Case study

Emerald Group: the firm that built in mental wellbeing from the start

Sarah Windrum
Sarah Windrum

Co-founder and CEO,
The Emerald Group

7 mins

There are over 5 million small business in the UK, employing around three-fifths of the employment in the private sector.  As part of out focus on smaller workplaces, we asked Sarah Windrum, co-founder and CEO of Emerald Group, about her experiences setting up and running her own SME.

What would you do if you could build your organisation’s culture from scratch? While that’s just a dream for most of us, those who take the leap into starting their own business have the chance to lay the groundwork for their entire mental health strategy from the planning stages.

This is exactly what Sarah Windrum, co-founder and CEO of The Emerald Group decided to do when she founded her IT support and project management business in 2009. “I always promised myself as an employer I would encourage open and honest conversations​Start the conversation Video One of the first, and easiest, things you can do to start improving mental health at work is simply to start a conversation. In this video, people from various industries talk about the importance of talking to someone.Free By: Dorset Mind View resource and I would never shut an employee down when they were talking about their feelings, however difficult that might sometimes be,” she explains.

“I also wanted to empower everyone to better manage their own mental health by sharing my own story and strategies and making information and mental health first aid training​Implementing Mental Health First Aiders: a guide for employers PDF The only effective, sustainable approach to employee wellbeing involves the whole organisation. This guide explains how to recruit, train, and assess your Mental Health First Aiders.Free By: Mental Health First Aid England View resource readily available.”

I tried to have an open and honest conversation with the managing director and I was closed down.

Sarah’s decision to centre mental health in her business was sparked by poor experiences she had at a previous workplace. “I worked for a small publishing company during a very difficult time for me whilst I was having counselling and CBT to manage my depression and anxiety,” she says. “I tried to have an open and honest conversation with the managing director and I was closed down. It hurt, and made me question everything about my value in the organisation.”

The first step for Sarah was to lead by example. She decided to share her own story and the strategies she uses. “When people see my own management techniques and the flexibility available, they can see how to use it best for themselves,” she says.

Staff at Emerald Group enjoy a relaxed meeting

However, it hasn’t always been easy to ensure everyone understands the message. For example, Sarah once encountered an employee who told her to ‘leave your emotions at the door’.  “On the flip side last year I heard one of our apprentices say to another, ‘if you’re late just say you’re struggling with your mental health – she forgives that’,” she says. However, due to the open and honest culture at Emerald, Sarah was able to have a balanced and positive conversation in both cases.

“Because it’s been embedded in the culture from early on, the people who have liked it flourish, and the people whom it doesn’t suit will leave,” she adds. “There has not been many who have chosen to leave, and when I see employees with mental health conditions really thrive and develop their own management techniques whilst delivering great work, it makes it worth it!”

Those of us struggling with our mental health will know what we can do to manage it, so listening and being flexible is key.

Even now, Emerald Group continues to adapt and change its mental health strategy ​Wellbeing strategy template PDF Many organisations are happy to invest in initiatives to support employee wellbeing, but often only focus on a few elements. This template outlines the key areas to consider, including questions to help plan and build better strategies for the future.FreeProvide your details to download straight away By: Bailey & French View resourcein order to better suit the employees. “Our current strategy is to maintain our open and honest culture by empowering the new second tier management under us as directors to continue the conversations,” Sarah explains. “They are completing mental health first aid training and having one to one coaching to support them.”

Sarah’s top tip for other firms looking to improve their culture around mental health is to not be afraid to have open conversations and to ask questions. “Those of us struggling with our mental health will know what we can do to manage it, so listening and being flexible is key,” she adds. “And you will need to invest in mental health training and coaching, just as you invest in skills training to do the job. This is a long term investment that will pay your business back ten-fold.”

Sarah Windrum

Sarah Windrum
Co-founder and CEO, 

The Emerald Group

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