EssenceMediacom’s ally programme won first place in our Make A Difference ‘Best multinational wellbeing programme’ category handed out at The Watercooler Event in May.
It operates in 45 countries, across 64 cities, from Amsterdam to Zagreb and Athens to Zurich, and there are currently 223 allies, 84% of whom have had conversations with colleagues about mental health, either informally or formally.
It started in 2017 and then went global after the pandemic hit in 2021.
We speak to Emily Howe, who manages this programme, to discover why this programme impressed our judges…
You won our award for ‘Best multinational wellbeing programme’. Why do you think it’s been so successful?
We started out as just a UK ally programme in 2017 in the UK, training allies with our partners Mental Health at Work. I think what’s made it such a success in the UK is leadership buy-in, and storytelling.
The storytelling was a complete game changer. People have been sharing their mental health stories about all sorts of subjects like grief, disordered eating or suicide.
Or it could be they’ve had struggles with their relationship and spoken to our Employee Assistance Programme. They tend to be very honest and open.
When we first started sharing stories there were a few senior leaders who were really brave and shared their experiences too.
How have you got leaders to share their stories, as this can be difficult?
Our UK CEO, Kate Rowlinson, is a real advocate. We’ve always had a person in the C-Suite that is lobbying for change. That means you’ve always got at least one person who keeps bringing it up in the senior leadership.
How do you share these stories?
Predominantly by email, coming specifically from that person’s email rather than an alias, to everyone in the company in the UK, which makes it much more personal. I wasn’t there when this started in 2017, but the story goes you could hear a pin drop in the office when those emails land in people’s inbox.
Often the people sharing their story are flooded with people saying thank you and sharing their stories and opening up because they feel like it’s safe for them to talk now as well. They’ll label it ‘My Mental Health Story’ and some of them come through with a trigger warning, as people often share deeply personal experiences.
Are we losing the stiff upper lip in Britain do you think, in talking more openly?
We’re getting better. We talk about mental health now in the workplace. The conversation is moving onto other historically stigmatised topics like menopause and infertility – we’re definitely seeing progress.
But while you’ve talked so far about UK activity, your programme is global. What is your key learning about running a global programme?
Content has to fit the audience. One size fails all and you need to have a bespoke approach to the cultural nuances of different places.
So, for example, in the majority of our APAC countries, we would not send out a story about a stigmatised mental health condition. But we might send a story about the time that someone was training for the marathon and sustained an injury and why that was hard, and how the person got through.
People in these countries might talk about their physical wellbeing or financial wellbeing, but would feel significantly less comfortable talking about their emotional mental health in the same way.
How do you ensure your network of champions is diverse?
We always have a waiting list of people that want to do mental health training and want to be an ally, which is great. We reflect on what sort of identities we have across the group and do we have a mix of ethnicities and different age groups and different levels. We’ve also got some really great employee community groups and we often ask members of them if they’d be interested in becoming an ally.
Tell me about rolling out this programme globally?
It actually went global due to the pandemic and the idea to take it global came initially from our CPO in Asia Pacific.
The HR leaders in that territory were overburdened with people who were really struggling with the pandemic. And she knew of this ally programme that was happening in the UK. She said “we need that support, we need that training. We need to have these allies everywhere”.
And so we went global in 2021.
Through 2022 what we really tried to embed was a sense of community amongst the allies and so bringing them together either in regional groups or across regions, creating teams and meeting groups where we shared information.
So, for example, Germany might share its idea to put posters on the back of bathroom doors and share the file if anyone wants to translate it for their country. We don’t need to always recreate the wheel because there’s so much good stuff already happening.
How do you support the network of champions?
I’m the programme manager and I am as hands-on as people want me to be. But I also don’t take a hand-holding approach because that’s not helpful as I’m just one woman in London and I’m British and I’ve never lived anywhere else.
So, I’m not very well placed to tell you how to run your programme in Thailand. But if they tell me what the problem is I can give them some suggestions on what’s worked somewhere else.
We meet quarterly with ally groups and make clear that allies can also stop at any time. We have to make sure that we put our own oxygen masks on first! The ally community is also there to support one another – recently we were able to link Jewish allies from across the network to share experiences and build connection.
What about the ally’s time – is this accounted for in or out of their day job?
That varies by market. In the UK and the U.S. for example, they have an allotted time code for it which they put on their time sheets. It’s important that line-managers acknowledge this extra role our allies play alongside their day job, and that they receive recognition for helping to build an open and honest culture in their country.
Do you think the network has a knock on effect on psychological safety?
Yeah, definitely. Because people don’t always want to go to HR.
Speaking to HR can sometimes feel like “oh, I’m saying that I have an issue or there’s a problem”. Whereas if you’re just having a chat, in confidence with an ally, then that feels so much more human. Also, sometimes the issue impacting an individual can be caused by the workplace, and could actually be related to a lack of psychological safety. To have another colleague in the office who is able to create a safe space for you to share what’s on your mind can be really helpful to feel like you’re not alone.
What are your ambitions for the future when it comes to wellbeing at work?
I’d like to see it become everyone’s business – something that we can all talk about and become equipped to support. We don’t all need to be experts! But we can be considerate. Our wellbeing is impacted by our sense of belonging, and so when we prioritise diversity and inclusion initiatives, we’re also supporting wellbeing for our people.