Human Performance, Performance | May 14, 2021
To mark Mental Health Awareness Month, the LA Lakers, Scottish FA and 72andSunny discuss how their organisations have provided for the mental health of their employees during the pandemic.

This May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US, and the first week of May is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, and so the Leaders team took this opportunity to reach out to individuals across the worlds of business and performance to ask how mental health is evolving in their environments.

In this first instalment, we spoke to Erika Singal, the Senior Director of Corporate Partnerships at the LA Lakers, David McArdle, the Diversity & Inclusion Manager of the Scottish Football Association [SFA], and Alex Brueggeman, the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Lead of multinational advertising agency 72andSunny, to find out how the pandemic has influenced their current thinking around mental health.

How has the focus on mental health shifted at your organisation during the pandemic?

David McArdle: The Scottish FA has always valued mental health within the sporting landscape and the understanding that the sport can have an impact on raising awareness within the Scottish landscape. However, during the pandemic this understanding seems to have been further understood by the larger sporting landscape in Scotland and awareness of the challenges anyone can be experiencing and how much sport provide an escape for people.

Alex Brueggeman: 72andSunny has a long history of supporting our employees’ mental health and wellness through generous benefits offerings and partnerships with organisations like Headspace. The pandemic made us realise, however, that we could and should be doing more. Additionally, it made us more cognisant of how different communities and demographics respond to social stressors and that we have to ensure we’re not applying blanket solutions to very nuanced issues.

What has been your most valuable lesson during that time?

Erika Singal: Practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time to develop a mental health practice, however, it does take a repetitiveness to continue to make progress. Just like going to the gym, working your body out physically, you need a dedicated, repetitive practice to really reap the benefits of the mental health practice. For me, I have made it and will continue to make it a point, even if it’s five or ten minutes per day. If you work to get that integrated into your daily routine you can continue to develop these skillsets that will really serve you not only to continue to stay in a positive mental space, but also afford you the opportunity to perform at a higher level. So practice, practice, practice.

AB: DEI [diversity, equity & inclusion] professionals are here to support and advocate for marginalised communities, and often we are at the centre of extremely difficult conversations and are constantly exposed to other people’s traumas. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned during this time is that in order to effectively provide support for folks, I can’t pour from an empty cup and that I need to do better at prioritising my own mental health.

DMc: The normalising of mental health conversations does not require a vast amount of work or expense. It requires simple undertakings which allow people to gain confidence to approach the subject and open up about their feelings and worries. It has also been refreshing to see the amount of individuals, groups, clubs and communities who want to do more and educate themselves further to improve people lives using the power of sport to do this.

What steps have you taken as an organisation to apply those lessons?

AB: Aside from offering free subscriptions to Headspace, we mandated ‘screen siestas’ to reduce screen time and enacted never-ending ‘Summer Fridays,’ where we closed up shop at 1pm every Friday to give folks a headstart on their weekends. We also knew that the adverse effects of the pandemic hit communities of colour disproportionately hard. As such, we began a partnership with Innopsych, a service that matches people with therapists of colour, and utilised them to provide racial trauma counselling for folks reeling from both the pandemic and systemic oppression.

ES: For me, it has been continuing to have a very active mental health practice and I have found that through yoga and I have worked over the decades to build a practice and continue to work every day on the mental aspect of that in addition to and alongside the physical aspect. The second thing has been sharing with as many people as possible who will listen to me preach about the importance of the mental health piece and share resources that I’ve had access to through my yoga practice, through the NBA, through the Lakers organisation, and encourage people to move past the stigma and really open their eyes to how this practice can really have a tremendous impact on their lives, not only from a mental health perspective but I’ve found from an execution perspective, as it relates to performing in life quite frankly. It has made a really big difference to me and I’m just so passionate about sharing that with everybody and anybody else that wants to listen and explore it.

DMc: The Scottish FA at the start of the pandemic released an E-Learning for Mental Health Awareness, which provides an understanding of how to spot the signs and how to signpost people to the appropriate support mechanisms to ensure the whole game could have the opportunity to learn more and support people in need. This has now became a mandatory requirement for all coaches to undertake within Scottish football to ensure we have the ability to create a mentally healthy culture within Scottish football. Additionally we created a Mental Health Culture workshop, which could demonstrate the easy steps our clubs could undertake the normalise the conversation within their environment, demonstrating how easy and inexpensive these steps are.

What has been your greatest sign of progress so far?

DMc: Before the Mental Health E-Learning became mandatory it had seen 9,000 coaches complete the course and learn about Mental Health and how to support individuals. This has demonstrated the greater level of understanding that sport has the ability to affect this area of society.

AB: One sign of progress has been decreased burnout and overall employee happiness. It’s a never-ending battle, but we’ve successfully laid the foundation for continued support. Most importantly, however, we’ve raised awareness and have begun actively interrogating our systems and processes.

ES: Many days I feel like there’s none! But I think committing to it and working every day is important and, as I continue to do that, I’ve noticed that you’ll start to become aware of things; thoughts, that you didn’t realise you were having. What the practice has really done has expose those thoughts and I think those moments where I have had the opportunity to observe and re-direct those thoughts are the moments where progress is being made. I would sometimes allow those thoughts to continue and take me down a pretty negative rabbit hole and one of the things that I’ve really learned is to be able to observe those thoughts. On a good day, I’m able to remove myself from those thoughts and really allow them to come and go without any judgment and work to redirect and move back onto a positive path.

How do you see the mental health space developing as we increasingly return to ‘normal’ life?

DMc: Mental health is not going away and the further realisation that everyone needs mental wellbeing is going to continue to develop. The mental health space is very crowded, with new organisations being created every week with the aim to support. However, this does make it difficult to create meaningful and clear messages. Therefore ensuring partnerships are created and developed to ensure the topic can reach people and not creating confusion.

AB: I believe mental health will play an even more important role in company policies moving forward.  Not only is it ethical, but companies are realising that it’s also practical. Employees who feel as though their specific identities and mental health are taken care of are more productive, more innovative, and more likely to stick around longer. Simply put, it’s good for business. That shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s terrible that it took a global catastrophe for that to be understood, but I’m hoping wellness will continue to be put at the forefront as we figure out new ways of working.

ES: I’m really hopeful that as we continue to move into an environment and get back to ‘normal’ that we’ll have had plenty of conversation around mental health that will allow hopefully some of the stigma to be taken away from it and people will be more open to a conversation and more open to practice and start to really reap the benefits of integrating that on a daily basis for themselves. There’s a little bit of a mind shift around it. Just as you think of going to the gym to physically work out your body and the importance of that, you’ll think about going to the mental health gym and this is part of your daily routine that is required to keep yourself healthy. I hope we’ll get there some day and I’m just really excited about the opportunity for people that haven’t tried or experienced working on the mental aspects of health and performance. There is a whole level of opportunity out there for us all and it just takes the hard work and the commitment on a daily basis, but the rewards are significant if you keep at them.

Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.

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