Londoner by birth, Scot by accent, Niels is Copylab's managing director of the UK and Europe.More articles from Niels Footman
In many ways, my story echoes the difficulties people have faced over the last 12 months or so.
My dad, who’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s then dementia five or six years ago, got visibly worse towards the end of last year. At least as bad for me, given that I was largely unable to visit, was worrying about the difficulty my mum was facing in taking care of him. Around November, my dad entered a nursing home, which did make life easier for my mum – though we still had to deal with the swell of paperwork and the feelings of guilt. Then last month, my dad finally lost his battle with those cruellest of diseases.
It was a difficult, highly emotional time. It overwhelms a lot of other things in your life and makes you question what’s important. But while I had to deal with various things throughout my dad’s final months, the support I received from my colleagues felt both genuine and unconditional. Notes offering condolences and help all made a difference. In addition to that, the follow up calls and messages, the insistence to “take the time you need” and “nothing is as important as family”, the flowers sent to the service – all helped me cope during a really tough period.
As we enter Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW), there were several elements of my recent experience that I’ve always liked to think we value at Copylab. There is no doubt that since MHAW started 21 years ago, mental health is far more openly discussed and acknowledged than it ever has been: mental health campaigners Time To Change note that people are 12% more willing to live, work, or continue a relationship with people with mental health problems than they were just 10 years ago. But the challenges remain, and in many cases have been compounded by Covid and the lockdowns.
The central theme of MHAW this year is nature, underpinned by the Five Ways to Wellbeing, a series of steps aimed at maintaining the mental health of you and those around you. Here is how we try to adhere to these steps at Copylab.
Though we have long been set up for remote working, we’d never, prior to the first lockdown, had everyone do it at the same time. Suddenly, much of the team spirit we could foster at our office locations – the knockabout humour, the after-work pint on a Friday, the quiet word or arm over the shoulder – was gone.
Like everyone else, we’ve been forced to compromise, frequently via Zoom. We had the drop-in coffee mornings, the monthly meetings and, famously, the Christmas-time online spirit tasting. But perhaps more importantly, we’ve worked to ensure that communication is frequent and open. We make clear to all our team that everyone, from the CEO down, will make time to chat. And with many of our team being in the same boat with children or other work pressures, we’ve always looked to get in touch ahead of any possible problems.
Lastly, for anyone needing to make a connection away from their workmates, we also provide access to MCL Medics, whose range of health services include wellness advice and counselling.
The importance of physical activity in warding off mental health problems can’t be overstated. Though working at Copylab can be very demanding, we’ve always held flexibility to be one of the central tenets of our work culture, meaning people should always be able to carve out time for daily activity. Our finance manager – who teaches yoga classes alongside her regular working day – is perhaps our foremost example of this. But flexibility has ensured that our team have the scope to do the walking, Pilates or bike rides that are such a key part of remaining mentally well.
We can all benefit from worrying less about the past and future, and engaging more in “the moment”. Equally, we’ve been focused on taking notice of the people we work with, and how they’re dealing with the pressures of work and home life. Throughout the year, we’ve kept communication open, and our managers have been proactive in contacting their teams and, just as importantly, their colleagues in leadership roles.
Lifelong learning isn’t just an increasingly crucial element of a successful career: by increasing self-esteem and making us better equipped to deal with risk, it’s key to mental health too. Though group training has become harder during the Zoom era, we’ve continued to support individual development courses for our team – including giving time off for academic and language courses – and provided in-depth training for the new recruits we took on in 2020.
Covid may have made our community activities more difficult but giving remains an important part of what we all do. Whether that’s giving our team the space to spend more time with their families or develop other professional or personal interests, or supporting local businesses, or giving to causes including Mind and the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights in Scotland. On an individual level, giving has been shown to yield a range of health benefits, from lower blood pressure to reduced incidences of depression, which is why we give staff two volunteer days annually so support causes close to their hearts.
It’s been a strange 12 months for everyone, with the normal pressures of life and work exacerbated by distance from friends and family, and by a greater sense of uncertainty than most of us will have faced before. Which is why, for all the progress, focusing on mental health remains a key priority for us at Copylab, and we continue to wholeheartedly support the aims of Mental Health Awareness Week.