The Office as a Safe Space

Helping your employees with mental health issues

I’ve never made a secret of my struggles with mental illness. Up until very recently, I’d opted for fighting through things without any sort of professional help, relying on medication and learned coping mechanisms that I had snatched during moments of clarity within crisis. Whilst I am now in therapy, and benefitting hugely from it, these coping mechanisms are an intrinsic part of my life.

One of the most important techniques I developed was the notion of safe spaces. Places where, if things went a bit funny, I wouldn’t have to be scared about running out of the energy I need to keep up the veneer of “sane person” that many mentally ill people use to get through the day-to-day. It’s difficult to explain the amount of mental capacity you need to remain copacetic when all you want to do is curl up in a ball and wobble from side to side (because you are beyond yelling or crying at this point).

Before I was at my current employer, my attendance at work was sometimes “patchy”. I always gave 100% in my job, but sometimes, I had to retreat. The bubble in which I was able to function became infinitesimally small, generally reducing to my bed, my sofa, and perhaps the kitchen on a good day. Going to work felt like facing a rabid bear, and the knowledge that I’d have to put my sane face on became too much, so I’d plead off with an excuse so that I could take a day, because that’s what people with mental illness often do. Saying “I can’t get out of bed today because my feeling of existential dread is worse than usual” doesn’t wash, unfortunately.

Starting at Red Badger a little over 2 years ago, I approached things as honestly as possible. It was a big shift for me to work somewhere outside of the games industry (more on that later, oh so much more), but I was excited, and super grateful for the opportunity given to me.

However, inevitably, the first “bad day” at my new job came along. I woke up in the morning feeling hazy and vulnerable. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, ready to plead off so that I could roll back over and sink into a disturbed anxiety half-sleep.

But then, I realised something.

If I went in to work, and someone asked me how I was, I could say “I’m not feeling good today”. If I wanted, I could sit quietly on the sofa in our office and work on some tasks that didn’t need talking. I realised that, quick as a flash, my new office had jumped into my bubble and become a safe place for me to be.

So how did my office achieve this amazing feat? It was actually mind-numbingly easy. They give a shit. When the chips are down and things are going badly, they show compassion and empathy that I have never experienced anywhere else.

When I lost my Grandpapa unexpectedly last year, they told me to go home for as long as I needed, and not worry about work as it’d be there when I got back. I used the time. When my Nanny died six months later, the same applied. I was back after two days. Not because I felt obliged to be there, or because I felt like I owed anyone anything. It was because I work with people who understand that grief happens, and I didn’t feel scared to be grieving around them. Conversely, my sister was forced to quit her job the first time around as they only gave her a few days off and she couldn’t cope with the strain of being “ok” around people.

So often when talking about mental health in the workplace, we talk about support, HR policy, and digging in to why someone has an increase in sick days. However, I often feel like not enough emphasis is put on making the office a place you feel able to come to during crisis. Having a bad mental health day doesn’t have to mean not coming to work at all. The space in which your employees reside is just as important as the policies you use in dealing with them.

It’s important to note, though, that when I say “comfortable” what I mean isn’t necessarily what you picture. This isn’t about your traditional hammocks and table tennis startup environment. We don’t have that. Nor would I want it. What we do have, is a comfortable, reasonably lit room with a lot of good people in it. I wouldn’t say no to a nap room though, not gonna lie.

You need look at the environment your staff have to use day-in, day-out, and ask yourself if you could be in it on a bad day:

  • Are the desks small?
  • Seats uncomfortable?
  • Is the lighting harsh and bright?
  • Are the walls blank/white?
  • Does the shape or layout of the room causes voices to bounce or echo

All of these things can intensify anxiety and feelings of helplessness, and whilst they may seem a minor inconvenience or even un-noticeable, to a person already on the brink it can be the final straw.

Of course, this isn’t a magic bullet. Nothing is when it comes to mental health. But there are small steps that you can take as an employer to make your office feel more like a place people can be when they’re not feeling their best.

Seriously though, about that nap room…