Culture club #5: our series on organisational culture looks at why good mental health is key for both individuals and teams – plus three top tips on how to improve your wellbeing

Since the financial crisis, the UK has been in a productivity slump that shows “no signs of coming to an end”, according to the Financial Times. Couple this with an increase in the number of UK adults suffering from stress – 74% of people surveyed by YouGov in 2018 reported feeling so stressed that they were unable to cope – and it is little wonder that employers are increasingly turning to workplace wellbeing and mental-health support programmes to help their staff.

The Mental Health Foundation reports that better support in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8bn a year, but despite the benefits for individuals and companies alike, the risk is that firms pay lip service to the issue by addressing it on one day out of 365 (much of the related activity surrounds World Mental Health Day, which falls on 10 October each year). So how can a business fulfil its responsibility to promote wellbeing as a key part of its corporate culture, all year round?

In this series, organisational psychologist Heather Bingham has so far covered three of the tenets of BOOST&Co’s corporate culture, offering advice on how to be authentic in the workplace, why businesses need to be brave and why curiosity is essential for growth – all factors that contribute to individual wellbeing as well as business success.

Here, we look at two more, connected tenets: being interested and being interesting, and why companies that promote both can expect to reap the benefits for their employees and their teams.

Interesting people are positive people

Graduates who filled in university application forms will recall their efforts to list any number of extracurricular activities, in a bid to stand out from the crowd – but it turns out that these also matter when it comes to finding a job. Throughout her career, Heather Bingham has found that top employers focus on recruiting people who enjoy hobbies outside work.

Bingham previously worked for McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group, and notes that in both management consultancies, “the halls were bulging with Grade 8 piano certificates, the caps of captains of the county cricket team and Gold Duke of Edinburgh awards. My colleagues were a very interesting bunch and resilient with it. If you can get five As in your A-levels alongside a distinction in Grade 8 piano, you are able to work hard and you have an agile mind,” she says.

When Bingham joined BOOST&Co, she found a similar environment; although the company was still in its early days, it already boasted a singer, a ballet dancer, a pilot, a serial creator of book clubs, a champion runner and a boxer. “I was delighted that we afforded our people the time and energy to keep up their hobbies,” she says. “Everyone occasionally has a bad day at work, but if you enjoy singing in a choir in the evening, you are far less likely to go home feeling bruised.”

There is even physical evidence to back up this theory. “When we do something difficult or enjoyable, a hormone is released that is not dissimilar to an opiate or cannabinoid,” Bingham says. “This has some pain-relieving properties, and the release makes us feel better.”

So what can people who devote time to their hobbies contribute to a team?

Pursuing such interests helps employees to “connect with colleagues and external contacts on a more human level, simply because they can talk about things other than work”, Bingham says. “We can all build stronger connections with others by sharing our experiences outside the workplace, even if these don’t relate directly to our work. This is particularly valuable for younger professionals, because it helps them to strengthen their relationship-building skills early in their career.”

Protecting entrepreneurs from poor mental health

Bingham, along with BOOST&Co’s partner Sonia Powar, recently attended The Mindful VC, a seminar run by the BVCA that addressed the mental health of entrepreneurs. One of the speakers at the event was Guy Tolhurst, the managing director of Intelligent Partnership, which provides accredited research and training on alternative investments for financial advisers, and Mindful Investor, a new kitemark and industry standard for investors that focuses on communication, equality, connections, knowledge and health.

Tolhurst discussed his project 100 Stories, which he started after struggling with poor mental health as an entrepreneur. Having set out to tell the stories of those in similar roles, he realised that many business leaders shared such problems, “frequently finding himself in the shoes of the counsellor, rather than interviewer”, Bingham says. The experience led Tolhurst to create Mindful Investor, which matches entrepreneurs with a range of support services.

So what does this expert recommend as a potential safeguard against poor mental health? Regular exercise is near the top of his list. Although there is still a lack of scientific evidence to support the so-called “runners’ high”, Tolhurst is concerned not only with physical health, but also with the endorphins that are released. 

Whether physical or mental, the stimulating activities carried out by interesting people are key to good mental health. “Playing a difficult piece in an orchestra, smashing a personal best on your regular running route or coming to the end of a particularly satisfying book – all of these things release endorphins and help to maintain our wellbeing,” Bingham says.

What science says about hobbies and mental health

Don’t just take our word for it: a range of recent studies shows the mental benefits of engaging with extracurricular activities. Here’s what you can learn from these reports.

What to take away: engaging with your hobby for just two hours a week can improve your wellbeing.

What to take away: building creativity into your daily routine can improve your mood.

What to take away: maintaining a balance between physical and mental activity is the optimal approach to good mental health.

The lesson is clear. In a society where stress seems to be more prevalent than ever before, it’s important that individuals know how to maintain good mental health, but it’s crucial for employers to promote such strategies in the workplace, too. Being interested, and interesting, is a key part of wellbeing – and one that every company’s corporate culture would do well to adopt.

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