Spotlight Series: Insight from Ignite the Human Spark on tackling the GBC Pledge

Nerissa J. Persaud, social entrepreneur and founder of the Ignite The Human Spark initiative, is on a mission to improve workplace mental health, productivity and purpose.

After more than a decade in global talent resources and people development, the beginning of the pandemic showed Nerissa that the global mental health crisis required collaborative action, a global conversation, and greater individual responsibility. She now helps organisations to create sustainable cultures of wellbeing.

Nerissa J. Persaud, social entrepreneur and founder of the Ignite The Human Spark initiative, is on a mission to improve workplace mental health, productivity and purpose.

After more than a decade in global talent resources and people development, the beginning of the pandemic showed Nerissa that the global mental health crisis required collaborative action, a global conversation, and greater individual responsibility. She now helps organisations to create sustainable cultures of wellbeing.


Developing an action plan for better workplace mental health 

Nerissa explains that before there can be a framework or action plan around what it means to support good mental health, there needs to be a genuine level of consciousness to the real trauma and frustrations affecting peoples’ lives and depleting their mental health. 

In the beginning, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about what we think people need based on general data. It’s about asking the right questions. To get to the heart of the matter, Nerissa often asks leaders to think about how work can actually improve people’s lives.

When these core questions are used to shape the development of a mental health action plan, it makes it easier to achieve other pieces of the framework, including:

  • Creating an environment that gives employees ‘permission to care’ 
  • Gaining visible corporate buy-in
  • Creating and sustaining healthy wellbeing behaviours

When it comes to advising organisations that are about to embark on their own workplace mental health journey, Nerissa recommends always leading with transparency; without this, you cannot hope to inspire change. 

Mental health is a very complex matter, and human beings are very complex. There needs to be a genuine level of transparency, compassion and willingness to learn if we are to build trust.”

Promoting an open culture around mental health 

Once you’ve taken your first steps towards improving mental health at work, Nerissa believes the focus should be on normalising healthy behaviours and interactions. Leaders have a crucial role to play here: it’s up to those at the top to clearly communicate what support is available, and that seeking and accessing that support is welcomed and encouraged. 

Nerissa also explains that organisations must be aware of any existing values or beliefs that may conflict with initiatives to promote mental health: “It is possible to advocate for change and still act against change because of unacknowledged values and beliefs that are hardwired into how a company operates.” 

Nerissa suggests that it’s unreasonable to expect others to engage if they feel they are standing alone:

I talked openly about burnout, anxiety, working through mental fatigue after childbirth, dealing with grief after the passing of a loved one and feeling lost and conflicted during the Covid-19 pandemic. These vulnerabilities allowed others to see the less glamorous side of real life. It was through this sense of inner strength that I helped others to open up without fear of judgement.” 

When helping organisations to tackle mental health stigma within the workplace, Nerissa follows three important steps:

  1. Running a diagnostic report on the values, beliefs, language and inclusion that underpin company culture, and identifying anything that may act as a barrier to good mental health. It isn’t a matter of blame, but simply becoming aware of what is no longer relevant in a modern workplace. 
  2. Asking whether internal language is effective or retroactive? For example, an initiative that promotes mental health care as opposed to mental health help shows that support is available, without the stigma. For leaders, it’s about being aware of what needs to be ‘un-learned’ to give employees the confidence to seek and accept support.
  3. Examining opportunities that demonstrate belonging and inclusion. Creating an open culture that promotes good mental health is dependent on a whole ecosystem of processes, beliefs, values and language. It doesn’t work if only a few people feel represented; for many groups, the conversation is not created equal, so fostering inclusive environments must be a priority.

Creating a positive workplace mental health environment

According to Nerissa, creating a positive cycle of mental health is curated, seen, felt and activated on the premise of:  

    1. Employees knowing they have permission to care for themselves:  It’s important to disable the mental roadblocks that come with attitudes of ‘policing’ and ‘penalties’ – replacing them with visible ‘permission’ for employees to prioritise themselves.
    2. Initiatives being connected to what employees actually need:  If employers really want to support the mental health of their workforce, they need to understand their employees’ challenges, their lives outside of work, and how they can help them to manage the mental load.
    3. Change being championed from the top-down:  When employees see their leaders being open, vulnerable and human, they feel less alone – and more inclined to be their authentic selves.


  • Health initiatives remaining highly visible and accessible:  Programs, wellness facilities and hubs that aim to promote or allow for support and self-care should not be out of sight, difficult to reach, or require tedious planning. People need easy access and flexibility. 
  • Embedding the wellbeing message into the everyday:  This is achieved by helping employees to develop a meaningful relationship with wellness and living healthier lives. The concept should be embedded into everything from nutritional eating advice in cafeterias, to pop-up workshops inspiring micro-steps into a healthy lifestyle. 

Empowering people to prioritise their mental health

Employees need to know they have permission to care for themselves without fear of penalty, criticism or judgement. This forms the basis of what Nerissa calls the ‘WE6 of Mental Health Empowerment’.

  1. We ask people what they feel is most important to support their mental health journey.
  2. We involve people in the process of determining what they need to effectively support, manage and prioritise their mental health.
  3. We normalise the mental health conversation through how we work, live and learn to get people excited about new habits and the possibilities of living a full life.
  4. We give people opportunities to suggest what can be done better, without fear of being silenced or judged.
  5. We listen when people talk about their mental health struggles and needs.
  6. We act to swiftly address attitudes and behaviours that conflict with promoting good mental health. 

Empowering people to take the reins with confidence and make their mental health a priority happens when they are given the autonomy to make important decisions about their lives. It’s about treating them like grown-ups, rather than boxing them into a culture of processes and systems that actually act as barriers. 

Nerissa believes that to encourage employees to support one another, rewarding the sort of behaviour you want to see is particularly effective:

This evolved into what I call the ‘Mental Rewards Points Program.’ The system is a virtual board that is meant to be fun, with tabs that display small acts of kindness and humor; such as buying flowers for a loved one, tagging a co-worker for a virtual coffee, giving compliments generously, or donating to charity. At the end of the week the ‘rewards champion’ is named and wears the virtual crown. It keeps the air light, and people connected in ways that matter.”

Nerissa goes on to explain that people may not always want to share what’s happening with them, but they are more inclined to do so if they feel there are people around who are willing to listen. The role of mental health champions is important here, as they help to spread awareness and normalise conversations.

Signposting Support; Measuring Impact 

Ensuring that people get the right information, at the right time, and for the right reason is very important – particularly with the shift to virtual working. Navigating this shift means that how we signpost and address someone needing support has to be flexible. 

When it comes to measuring impact, Nerissa talks of the need to review data against what you are trying to achieve. When helping organisations to effect cultural change, she looks at:

  • How easy it is for people to care for themselves and access support
  • The quality of initiatives and how they connect to what matters most 
  • The commitment from top leadership to maintain visibility
  • The acceptance of inclusivity
  • The opportunities for people to speak up and get involved

Initiatives, tools and resources are measured by asking: 

  • Is it adding value? How and in what ways?
  • Is it promoting the health and wellbeing of people? Where does it connect with user needs and user types? Where does it fall short?
  • Is it affording an opportunity for diverse perspectives? 
  • What are people saying?
  • What are people not saying?
  • What are the shifts, if any, since initiating new processes or procedure?

This approach helps Nerissa, and the businesses she supports, to understand if they’re heading in the right direction.

And the biggest piece of advice she would give to companies just starting out on their workplace mental health journey? 

I want more and more people to know they have the power to shape the narratives that are told. That their mental health journey is theirs and they can demand better. Actually, they must! If they are to lead healthy lives and have the support to do so, it is the bare minimum that they speak up, get educated, and be a part of the joint change in creating better workplace mental health.”

To become part of our global mental health movement, sign the GBC Leadership Pledge today.