Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum: Mental health and the diversification of suppliers & supply chains

Author: Kathryn Mason

On Thursday 30th September we held our third Tech in Culture EDI Alliance partner forum. The intention of these forums is for people to talk through areas or challenges they might be encountering in relation to work across the spectrum of Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) considerations, and to act as a space for sharing successes, experiences, advice and support.

Following each of our forums, which so far have been focused on recruitment and internal communications, we invite the group to share any ideas for the next EDI related topic(s) they would like to discuss. Having had such open, welcoming and honest discussions so far, we landed on two fairly different but equally important areas for our next conversation – mental health and the diversification of suppliers and supply chains.

Here’s a quick overview of each, before we take a more detailed look at everything we discussed:

Part one of our forum focused on mental health, which has been a crucial topic of social, political, medical and organisational conversations over the past 18 months. It’s something we’ve all been focusing on to help make sure that our teams feel supported and happy. But it’s also something that everybody is still learning about, and our conversation began with a shared acknowledgement of the fact that ‘work-life balance’ means very different things to different people.

A wider observation throughout was therefore the need to create a shared vocabulary with which to speak about mental health, to ensure that employers and their teams are equipped with the resources they need to properly manage the issue.  We considered some of the mental health issues that have become more prominent and why, before sharing some of the ways we’ve been trying to tackle the issue.

A combination of quick, easy tools and longer-term ‘big ideas’ were shared amongst the group, which made for a really helpful and optimistic discussion that, above all, highlighted our shared commitment to prioritising mental health at our organisations.

Part two of our discussion was a direct focus on the diversification of our supply chains. As a group, we all run organisations that are either part of a supply chain for other organisations or are procuring services that are part of a supply chain, and so we were interested to hear whether people have started considering their EDI efforts within this context.

We discussed the challenges associated with working in the notoriously non-diverse tech sector, with a shared acknowledgement of the scale of the task at hand. We talked about the need to define what realistic change looks like, by having mature conversations with our teams about how change can be made in a way that isn’t harmful or disruptive to the running of our businesses.

So we identified some of the short, medium and long term things we can do to start creating a ‘ripple effect’ within the sector. Some really practical first steps were shared, which involved auditing our suppliers and making our own values explicit in different contexts. We also touched on environmental and ethical considerations associated with our work and some of the challenges this presents.

The forum was hosted by our Managing Director Ash, and everyone involved represented a partner organisation of the Alliance. There were a range of old faces and new, each of whom brought an invaluable perspective and shared a range of experiences that gave everyone some really useful, practical things to take away.

Here, we’ve captured some of the many things discussed (all of the resources shared are listed at the bottom of this article).

Mental health

We all acknowledged that mental health has shot up the agenda for almost every organisation over the past 18 months. The pandemic has not only caused a significant increase in the number of people struggling with their mental health, but on a more positive note has also raised far greater awareness of the issue. We’re all getting better at talking about it, and an increasing number of people are speaking about their own mental health concerns with their employers and seeking help from mental health professionals.

But there’s no denying that there’s still a way to go before mental health isn’t considered such an invisible problem (particularly when compared with physical illnesses). We need to create a shared vocabulary to speak about it. We need to consider how it can be viewed through a policy lens (some organisations have more mature mental health policies in place than others, but it’s still a grey area for many). And we need to keep finding ways to help our teams realise how they are feeling before they start to struggle.

And while this was a consideration for many organisations in the pre-COVID era (it’s been a common issue felt by our teams for some time), we all agreed that the living and working conditions caused by the pandemic have produced a notable rise in the number of employees struggling.

The common denominator of our conversation when considering these new ‘conditions’ was the shift to remote working. We discussed some of the problems this has caused:

  • Anxiety levels have increased hugely, partly due to:
    • the lack of social cues and interpersonal interactions that an office environment makes far easier.
    • the fact that most of our daily communications have become text-based, which inherently lacks the nuance and subtleties of face-to-face conversations. This means that people are more anxious about how they’re being received, why someone’s not responded to their message, or how someone might be reacting to something they’ve said. Earlier this year we wrote about some of these challenges and some potential ways around them. 
  • For some, working from home in a ‘locked down’ world meant the additional distractions of children, pets, internet issues and so on. Some people therefore:
    • found it more difficult to focus and/or were lacking motivation.
    • suffered performance anxiety, with people worrying about things such as family members walking in while they’re on a Zoom call, the dog barking on an important client meeting, not submitting some work on time because the WiFi’s gone down (the list goes on!).
    • or quite simply, constantly worried about whether their work was ‘good enough’ when forced to work in a (physical) silo where informal, immediate feedback was often less easily available.

We also looked at how and why employees of companies that have always operated remotely were also suffering from these issues.

  • We questioned whether there were inherent issues prior to the pandemic that have now come to the fore, or whether the past year has created its own set of ‘remote working’ circumstances that have caused new mental health concerns to arise.
  • In short, the answer was a combination of both. While remote working has always caused worries around performance anxiety and required more ‘planned for’ thinking about internal communications, the shift to a confined household (where the additional distractions and worries listed above came into play) has resulted in an increase in mental health problems amongst these workforces too.

The other major reality to consider is the enormous spike in demand experienced by our sector in the wake of the pandemic. The unpredictable nature of the opening and closing of arts and cultural venues, and the subsequent change in the needs and expectations of (and from) the sector as a whole, has led to a huge number of people suffering from stress and burnout.

And putting the changes in workload and the shift to remote working aside for a moment, we all recognised the broader impact of the past 18 months on our collective wellbeing. As a world, a society, a sector, a team, and as individuals – we’ve all been through a major trauma that has inevitably put a greater load on people’s mental health.

So we progressed our conversation to a discussion about some of the ways we’ve been looking after our team’s mental health, and some ideas for things we can start to do:

Mental health first aiders:

  • Some companies have introduced a programme that gives every employee the opportunity to become a mental health first aider. Those we spoke about are training courses that teach people how to triage mental health problems and where to direct people asking for help.
  • A huge benefit of programmes like this is that people can speak to someone they might feel more comfortable approaching with a mental health concern that’s not their line manager or someone in HR.
  • With such a growing range of different individual situations arising (which can be particularly overwhelming for HR teams), having other people that employees  can talk to in a structured way can be really helpful.

Defining norms:

  • Conveying expectations within the workplace is a really important part of making people feel comfortable. So reassuring employees who might be worried that they’re breaking norms that what they’re doing is ‘ok’ is such a simple but effective way to put people’s minds at ease.
  • Creating an ‘It’s ok’ document that normalises things you suspect people are worrying about  is a really good way of doing this. For example, “It’s ok to turn your camera off if you’re struggling with Zoom fatigue” or “It’s ok to let us know you’re having a bad day and need to take it off” (here’s an example from Gov). 

Demonstrating best behaviour:

  • Setting standards for others to follow is also really important for breaking down ‘expectation’ issues. This is particularly relevant to Senior Management and Leadership teams, who have an entire workforce looking to them for an understanding of behavioural norms within the workplace (often accompanied by a feeling of pressure to follow them).
  • So simple things like actually taking the day off when you’ve got a day of annual leave booked in (which goes down to the point of not responding to a single email, or Slack message). Not sending emails after the working day has finished because everyone can see that you’ve been working late.
  • One of the group told us that their organisation gave everybody an additional day off to tie in with a Bank Holiday weekend this year, making their long weekends just that little bit longer in order to give some additional time for rest and respite.
    • A core part of the way this was communicated to the team was highlighting that everybody in the company was to take the day off – including leaders and manager – to make sure they were setting an example both internally and externally.

Mental health relief day

Giving employees a day off every ‘x’ period of time (quarter, half, year) to use however is best for them is another great signal to teams that mental health is being prioritised, and that the company is creating space for teams to have time away from work.

Special interest peer groups

Another suggestion made was to create a forum through which people with shared interests can speak openly with each other. Some examples shared were groups for working parents, neurodivergent people, and black employees. Those who have already introduced these groups have had really positive feedback from the participants.

Slack emojis: 

  • Slack is one of the popular communications platforms used by many organisations for their internal communications.
  • To help mitigate people’s anxieties around colleagues not responding to messages, or being seemingly abrupt with their answers, a simple tool that lots of us have used is Slack emojis – a set of bespoke/custom emojis that can quickly communicate people’s status (e.g. “I’m writing” represented by a pen emoji, “I’m concentrating on something” represented by a thought bubble, “In a meeting” represented by a calendar icon).
  • The list is endless, and the great thing about them is that every organisation can create their own, so they feel personal and relevant to each set of employees and the various situations they might be in.
  • For those of us using them, emojis have become part of our new language for internal communications and have made it easier to let people know what we’re doing at any specific moment.

Internal training sessions:

  • Providing our teams with the basic information about mental health has been another useful strategy. Starting with the basics, leadership teams have found that educating employees about the topic by looking at questions such as ‘What is mental health?’, ‘What is stress and anxiety?’, ‘What are the signs I should be looking out for in myself and my team?’, can go a long way in helping people understand (and therefore recognise) the issues.
  • Some useful resources were shared in this discussion:

Create virtual spaces for people to come together informally:

  • To combat the reduction of physical social interactions, we’ve found that making an effort to tighten up the points at which teams come together in a non-work-related setting has been an effective way to boost everyone’s mood.
  • While nothing can replace the nuanced moments of being in a physical space with other people, having those moments where teams come together for a team meeting, informal chat or a coffee catch-up really helps.
    • For example, at Substrakt we have a weekly ‘show & tell’ meeting, where a member of the team can talk about literally anything (these range from things such as online storytelling and photo sharing, to hands on demonstrations of making stovetop coffee and piano recitals!). It’s the highlight of everyone’s week, and gives us an opportunity to learn new things about each other that might otherwise stay hidden away. It’s also just a chance for us all to have a natter!

Getting the best out of each other:

  • With such a range of leadership styles and personality types in the workplace, we discussed how learning about people’s preferences, ways of working and dispositions can help to create a working environment where teams feel happy, comfortable and productive.
  • One of the group shared a great resource to easily facilitate this. The six section user manual guide (a simple 30 minute exercise for individuals to complete) gives employees the opportunity to answer a set of questions that enable “transparency about out work style – our preferences, values, quirks and all – shortening the learning curve for others by making explicit things that might otherwise take months, or even years, to uncover”.
  • It’s something to consider introducing to the onboarding process for new joiners to help build trust and openness from the beginning.

Company top up schemes:

  • A couple of us shared schemes we’ve introduced to help our employees with health costs and access to certain services that include mental health support, counselling and advice lines:
    • NHS top up scheme – this is a health plan that we introduced at Substrakt earlier this year. The scheme gives all of our employees the ability to claim cashback on health costs such as dental treatment, scans, prescriptions and lots more. Access to an employee assistance helpline, counselling, and accident cover is also included (it’s also available for our employee’s partners and children).
    • Health Assured UK’s Employee Assistance Programme was also shared by one of the group as a popular programme providing similar support for their employees.

We also discussed the anxieties that some people are experiencing about returning to the office, and the subsequent challenges we’ve encountered around bringing people back into the physical space:

Health and safety guidelines: 

  • Unlike other health and safety documents (such as a fire drill) there’s no blueprint or precedent set for a document advising colleagues on returning to the office following a global pandemic, which came with its own set of very specific circumstances.
  • This has been challenging for those in charge of devising these guidelines and sharing them with the team. An additional level of change communication is required from management teams, which in a world where people are inherently resistant to change isn’t an easy job!
  • We all agreed that ensuring full transparency about what we do and don’t know has been an important way to navigate this. Our employees have appreciated honesty, so being open to people’s concerns, accommodating any individual needs, and showing that we’re being receptive to the changing government guidelines are all part of this.

Travel:

  • Travel was a regular part of many people’s jobs and lives before the pandemic, which helped to provide a healthy daily routine for some (breaking up people’s time and/or offering a change of scenery). So this understandably posed challenges for those who benefited from travelling when it was taken away.
  • We discussed how people will need to be reminded of the fact that travel used to be part of our everyday lives, and may need help recalling some of the associated skills and techniques to make sure they feel comfortable with the travel restart (e.g. pre-travel preparation, additional COVID considerations etc).

As you can see, we touched on so many areas related to mental health that equipped us all with new information, tools and a shared reassurance that we’re on the right path. One key thread that emerged as we concluded our discussion was that in order to progress the wider conversation about mental health, we need to be more overt in the ways we speak about the issue and recognise individual preferences, so that people aren’t filling in the gaps with anxiety, stress and worry. And this discussion certainly helped us collectively piece together what effective approaches to this might look like.

The diversification of suppliers & supply chains

As organisations who all intersect with suppliers in some shape or form, we were interested to hear whether people have started moving their EDI focus beyond the changes being made in their own organisations, to a consideration of the diversity of their supply chain.

This began with us acknowledging that in order to achieve the transformation that’s needed, a cumulative effort is required from the wider ecosystem within which we’re all working. Progressing our own individual EDI journeys is a big step in the right direction, but that alone won’t be enough.

And as companies who all intersect with the notoriously non-diverse tech sector, there was a shared feeling that it’s difficult to know where to begin when looking at the demographic makeup of some of the services we use (or are looking to use). We’re all at the early stages of this part of the conversation, which made for a really open and helpful discussion about some potential ways to move it forward.

The first stage of the journey is one that we’d all taken to some extent – understanding what the bigger picture looks like by reviewing and auditing the makeup of the organisations within our supply chains. By understanding this, we’re able to identify how and where changes need to be made. This will also help to:

  • inform the decisions we make as contracts are renewed on a rolling basis (by reviewing the track record of retained contracts and considering whether these organisations are demonstrating change).
  • ensure that EDI becomes another key consideration as we review potential new suppliers.
  • start breaking the cycle – by making a proactive effort to find the right people and making more active choices about who we work with and why, we’ll start making the incremental changes needed to create a pathway to substantial change.

We then talked about the challenges associated with doing this, with one of the main ones being that searching for people on google or asking our networks for popular recommendations will almost always lead us to the incumbent – the organisation or person people have been using for years and who (usually) represent the status quo. And so there’s an immediate barrier to entry, and requires us to make a conscious effort to find the more unconventional suppliers.

We all acknowledged that there are individuals, organisations and groups with whom this is far easier to do than others, which actually makes it a clear and useful place to start. For example:

  • When commissioning individuals such as photographers, freelancers, artists and filmmakers, we can quickly make more conscious choices about who these people are.
    • This means not always defaulting to the same people if there are more diverse options available.
  • If we’ve identified a bigger group or organisation with a non-diverse makeup (where change is going to take more time) we can look at the pipeline to this group/organisation and identify where more diverse individuals can be supported earlier in their training or development.
    • This can help open up greater opportunities for future intakes and ensure that these groups look different in the future (even if it’s 20+ years away).

This prompted a really salient discussion around two things: the importance of progressing this EDI work in a way that’s realistic and sustainable for the day to day running of our businesses, and the need to have mature and open conversations with our teams about the decisions we’re making and why.

  • This started when someone mentioned the recent controversy about Basecamp’s new policy, in which they announced they would ban “social and political discussions” at work.
    • With Basecamp being a software that many of us use, this quite rightly caused anger amongst our teams and caused people to question why we were still using it.
    • But we all recognised that unfortunately, we can’t simply stop using it immediately because it’s crucial to the everyday operation of people’s work. And so we must consider the wider implications of decisions such as these before responding to the (justifiably) emotional reactions of our teams. These include:
      • the mental health issues this could cause amongst team members who use the software every day to manage projects and communicate with teams and/or clients. Removing something so inherent to the successful performance of someone’s job could cause a significant amount of stress and anxiety.
      • the disruption this would cause to our work and our communication with clients and each other. It could mean the difference between a project going live on time and within budget.
    • We talked about how this also applies to conversations about sustainability and the ethical decisions we make.
      • For example, lots of our website infrastructure is hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS) who (although committing to 100% renewable energy by 2025) have a sizable carbon footprint (Amazon as a company is currently aiming to be carbon neutral across all their businesses by 2040).
      • But to disaggregate ourselves from Amazon would be a hugely complicated process that would require wholesale businesses changes. We recognised that perhaps this is something we can start engaging with, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s far from a ‘quick fix’ and would have a disruptive impact on the everyday running of our businesses.
  • This doesn’t mean just ignoring the issue. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s about having a shared understanding of the realities associated with working with (and in) tech everyday, and therefore the need to define what realistic change looks like in the short, medium and long term:
    • This involves having conversations with our teams about our intentions, while painting a realistic picture of ‘what change looks like’ in a way that’s not going to be disruptive to the way our businesses run.
    • It’s about making responsible decisions that will have the best longer term impact, and communicating the reasons behind these decisions clearly.
    • We’re all learning how to have these conversations, and we agreed that the fact they’re happening in the first place is a really promising sign that people are feeling more comfortable and confident to speak out and challenge the status quo.

We then had a more practically-focused conversation about the things we can be doing in the shorter term to move the needle on the issue. The common theme here was the importance of making our own values immediately available to external parties:

  • Being explicit about what we stand for and setting expectations that people can see could help connect us with like minded organisations.
    • A live example we identified was using a social media community group to challenge an organisation to show the salary on their job adverts.
    • Others have (or are on the pathway to) achieving BCorp certification, which helps to demonstrate that we’re actively making choices about our social and environmental impact (which directly intersects with a range of EDI-considerations).
  • And by setting these standards, we have a better chance of changing other people’s behaviours and the way they work with us. For example, setting expectations around accessible and sustainable web design could mean our partners are naturally encouraged to think and work through an EDI lens.
  • Being clear about our values when contracting work or speaking to potential partners is therefore a useful place to start.

There is of course a tonal consideration here, and it doesn’t mean being self-righteous or isolating swathes of potential partners (partly due to the reality of our sector’s make-up as mentioned above), but it’s signalling intent. And we therefore agreed on the importance of recognising the values and intentions of others within the supply chain:

  • As we often discuss in these forums, we’re all at different stages of our EDI journey and there’s still a way to go, but the fact we’re on the journey is the overriding thing. So it’s important for us to remember that this applies to those we’re working with. Just because an organisation’s current demographic makeup doesn’t reflect a diverse workforce, it doesn’t mean they’re not taking steps to change it.
  • We all recognise that change doesn’t happen immediately, so being patient with others, appreciating that they may also be going through the process, and not just taking stats and data at face value is something to be mindful of.

As briefly noted above, we also touched on the reality of our digital carbon footprint and the environmental impact of our sector’s work. Given this intersects with so many EDI considerations, it’s something we all acknowledged as a problem, but given the scale of the issue it’s not something anyone has an immediate solution to. But there are some smaller things we can be doing:

So the overall takeout from this part of our conversation was that there are short, medium and long term changes that can (and need to be) made across the set of supplier considerations. And we all left equipped with some helpful things we can be doing in the short term to prompt the ‘ripple effect’ required for more wholesale change.

We closed the conversation by reminding ourselves that the topics discussed today (and indeed the EDI conversation more broadly) are complex, intersectional and multifaceted. Many of the things we talk about in these forums are interrelated, and so the more conversations we have, the clearer the picture will become.

As always, there were so many interesting and useful things shared about both topics discussed. And it was another important reminder that making the time and space for these conversations is crucial to the progress of both our own EDI efforts and the collective progress of our sector.

 

The next Tech In Culture EDI Alliance Partner Forum is taking place on Wednesday 17th November (read more about the Alliance and how to join).

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, just drop us an email, we’d love to hear from you: team@substrakt.com


Resources: