Be the one: start a mental health movement in your workplace
It’s OK to ask for help: This article discusses mental health issues and suicide, which may be an upsetting or sensitive topic for some people.
Three years ago, after losing a close workmate to suicide, Grant Pritchard embarked on a journey to improve mental health in the workplace. The result is a thriving mental health movement at his workplace, Spark, that is helping eradicate stigma, improve mental health literacy, and create an open and supportive mental health culture.
I first met Grant last year at the ILANZ Conference during an informal session he hosted with ILANZ President Sian Wingate on the topic: “How do you prioritise mental wellbeing in your workplace?” The session was fantastic – the discussion flowed and everyone in the room was engaged and motivated.
Grant’s enthusiasm was infectious and afterwards I bowled up to him for a chat. We connected instantly and he told me about some of the mental health initiatives he’d started at Spark. Since then, Grant and I have met several times and I’ve grilled him about how to kick-start a workplace mental health movement.
Lucy Sedgwick was a close colleague of Grant’s at a large Australian telco. “Lucy led a large team and was one of the legal team’s highest-performing senior lawyers,” said Grant. “She had a profound and positive impact on everyone around her, including me.”
Lucy and Grant caught up at the end of 2014 and she encouraged him to speak at a conference she was organising. Grant spoke at that conference, but it was tinged with sadness because a few weeks after their conversation, Lucy committed suicide. “During our chat, she didn’t share her own very real struggle with depression and I didn’t pick up on this,” Grant said. “Lucy left behind a young son and daughter, husband, family, friends and workmates who would miss her terribly.” Grant gets tears in his eyes as he tells me this. Lucy’s death clearly still affects him. “Losing Lucy to suicide lit a fire in me on the topic of depression and suicide, especially in the workplace. And that’s why I started what I did.”
What did he start?
Grant started building a mental health network at Spark – a community of workmates who share, help, and support each other in the area of mental health and wellbeing. From small beginnings in late 2017, the mental health network has grown into a company-wide, management-endorsed initiative that is changing workplace culture around mental health.
How did he get it going?
Things kicked off at one of Spark’s innovation camps – an annual event at which over 100 people, from within and outside Spark, get together to connect, learn, solve problems, and dream big. The camp is a participant-driven “unconference” format where delegates volunteer to lead sessions on topics of interest or importance to them. Grant put his hand up to facilitate a session on: “How could Spark become New Zealand’s most mentally healthy workplace?”
The session was popular. “There weren’t enough seats, but there were plenty of hearts on sleeves, tears, laughs, and encouragement,” Grant said. “There was a growing consensus that we could – that we must – do more to deliver better mental health outcomes for our people.”
After the camp Grant and some colleagues created an informal team to do this and Spark’s journey to better workplace mental health began.
Building the case
“We came up with a big, hairy, audacious goal: to make Spark New Zealand’s most mentally healthy workplace,” Grant said. “We realised that to make this a reality we couldn’t just take a bottom-up approach, we needed to gain senior management buy-in and approval.”
With a steer from the Mental Health Foundation, the team made the case for investing in workplace mental health, focusing on four key benefits:
- It’s the right thing to do,
- Our people will love it,
- It makes good business sense,
- We’re required to do it.
“By presenting a clear vision, business case, and a game plan, we hoped to make it easy for senior stakeholders to support this initiative,” said Grant. And that’s exactly what happened.
“Mental health can be a complicated topic. Many organisations understandably worry about doing the wrong thing – so they do nothing, or next to nothing,” said Grant. “The worst thing you can do is do nothing. It’s OK to start small and learn as you go,” he said.
Grant recommends an ongoing process that involves listening, organising, promoting, connecting, and supporting:
“The first thing we did was listen,” said Grant. “We didn’t want to deliver a solution in search of a problem or solve the wrong problems entirely.”
Grant and the team developed a short survey in consultation with the Mental Health Foundation. “The survey helped us understand key themes, focus our attention on priority issues and get some quick wins,” he said.
Grant points out that in-house lawyers are often well-placed to see how a workplace is doing in the area of mental health as they can be connected to senior management and have a good cross-functional view.
Grant recognises that the Spark community has grown and thrived largely because of a core team who meet regularly to plan and undertake specific initiatives.
“Having a small team of mental health evangelists has helped maintain the momentum and reach of our programme,” said Grant. He points out that while it’s essential to co-ordinate with key stakeholders like HR, it’s not necessary for these teams to lead the initiatives and do everything themselves.
Grant recommends identifying trusted champions across the organisation and giving them the opportunity to lead and organise.
To grow and maintain momentum, the team regularly share news, organise speakers, and run other promotions.
Spark’s mental health network initially started small with five people. At the time of writing this article, more than 600 staff are involved in the community, which is one of the largest and most highly-engaged groups within Spark’s corporate social network.
Grant recognises that competitions and giveaways may not always be possible or appropriate, but he encourages thought being given to innovative techniques to drive engagement and participation.
Grant thinks the most important thing they’ve done at Spark is to build community – a safe and supportive space where staff can connect, share and learn about mental health and wellbeing.
“We didn’t realise just how powerful the concept of community would be in changing the conversation about mental health at Spark. The level of support, care and candour in this community just blows my mind,” said Grant. “We’re seeing stigma fading, people sharing resources and support, and most importantly taking that first step of seeking help.”
The team have led a number of initiatives aimed at reducing stigma, raising awareness, and driving a mentally-healthy workplace culture, including:
- inviting external speakers like Sir John Kirwan and Mike King to talk about their mental health journeys and share practical advice,
- supporting mental health events like Gumboot Friday, Pink Shirt Day and Mental Health Awareness week,
- running training on wellness and resilience to help give people practical skills to support their mental health and wellbeing,
- organising peer-led lunch-and-learn sessions for staff,
- designing posters and other support materials to reduce the barriers to asking for help.
Fitting it in
Being a mental health advocate is not part of Grant’s formal role at Spark. Grant and the team undertake the mental health initiatives voluntarily alongside their normal roles, doing a lot of it in their spare time.
Given Grant’s busy work and home life and his role on the ILANZ Committee, I wondered how he fits it all in. “Spark and my managers have been very supportive of my mental health advocacy work. Sometimes I can squeeze in a bit around my work day, but I also use my commute time to get things done,” he said. “I’ve been involved in some pretty big strategic projects during my career but helping deliver better mental health outcomes for my workmates is one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.”
Grant and the team have only just begun. “We’ve got plenty more listening to do and more ideas to try,” he said. “We’re going to keep innovating and learning in this area.”
Grant is encouraging lawyers to think big in the area of workplace mental health. “Now is a good time for us to take a fresh look at how we do mental health at work. Lawyers, particularly in-house lawyers, are uniquely positioned to make real difference in the area of mental health in their workplaces and beyond,” said Grant.
Want to know more?
Grant will be speaking at the ILANZ Conference in Dunedin on 9 – 10 May about Spark’s journey to better workplace mental health. He’s keen to inspire other lawyers and will be throwing down a gauntlet:
Be the one: start a mental health movement in your workplace.
Grant Pritchard has worked as an in-house lawyer since 2010 in New Zealand and Australia. He recently returned to Spark's legal team after taking on a commercial management role in the procurement team. He is a member of the ILANZ Committee and to his friends and family, he is known as “Gadget guy” or “Mr fix-it” due to his love of all things tech.
Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the director of business development at lexvoco, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.
If you’d like to contribute to an article in this series or have a topic you’d like covered, please contact Sarah: firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Pritchard and Sarah Taylor
Some useful resources:
- Mental Health Foundation
- Tough Talk
- Wellbeing at the bar
- R U OK?
- Practising Well
If you’re worried about your or someone else’s mental health, reach out to someone you trust, your GP or local mental health provider, employee assistance programme.
Lifeline (0800 543 354 or free text HELP to 4357
Need to Talk? (text or call 1737)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (0508 82 88 65), or
Samaritans (0800 726 666).
If you or someone else are in immediate danger, call 111.