22 April 2020

Staying Positive Productive and Connected Inside Sparks Mental Health Network

Published on 22 April 2020

Law can be a stressful, challenging pursuit at the best of times. Living - and working - through regional, state-wide or national lockdowns brings new stresses that may never have been previously contemplated.

Insights spoke to Grant Pritchard, the in-house lawyer and mental health advocate behind the highly successful mental health network at Spark New Zealand, about what inspired Spark’s mental health network, how it works, and why it is helping lawyers to remain connected and resilient.

A desire to make a difference

“Mental health is a universal human condition,” said Grant. Studies show at least one in five people will experience mental distress or a mental health condition in any given year - and 2020 is more challenging than most. Eight in ten people either have a lived experience of mental illness, or know someone who has.

Grant’s drive is deeply personal.

“Around five years ago, I lost a dear workmate in Australia to suicide,” said Grant. “Her name was Lucy and she was an incredible human in the in-house community in Melbourne – leading a thriving in-house legal team at a major Australian telco. I caught up with Lucy a few weeks before she died. I didn’t realise at the time that she wasn’t OK, even though I noticed some signs upon reflection.”

He made a promise to himself never to work somewhere that said and did nothing about mental health.

“My ‘why’ was quickly combined with similar ‘why’ stories from across our workplace,” said Grant. “Our mental health network was born directly from the experiences of our people and fueled by their desire to make our workplace more mentally healthy.”

Powering an online and in-office community

We use readily-available tools – like Microsoft’s Office 365 Yammer and Teams products to power the online version of our mental health community,” explained Grant. “It is a safe space where people can come together to learn, connect, share, ask for help and help each other’s mental health.

“We have volunteers who make sure that the conversations and materials being shared are safe and supportive, and the conversations are reaching a very wide audience – with over half of the company interacting with the conversations.”

In addition, Spark runs regular events and supports national mental health initiatives like Pink Shirt Day, Mental Health Awareness Week and Gumboot Friday.

“The community  amplifies and supports all of our events and initiatives,” said Grant.

A community-led approach

Spark’s mental health community has enjoyed enormous success, growing from five to 600 since inception.

“This community-led approach is successful because mental health is a universal human condition – four out of four people have mental health, and one in five people will experience mental distress or mental illness this year,” said Grant. “By creating a safe space for mental health conversations at work, we opened the door to people better understanding their own mental health, being unafraid to ask for help early and able to be a good signpost to support workmates who may be struggling.”

Supported by leadership, HR and health & safety

As the community matured and grew, it received top-down support from Spark’s senior leaders, HR and Health & Safety teams.

“Combining these structures and supports with an organic grassroots community has made it easier for us to reach more of our people and with more consistency,” said Grant. “Mental health is a ‘team lift’ exercise. Everyone has a responsibility -- a role to play -- at the individual, team and workplace level.”

“I would love to see a thousand other mental health networks springing up in workplaces across New Zealand and Australia,” Grant said. “It’s OK to start small. Start a conversation, start listening and start taking small steps in this space – you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can gain momentum and improve outcomes for your people.”

Normalising mental health challenges

Feedback has been overwhelmingly good, said Grant.

“Because this movement is dynamic and motivated by the genuine desire of our people to make a positive difference, we are constantly getting real stories about the impact this has had on our people,” Grant said. “One long-standing staff member put it this way: ‘Having a programme with such high visibility internally has really helped to normalise mental health challenges in the workplace. Seeing people share how they were feeling, and all the support that person received was huge in helping me accept myself and gave me the courage to talk about it with my manager. This is something I'd never spoken about in the years I've worked here.’”

The impact isn’t just as the individual level; it is also helping build team culture. The CEO of a Spark subsidiary told Grant that they had observed the positive impact on their team first-hand - the change in culture allowed male team members to be open about their mental health issues, and to receive open support from colleagues.

A subtle cultural change agent

Our mental health community has acted as a subtle cultural change agent,” explained Grant, serving to bring mental health to the fore of workplace wellbeing conversations.

“These efforts aren’t just helping our people while they're at work,” said Grant. “One of the most surprising outcomes has been the noticeable halo effect that the programme is having in the lives of our staff and their families. We are seeing loved ones helped through difficult times, practical coping skills put to use outside of work and relationships restored.”

“It is this impact that is so surprising and encouraging. It made us realise that the workplace doesn’t need to be the final frontier for better mental health – it can be the first frontier.”

A counterbalance to stoicism

Lawyers engage in high-stress activities. Law schools imbue students with critical thinking, high performance mindsets, and attention to detail.

In the workplace, these skills and traits can come together in a workplace environment where the four ‘Ps’ – Power, Perfectionism, Pressure and Personality – are strongly present,” said Grant. “Professions like law, accounting, engineering and medicine can be naturally hard on mental health and wellbeing unless we actively and intentionally prioritise good self-care, balance and boundary setting for ourselves and our teams.”

“As lawyers, we can feel like we need to be superhuman and unbreakable. Until we aren’t superhuman, and until we do break,” observed Grant.

While some of this pressure can be driven by team culture, it also comes from within. 

“When our stoic Aussie and Kiwi cultures of ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘number 8 wire’ are overlaid on this, it can create an environment where people don’t feel like they can ask for help,” said Grant. “Where they feel like they need to tough it out on their own for fear of burdening other people or being seen as a weak link.

“Lawyers are people too, and we all have mental health,” said Grant. “We must not prioritise our professional persona over our humanity. This starts with creating much more open spaces in our teams and workplaces for mental health conversations – where people feel safe to start better understanding their own mental health, asking for help and helping the people around them.”