Sharing – is this the key to a safe emotional workplace environment ?

My brother snorted with laughter as I stared at my new set-top box and suggested we look at the manual. My new phone came in a box with a charger and nothing else – we are just expected to work it out. And on the whole we do. Even the youngest teenagers don’t need to go on a Facebook evening course.

The work environment is a complex place, with unwritten rules and conventions that are mirrored from office to office and we quickly learn to absorb them. It isn’t until we hear of a broken convention that we realise how set in stone the modern office is – Google’s beanbags in the office startle us as that’s just not how it should be.

So if just the furniture can alarm us, heaven forbid that we should talk about how we feel. And creating an environment where we feel safe to talk about our emotions isn’t easy and sometimes it may need some people to stand up and start talking.

Samantha Brown is a Partner in the Pensions Group of Herbert Smith Freehills law firm and freely admits that two years ago she would have run from any discussion of mental health.

“Eighteen months ago I started to have some kind of breakdown. I was unable to cope, couldn’t sleep and kept bursting into tears. I just didn’t feel right and couldn’t put a label on it. If anyone had said to me, ‘What’s wrong?’, I would have said either nothing or I have just too much on and am stressed.”

My GP started to question me about my mental wellbeing. “I didn’t grip what was wrong with me early enough. I was getting to the point where I would sit in front of big legal documents, I couldn’t grasp what was in them, it was taking me ages to read them and I felt I didn’t have a grip on what I was doing and that perpetuated into a terrible anxiety that I was going to drop the ball.

“Finally I was sent to a psychiatrist kicking and screaming. I just had this great big fear that there was something wrong with me and it was in this territory that I didn’t know anything about. It meant being crazy.”

After several months at home off work, everybody approached her return with the best of intentions. “Frankly, none of us knew what we were doing. I was fearful of engaging with work again and my colleagues were fearful of giving me too much work and tipping me over the edge again and that was a very destructive cycle to get into.”

Sam had a serious relapse, which involved her going to a psychiatric hospital where she met a fantastic team and the outcome was positive.

“It caused me to think: how do we embed a safe and compassionate environment in the workplace that helps people? Either in a preventative or early warning capacity and again in re-integration, with a culture of openness.”

This led Sam to become involved in an internal initiative where employees were encouraged to speak out about their own experiences, which she is convinced is helping create a safe and compassionate environment.

“As soon as some people stand up and speak about their own experiences, that causes other people to speak out. The responses have been staggering. We have to face up to talking about these issues and not running a mile, which I would have done. Unless we do that, we can put in as many formal programmes as we can, but until people are willing to confront the topic and realise it isn’t that frightening, they will not start to have an impact.

“We don’t run away from people with diabetes, cancer or heart problems, and so many of us have some sort of mental health problems, it should be something run-of-the-mill that we are all happy to talk about.”

Mental Health at Work can help all employees to improve literacy and understanding of mental health issues, which is a starting point in beginning the discussion to find solutions before an issue becomes chronic. We don’t expect managers to diagnose or treat, but to create a work environment where a problem can be safely talked about and how help, which is often available at work or through the NHS, can be accessed without stigma.


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