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  • Kat Hounsell

Why it's time we talked about Mental Health

Kat Hounsell leading a mental health workshop with The Benevolent at Bibendum. Photo by Bibendum twitter

It is estimated that, in the last week, 1 in 6 people across the world experienced a common mental health problem.

Poor mental health affects people from all cultures, ages and genders which means it’s present in every industry globally. This includes the wine and spirits industry, where factors such as increased exposure to alcohol, working late nights, travel demands, and more can make achieving positive wellbeing more challenging for many.

The good news is that important conversations about wellbeing are being had within the industry, shining a light on the subject and creating a safe place to discuss issues openly.

Earlier this year, London Wine Fair 2018 hosted a panel discussion on mental health in the drinks industry.

At the end of the evening, one of the participants shared his thoughts:

"Being part of this discussion has made me realise what I was going through a few years ago was a period of poor mental health. As a business leader I have a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of my people."

There was a sense of relief in the air that someone had spoken out and a desire to make these conversations happen more within the trade.

Why talk about mental health?

In my role as a business consultant, I’m finding this type of response becoming more and more the norm when I speak or deliver training around the topics of mental health and wellbeing – people declare “thank goodness I can finally talk about this stuff!” Mental health issues can be much closer than we realise.

I’ve had strangers talk to me about family members and colleagues who have chronic anxiety or experiencing suicidal thoughts. I’ve also had people share how they’re really feeling for the first time, where fear of discrimination and stigma has previously prevented them speaking out. Recently a participant said to me “I can’t tell work in case they think I can’t do this job, I’ve just been promoted, and I love what I’m doing.”

All that potential being held back because people aren’t getting the support they need, and when they need it. The drinks industry is one that believes in pushing the boundaries of creativity, bringing people together to share and have fun, and being a serious player in the world of business – encouraging global trade. To do that we need healthy, engaged team members with the energy, spark and focus to do great work.

A revelation – we all have mental health. It impacts how we think, feel and behave on a daily basis. Sometimes our mental health is good, and sometimes it’s not so good. Some people may have a long-term mental health diagnosis, however, with a supportive environment and appropriate care, they can still experience high levels of wellbeing and thrive at what they do.

Kat Hounsell, writer of this article (second to the right), at a mental health seminar hosted by The Benevolent at the London Wine Fair 2018. Other panellists: Mike Turner (Please Bring Me My Wine), Christo Eliott Lockhart (Hallgarten & Novum Wines), Chris Porter (CEO, The Benevolent), Miles Beale (CEO, WSTA). Photo by The Drinks Business

Where’s the conversation got to?

Before writing this piece I conducted further research to see what else is out there on mental health in the drinks industry.

Top of the list was #NotAlone, the ground-breaking campaign from The Benevolent, the UK’s trade charity. In 2017 the charity set-up a free confidential helpline and more recently they’ve released the findings of an industry focussed report, created in partnership with Wine Intelligence.

Some statistics from the survey:

  • 1 in 3 respondents experienced high levels of stress, anxiety and fatigue over the past year

  • 4 out of 10 never spoke to anyone at work about their mental health issues

  • 49% respondents believed that their company has no mental health support mechanism in place, or none that they are aware of

  • The main barrier that stops people (specifically 48% of respondents) to disclose their mental health difficulties is the potential harm to career prospects

I also found an article in The Buyer, about why mental health and wine can be awkward bedfellows, from wine blogger Mike Turner. Mike presents a ‘full-frontal’ view on why we need to talk more openly about mental health – this became one of The Buyer’s most read in 2017.

Looking further afield, Marthelize Tredoux, has shared her reflections on the unique pressures of working in the South Africa wine industry and how business challenges can trickle down to affect the individual.

There’s also poignant work happening in the hospitality industry. Tim Etherington-Judge is raising the profile of wellbeing through his work at Healthy Hospo and, in Autumn 2018, the team at CODE, one of the leading authorities on the London hospitality industry, will also release industry specific research data and recommendations in their quarterly magazine.

Over in the States, WSET’s Dave Rudman DipWSET shared his three self-care musts for bartenders in a blog for USBG. The organisation has started a ‘Wellness Wednesdays’ initiative whereby they share weekly content to promote practices that contribute to positive well-being. Meanwhile, the extended challenges for bartenders and others in hospitality have also been put under the spotlight by Tales of the Cocktail Foundation.

Within the drinks industry, substance misuse and addiction is a reality, and there is an intimate relationship with mental health difficulties. Alcohol and drugs can both be the cause and/or an unhelpful coping strategy for those struggling with their mental health. This is so common that having both a mental health diagnosis and addiction has been given an official name of ‘Dual Diagnosis.’

Perusing the careers pages of some of the big players, diversity and inclusion is becoming a prominent topic too, and one that supports a mentally healthy workplace.

I really like this Brown Forman statement:

“Inclusion unleashes the power of diversity by creating a culture that empowers all employees to fully express themselves and feel comfortable being who they are while contributing their talents to the business.”

How can I keep the conversation moving?

There are everyday opportunities where we can make talking about mental health ordinary.

Next time you ask someone “How are you?” stop, listen, and really give that person your full attention. Ask more questions to find out how they really are. If they’re feeling great then you’ve given them a chance to share it and perhaps their positive energy has passed onto you! If they’re not doing so great, having someone to listen may have made their day a little easier and brighter.

We can also talk more openly about the everyday actions we take to boost our own wellbeing. There’s no shame in taking a fresh air walk at break time, managing your diary to have quality time with your family, or saying no to ‘just one more drink’ after a long shift so you can get an extra 30 minutes sleep.

Even when you’re faced with a bar 10 people deep, a short pause and deep breath can do wonders for dialling down the ‘fight or flight’ response that’s likely kicked in.

Then there’s the times when you might be feeling concerned about a family member, colleague, or friend. Talk to them. It’s OK if you’re not sure what to say or where to start as there isn’t a prescribed "right" or "wrong" way. I recommend keeping three things in mind:

  • Be discreet – have the conversation away from others in a relaxed setting

  • Be conversational – just be yourself and genuinely caring and curious with questions

  • Be observational – share what you’ve seen, “I’ve noticed you’ve been coming in late recently and I wanted to check-in and see how you’re doing?”

As a manager of a team, it is much harder to spot difficulties as you might not spend much time with them, especially if they work from home. However, it is more than worthwhile to bring up the conversation about how they are feeling, rather than just talking about business all the time. Christo Eliott Lockhart, Sales Manager at Hallgarten & Novum Wines*

How can my organisation keep the conversation moving?

Talking about mental health at work is important. Employers have a duty of care to their staff and it also makes good business sense. The return on investment business case of looking after employee wellbeing is getting stronger year on year.

Within our organisations we can take everyday steps to create a culture of wellbeing and performance. Good policies and procedures act as a guide for what to do and give the message that "this is important to us." Quality training then brings these policies to life and builds awareness and skill where it matters.

Mental Health First Aid is an international course that’s designed to help reduce stigma, highlight the signs and symptoms of poor mental health, and provide a framework for how to support a colleague.

Most of the time when mental health issues arise we find ourselves to be reacting to those, however we should also be proactive about mental health difficulties, such as getting the conversation well upstream and make sure everyone knows what to do in case of need. We should challenge ourselves on making the conversation about mental health a daily experience instead of an intervention to a problem. Miles Beale, Chief Executive of the Wine & Spirits Trade Association*

So, whether you have a personal passion about de-stigmatising mental health in the drinks industry, OR you’re able to influence your workplace to become more mentally healthy - it’s time to talk about mental health. It’s only once we’re talking that we can start taking action to help ourselves, our teams, and our industry to thrive.

If you’d like to speak to someone about your mental health, or are concerned about someone you know, there are a number of organisations that can help, which are listed below:

The Benevolent (UK) 0800 915 4610

Samaritans (UK) 116 123

SAMHSA (USA) 1-800-662-4357

Mental Health Association of Hong Kong (Hong Kong) 852 2772 0047

Beyond Blue (Australia) 1300 22 4636

*Quote from London Wine Fair 2018 seminar

Kat Hounsell is a drinks industry veteran and Founder of Everyday People, a business consultancy that helps organisations to thrive and provider of Mental Health First Aid training. Kat holds WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and has a continued passion for supporting our industry

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