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Case study: Mental health support led by the individual

Monzo wanted to ensure a range of help is available to all employees, wherever and whenever they want it

The organisation

Formed in 2015, Monzo started as a prepaid card that could be topped up via an app to enable users to make free cash withdrawals abroad. It quickly built up a strong following, and after being given the green light by the Financial Conduct Authority became a fully-fledged banking brand in 2017. Its prepaid card system has since closed, with users upgraded to its current account. Last year Monzo was named a ‘best buy’ for current accounts by not-for-profit co-operative group Ethical Consumer.

The problem

Thanks to the efforts of campaigners, businesses and charities over recent years, mental health in the workplace is now recognised as a pressing concern for employers. But while there’s far more transparency around mental health than even a few years ago, substantial progress on supporting staff has been slow in some quarters.

Research from Business in the Community in September found that of 4,000 employees surveyed, 39% had experienced poor mental health due to their work, while 33% of those with mental health problems felt ignored. Even more worryingly, 9% had been subjected to disciplinary action, demotion or dismissal after disclosing their mental health issues.

Monzo’s head of people Tara Mansfield is determined that nothing like this happens at her company, and that mental health support isn’t treated as an afterthought.

“When it comes to poor mental health you know that it’s something everyone has [at some point], and there will inevitably be people who are struggling in your team,” she says.

Mental health support for staff makes sense both ethically and strategically for organisations, she adds.

“We’re an ethical company. I’m really proud that we’re able to offer advice on financial wellbeing to our customers, and act in a responsible fair way. For me it’s about making sure that we apply the same values to the workforce.”

Mansfield knew that any support on offer at Monzo needed to be as holistic as possible, because poor mental health is experienced differently by each individual.

“If you just focus on one area of mental health there’s always going to be a risk that you alienate someone,” she explains.

“There are lots of people who will go through a crisis at some point or a difficult challenge, and they might have increased levels of anxiety. There are also people who have a long-term diagnosed health condition and need more ongoing support, and there are others who might have a co-morbid mental health condition alongside being neurodiverse.”

Only offering one kind of mental health support would be short-sighted from a business point of view as it could alienate staff who require something different, she adds.

“It would be wrong for employers to say ‘we can help these people, but not those dealing with more serious issues’ – that’s a really risky approach. While employers can’t always directly improve people’s mental health, all employers can make it clear that they are open to supporting everyone.”

Crucially, however, there should always be boundaries, Mansfield says.

“We didn’t want people to feel as though we were interfering with their lives or dictating what they should do with their mental health,” she stresses. “Most people don’t want that much direct input from their employers. We just want people to have as many options as possible so they feel they’re in control of their wellbeing.”

So the challenge was to create a comprehensive strategy on mental health support at work while empowering individuals to manage their own wellbeing in a way that best suits them.

The method

Organisations that are serious about mental health, and have the funds, must put their money where their mouths are, says Mansfield.

“We offer private healthcare to all employees, and mental health comes under that. Everyone is able to access a therapist if they need it,” she says.

The key is making sure employees know what support is available.

“We always make sure that people know that this is an option for them and make it very clear that mental health is just as important as what’s going on physically,” Mansfield adds. “It can be easy to forget that this is an option, so we tell everyone that this is something they can do regardless of if they come to us with an issue.”

Monzo has also trained 45 employees as mental health first aiders.

“We wanted to make sure that people have immediate help available. Mental health first aiders often really enjoy the process too, and feeling like they’re in a position where colleagues can come to them if they’re struggling,” she says.

However, it’s important to recognise that not everyone will necessarily want to turn to their employer or go to see a counsellor when something is wrong, Mansfield points out. Which is where mental wellbeing app Spill comes in.

Spill matches employees to one of 50 therapists who are reachable via text on the app. According to Spill 80% of people who use the app have never seen a therapist before. So Monzo’s use of Spill fits neatly with its aim of helping people with personal challenges early on before they develop into more serious problems.

“The great thing about Spill is that it’s completely external. It gives people that outside help of allowing them to talk to someone who is completely outside of their situation in quite a casual way,” says Mansfield. “The more help you can offer at an earlier stage, the better. It’s been a great way to help someone through a crisis before it develops into an illness.”

Visibility is also important. Indeed the company literally has its ethos towards mental health plastered on its walls.

“We’ve put posters up all around our offices with our key messages. They let people know that it’s alright to admit to making a mistake, to asking for a mental health day, and speaking up if you don’t understand something,” says Mansfield.“We’ve also got some tips on what people can do – from taking some fresh air, to being kind to others and bringing their dog to the office.”

The result

Monzo’s all-encompassing approach to championing good mental health has paid off, both in terms of supporting current staff and attracting new talent, says Mansfield.

She believes the success of Spill is a good example of how sometimes it’s worth trying something new when it comes to wellbeing.

“People really weren’t sure about Spill initially. There’s understandably a lot of scepticism with tech companies using people’s data at the moment, and people will obviously feel particularly cautious about sharing details of their mental health,” she reveals.

However, after the HR team stressed that the app is entirely separate from the organisation – and entirely confidential – employees were slowly won over. A third of Monzo’s employees have now signed up for Spill. And of those who do use it 70% do so regularly.

“Those who have approached us about Spill have found it so beneficial. They’ve said it’s really helped them to develop a sense of self-awareness, and where they have ups and downs,” she says.

The smaller details of the strategy have made all the difference, reports Mansfield: “Our workforce is growing at an enormous speed. There were 42 people when I joined Monzo in 2017. Now there are more than 1,000, so we have newcomers pretty much every week.

“What’s been really great to hear is people saying ‘I noticed the posters as soon as I walked in, it’s so great to see a company that actually takes mental health seriously’. That’s what it’s all about for us: enabling people to start those conversations.”

This piece appeared in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk