despite this, her initial point still rang true: “But we create this “It needs to get done, it needs to get done” mentality."
I wanted to know Tolu’s perspective on mental health at work as a whole. I think the problem with common mental illnesses including stress, depression and anxiety is that we have become so good at hiding them. In recent times, I have been struggling at work to open up emotionally, since I didn’t want to be labelled as ‘unable to cope’ and therefore incapable of doing my job. As someone who has had to take time off to work from home when I needed to, what she said summarised exactly how mental illness manifests in the workplace for me. “I’ve heard this quote, “Be kind to somebody for everyone is fighting their own battle of something you know nothing of”, or something like that. And that’s how I like to treat people at work. I like to say; “You don’t know what it’s taken for somebody to come into work on a Monday with a smile on their face.” It was through opening up to my manager that I had noticed that sometimes at work, the happiest faces were the ones that disguised the saddest of spirits. “You don’t know what they’ve left behind on their weekend. You don’t know that they might have had a row, an accident, been hurt, might have a serious medical condition, might be in chronic pain before they came into work on that Monday. And it’s cost them a lot to put on their uniform, their work outfit and put a smile on their face and say “Morning!”. You don’t know what it’s cost."
Talking to Tolu had reinforced much of what I felt about mental health and wellbeing at work, but it still doesn’t make the problem seem any easier to tackle. As a culture, we still have progress to be made in terms of opening up much-needed conversations around happiness at work. In 2017, a worldwide poll estimated that 85% of people hate their jobs, with China averaging at only 6% of people enjoying their profession. The notion that, “The challenges that people face, may not be a result of work but we don’t want work to be the thing that tips people over the edge,” shouldbe the attitude that we all adopt towardsbeing kinder to people during the 9 to 5. With the work of programmes suchas ‘FIR’, I hope that these conversations will gradually get easier as we getfairer, more inclusive, and more respectful of those fighting their hiddenbattles among us.