How unpleasant social media messages can impact your employees
Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work
Beckett Frith asks what happens when communications staff face a backlash because of what they share online – and what employers can do about it.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in June when’s social media team tweeted a simple statement. “We’re loving that #TransMenAreMen is trending,” it read. “The fact some people disagree with this is a common reason trans men are more likely to experience mental health problems than the average. A reminder to accept that people know themselves better than you do, and to be kind, always.” They included a little blue heart at the end of their supportive message.
But instantly, the comments started pouring in. Many, of course, were grateful, thanking Mind for sharing a positive sentiment at a time when theis under increasing attack. But some comments were less welcome.
“Someone’s getting fired tomorrow.”
“The social media team have screwed up here.”
“You’ve just lost a supporter.”
In total, the tweet received over 600 comments, a mix of supportive and critical – but far more engagement than Mind’s usual tweets receive.
This kind of comment can be really hard for them to read and respond to in a professional way.
“Even though I was confident we’d done the right thing in standing up for a marginalised group, reading messages like that was still hard,” says Samantha Hopps, Mind’s Digital Content Manager. And it’s not just trans issues that Mind staff have experienced backlash over – the charity is aiming to become anorganisation, and as a result is frequently a topic on their social media channels.
“People often disagree that racism exists, or say unhelpful things like ‘everyone has poor mental health, not just Black people’ when what we’re saying is that Black people are disproportionately affected by mental health problems, or are more likely to have force used against them in a mental health setting,” Samantha explains. “We have Black team members moderating our social channels, and this kind of comment can be really hard for them to read and respond to in a professional way – because obviously it’s personal.”
Mind’s social team already deals with difficult messages because of the nature of their social channels – people frequently reach out and mention theiror talk about their poor experiences of the mental health system. “Dealing with abusive messages on top of that can be really tough – especially if you’re having a bad day yourself,” says Samantha.
And hurtful messages on social media can have a big impact on someone’s mental wellbeing. Francesca Stevens is a social scientist researching online harms at City, University of London, and technolology-facilitated abuse at UCL.
“Research has shown that victims of cyber abuse have experienced depression, anxiety,, fear, anger, low self-esteem, shame, isolation, panic, sadness, paranoia and suicidal ideation,” she says. “Furthermore, some victims have experienced physical symptoms including stomach aches, panic attacks and heart palpitations, and have engaged in self-harming behaviours.”
Francesca warns that it is important to understand the wide-ranging effects that these offences have on people’s lives, and how they negatively impact their day-to-day experiences. “They have been shown to impact how people continue to interact with technology – for example feeling fearful when the telephone rings or to check their emails or use social media to keep in touch with friends.
“A distrust of technology can evolve, as can a mistrust of people. This of course needs to be tackled, as technology is only becoming more prevalent in daily life, and removing oneself from the online world can cause greater isolation and mental anguish.”
Everyone should have the right to go to work and feel safe whilst doing their job.
If your organisation has a social media presence, then, it’s crucial you’re aware of these potential issues, and have a system in place to support any staff who might be affected byonline.
Mind, for example, allows staff members to step back if they are affected by the issues being discussed on social media. “If someone is having a difficult day they can easily tap out of moderating,” says Samantha. “Having an instant messaging app (for example, Slack) to chat to others about your responses, or chat to the whole group of moderators, also makes you feel like you’re not alone in dealing with the negativity. Peer support is so important here, so any ways you can foster a sense of connection among the moderation team will help people to feel supported.”
And Francesca adds that everyone should have the right to go to work and feel safe whilst doing their job – but that sometimes online harassment doesn’t end when work does. “As people can now be contacted anywhere, anytime – if someone is being bullied, then it will not necessarily stop when the employee is no longer within working hours or within the workplace due to the reachability that technology has afforded,” she warns. “If employees are not supported adequately, this can lead to the individual feeling the need to resign from their job in order to protect themselves and their mental health. Sadly, this can affect a person’s career, as well as that the perpetrator(s) have not been sufficiently dealt with. This highlights the need for employers to take action and support their staff before it gets to that stage.”
If you are being affected by online abuse, Francesca suggests speaking to a trusted family member, friend, or colleague about what you are experiencing. “with someone may help you to feel less isolated and alone,” she explains. “If it is possible and feels safe, then speaking to a manager or HR personnel would also be ideal in order to make the company aware of what is happening and for them to begin to support you.
“However, this is not always possible, or sometimes HR does not provide the necessary support. If this is the case, there are various helplines that can assist individuals with these problems.” Francesca suggests the following organisations might be able to help:
· The Cyber Helpline
· The Cybersmile Foundation
· The National Bullying Helpline
Often it's helpful just to vent
At Mind, staff are encouraged to take part in regular group sessions to offload. These are an hour to just rant about any nasty comments or difficult people they’ve had to deal with recently. “No solutions are needed at these sessions – but often it’s helpful just to vent,” Samantha says. “And, we encourage moderators to have individual reflective practice sessions with the trained counsellor – these sessions are provided by Mind and they are absolutely invaluable – so I would recommend all employers look into this as an option for their staff.”
Mind’s trans-positive tweet story has a happy ending. Despite the backlash, Mind’s team stood firm for what they believe in. “When we shared our #TransMenAreMen Tweet, it would have been easy for senior leadership to see all of the negativity in the comments and tell us to pull it down,” Samantha says. “I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening at other organisations. But at Mind, senior leadership was right behind us, confirming that it was great to see us being so bold, and offering any support we needed to moderate the extra volume of comments.
“That response has given me the confidence to pursue this kind of bold approach in the future.”