How to support your staff's mental health

Looking out for employees' mental health is the responsibilty of any business owner. In aid of World Mental Health Day (October 10), Georgia Seago investigates how spa owners can do more to help their staff.

Early last year, the Global Wellness Institute forecasted a focus on mental health to be one of the biggest future wellness trends. The prediction was unsurprising given that the World Health Organisation reports that one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives – placing mental disorders as one of the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. Yet in the spa industry – while we strive to create ever better wellness journeys for our clients – mental wellbeing for the spa staff themselves has been somewhat overlooked.

“If our industry is unable to care for its staff then it doesn’t bode well for other less therapeutic industries,” comments Paul Gerrard, head of marketing and brand communications at UK Jessica distributor Gerrard International. Gerrard says that at the start of his career as a young advertising creative, “I didn’t realise that caring for staff was a responsibility of management and employers”. This played a part in his own mental health struggles and ultimately led him to become a strong advocate for mental wellbeing in the workplace. “Having had a mainly closeted yet lifelong relationship with depression, I am a strong believer that prevention is far more powerful than cure,” says Gerrard.

As a spa owner or manager, creating a healthy working environment is an important step to taking a more active role in staff wellbeing. “There’s a definite need to reach out to business owners to really make sure they have enough understanding about how to make sure their workplace is healthy,” says Glenis Wade, a workplace wellbeing consultant and senior business lecturer who works on the City of London’s Healthy Workplace Charter and is currently involved in developing the Mayor of London’s Good Work Standard.

“There’s a lot of interest from the Government in businesses that employ lower paid workers – including spa therapists – to get on board with corporate wellbeing,” she says. “Often it’s the public service workers who get the help rather than people who are at the coal face.” Wade believes that it’s labour intensive jobs, such as therapist roles, that need the most employer support when it comes to physical and mental wellbeing, and while many spas have procedures in place to prevent therapists developingconditions like RSI, mental andemotional issues are equally important andpotentially more damaging.“We need to get employers in the industryto understand that there’s a responsibilityto take care of employees’ physical andmental health; burning out physically islinked to mental health, they don’t operatein isolation,” she adds.

Invest emotionally in your team

This connection is central to massage therapist and healer Beata Aleksandrowicz’s philosophy and is key to her Pure Spa Massage Spa Training Method. “The impact of therapists’ wellbeing can affect everything from client engagement to professional performance,” she says. “Therapists feel both empathy and sympathy strongly, and while it’s their strongest asset it can also totally exhaust them.” Aleksandrowicz believes the key to supporting therapists mentally and emotionally is to invest the time to really understand each individual.“Managers need to be fully aware of the complexity of their therapists’ characters. Each will have a purpose behind why they came in to this industry, and it’s fundamental that managers tap into this and take it as the base of a therapist’s performance,” she says. 

Aleksandrowicz acknowledges that prioritising emotional wellness might not come naturally to spa management used to focusing on the more tangible aspects of running a business: “Caring for the emotional wellness of therapists is not an easy process. The whole system of the operation of spas doesn’t help at all, with a schedule based on maximum occupancy with little time for breaks or connecting with and relating to clients.” Wade says that another hurdle can come in the form of the huge pressures on therapists to retail product: “Demand for training is around how to get therapists to sell more, so we have to find new ways for them to make connections with clients. We need to be a bit more innovative; there’s a lot of work to be done in this area,” she says.

Be an example to your staff

Despite the reality of financial pressures, there are still a lot of measures that can be implemented to safeguard employees’ health, and the first step is to adopt an open and supportive attitude, says Gerrard. “Developing a culture to nurture employee/employer relationships is extremely important to me. Part of this is having clear, well-publicised channels in place for employees to raise concerns so that positive actions can be promptly taken when they seek help,” he says. On a managerial level, Gerrard recommends regularly asking staff for feedback on how the workplace could be improved, and taking action based on their ideas. Aleksandrowicz further suggests that directors or managers introduce weekly explorations with staff on topics such as depression, panic attacks, nutrition and the importance of movement. “Therapists need to be healthy and to know how to recharge themselves. They need to stretch and breathe every day and have good physical, emotional and mental hygiene,” she adds.

Other initiatives that cost nothing include implementing a 10-minute mindfulness and breathing session with therapists at the start of their day and in between appointments, and encouraging them to regularly use their down time or breaks at work for resting and nothing else. While the above initiatives are focused on prevention, an employee in the throes of mental illness won’t be “cured” by massage or deep breathing. So, it’s equally important for employers and teammates to be able to spot the signs that an employee could be going through a difficult time. “It doesn’t take a doctor to recognise an individual who is becoming susceptible to negative mental behavior,” says Gerrard. “It just takes you to know that individual and what normal behaviour for them looks like.” Problems with punctuality, a negative attitude, changes in work output, panic attacks and becoming indecisive and less sociable and can all be behaviours indicative of a more serious problem.

Make sure you are equipped

Understandably, many people feel ill equipped to help an employee dealing with mental illness, aside from trying to create an inclusive and relaxed working environment. Wade strongly recommends spa management undertake Mental Health First Aid training. In the UK this is run in half-day and two-daydurations by Mental Health First Aid England.“There’s a big Government push to have mental health first aid viewed as equally important as physical first aid,” she says. “On the course, you learn how to make someone who is exhibiting signs of mental distress feel comfortable. It’s not about you doing the psychology or counselling; instead you learn the words or phrases to use to help someone move on and get the help they need,” explains Wade.

Students come away with an expansive book on every mental health disorder, and Wade says that during the course attendees are put through exercises to understand what it feels like to have one of the more serious disorders.“It gets you to sympathise and empathise; it’s fantastic for removing the stigma around mental health issues, but also for feeling empowered so you know what to do if a client or colleague isn’t well,” she says. Taking staff through awareness training can encourage humility as well as acting as effective team building. “It makes you more aware that we could all be affected by something like this, so you’re more empowered to empathise with colleagues and clients,” adds Wade. Aleksandrowicz believes, as an employer, it all comes down to empathy and care: “We have to act like a boss, be confident and guide. But if you do this with passion and commitment and maintain it as an ongoing practice, you’ll benefit with a more engaged, passionate and revitalized team.