“Workplaces are key to creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters”, SHP meets MHFA England CEO, Simon Blake
MHFA England is calling on employers to act now to help create a society where everyone’s mental health matters, following research carried out by the organisation which has uncovered that one in four employers do not regularly check-in on their employees’ wellbeing.
SHP sat down with MHFA England CEO Simon Blake to discuss this, how employers can help support their employees and how the coronavirus pandemic has affected mental health and the role of mental health first aiders.
SHP: Recent research carried out by MHFA England has discovered that 25% of employees have had no wellbeing check-ins from their workplace during the pandemic and almost a third of workers say they never discuss their mental health with their line manager. Why do you think that is and how can we improve on those statistics?
Simon Blake (SB): “Workplaces are key to creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters and as we can see from this research, some employers must work harder to create workplaces fit for all. We urge more employers to bring together diversity and inclusion with mental health and wellbeing, to create workplaces where people can safely bring their whole self to work if they choose to.
“Employees need to feel psychologically safe in their workplace environment and be offered flexibility, safety, and freedom to speak openly about any mental health issues they are facing. Only when people feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work, can they perform at their optimum, without fear of judgement or penalty.
“Offering employees regular wellbeing check-ins with their line managers and colleagues is a first step to supporting their mental health and we’re urging all employers to adopt this simple practice going forward.”
SHP: What would, and should, a wellbeing check-in look like?
(SB): “We have created the My Whole Self MOT – a simple, free guide to help people check in on their own and others’ mental health and wellbeing. The MOT tool includes a number of questions people can ask themselves or others, such as ‘How do I feel today, mentally, physically?’ and ‘How’s my thinking today – am I having unhelpful thoughts?’. The resource also provides signposting to further information and tools designed to promote self care and good mental health.
“We encourage employers and employees to share the MOT with colleagues. Line managers can also use the MOT as a tool to talk about mental health during one-to-one sessions with direct reports.”
SHP: Loneliness and isolation have been common worries for employees over the last 12 months, what duties do employers have to ensure their staff are looked after?
(SB): “The nation faces a mental health crisis in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. More people than ever will need mental health and wellbeing support and workplaces have a key role to play in ensuring employees feel supported.
“Although some of us are planning to return to the office in the coming months, others may not wish to do this for some time, or at all. Wherever we’re working from, it is vital that employers establish how to make all employees feel connected. Working from home can feel isolating, so if your organisation is working remotely, employers should make a concerted effort to strengthen virtual relationships. Bringing more of ourselves into the workplace can increase our understanding of each other’s needs, and help us to work better together.
“Employers should encourage teams to communicate as openly and frequently as possible. Making the time to socialise with people from across the organisation can help people see the bigger picture, stay connected, and boost morale.
“At Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, we recently undertook research with over 2,000 employees, which found that 44% of employees found team building activities – such as groups quizzes and virtual social gatherings – helped to improve their wellbeing. Employers could give permission and space for staff to organise coffee mornings, a Friday ‘happy hour’, or try a new virtual team activity such as a Desert Island Favourites team session to help bring people together and stay connected. We have also created guidance on supporting your mental health while working from home, which is a useful resource for all employees and employers.”
SHP: Has the role of a mental health first aider changed over the last year?
(SB): “During the pandemic, many Mental Health First Aiders have worked in industries where face-to-face work has continued. For them, the context has changed but the role hasn’t. Others have provided support from a distance and checked in with colleagues on a regular basis. Mental Health First Aiders are trained to apply the same principles to video calls as they would to conversations in person – for example, they set time aside, minimise distractions, and give people their full focus.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of useful tools and templates were shared with our network. This included email signature icons, so that employees could identify Mental Health First Aiders and understand how they’re able provide support.
“Mental Health First Aiders will also signpost colleagues to other services if they need further support. This might look like signposting to an employee assistance programme, a GP, or to charities that provide 24/7 emotional support such as Samaritans.
“It is always important for Mental Health First Aiders to remember that they cannot pour from an empty cup. MHFA England has provided resources to the network throughout the pandemic, offering advice on how they can protect their own wellbeing as well as support others. We’ve also provided guidance to employers on the steps they need to take to support Mental Health First Aiders in their organisations, as well as a newly developed support app.”
SHP: Have there been any positives to come from the pandemic and mass working from home, in relation to people’s mental health and wellbeing
(SB): “The COVID-19 pandemic has created new social, economic, and health uncertainties and insecurities – and exacerbated existing inequalities. For example, MHFA England research found that over double the number of women employees (68%), compared to men (31%), said their workplace confidence had decreased due to the pandemic. And many more women (64%) than men (36%) reported an increase in feelings of loneliness or feelings of isolation during COVID-19.
“Remote working has become the norm for many people over the past year. We have seen more of one another’s lives than ever before in virtual meetings. But what has become clearer than ever, is that our home lives and remote working experiences vastly differ. For some people, their home is not safe and working from home has had a detrimental impact on their mental and physical safety.
“For others however, working from home has benefited their mental health, with more money and time for other activities now that they don’t have to commute. It is certainly not a one size fits all approach and therefore it’s really important that employers consider mental health and wellbeing when designing working arrangements as we move out of the pandemic.
“Employees’ mental health will be better supported if they feel safe and confident to speak up about any issues they’re facing. It will also help businesses to thrive post-pandemic. In light of the challenges brought about by COVID-19, it is more important than ever to shift the dial on workplace culture and wellbeing and ensure that diversity and inclusion is at its centre.”
SHP: What, if anything, will be the lasting effects of coronavirus on people’s mental health, as we start to return to relative normal?
(SB): “The Centre for Mental Health predicts that 8.5 million more adults will need mental health support as a result of COVID-19, and so it is imperative that employers play their part in creating a culture of care. Further research has shown more than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worries about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%), and feeling bored (49%). It is clear that people need mental health support now more than ever.
“Mental ill health already costs employers up to £45 billion per year, without taking into account the impact of the pandemic. It is estimated that we spend a third of our lives at work, so employers are key to creating a society where everyone’s mental health matters.
“Employers can help by driving a positive transformation in workplace mental health and performance through bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing. A whole organisation approach is needed to support and protect the mental health and wellbeing of employees, but regular wellbeing check-ins, encouraging and demonstrating good self-care practices, and offering flexible working arrangements are good places for employers to start.”
SHP: What can employers do to reassure workers who may be anxious about returning to the workplace after so long in isolation?
(SB): “As lockdown measures begin to ease, employers must continue to demonstrate trust in their teams and offer flexible working arrangements where possible, to retain the best talent and support wellbeing.
“While this will not be possible for everyone, many people will be looking for employers that can offer the best flexibilities built on trust post-pandemic. This might look like allowing staff to work flexible hours or splitting their time between home and the physical workplace to suit their needs.
“Flexible working arrangements can help employees to better plan their time and feel confident that they can adjust their working hours if responsibilities change. It is important that employers engage, consult and review with staff every step of the way, making the framework for flexible working clear, and talking to individuals about what works best for them to ease any anxieties or concerns.
“Employers should also implement a re-induction process for staff who are returning to the office to help them settle back in and ensure that their queries and concerns are answered. It is also vital to clearly communicate health and safety protocols, as some employees may feel worried about the risk of infection.”
SHP: Do you think mental health in the workplace will be looked at differently in the future, or does the study data show that many organisations still have a long way to go?
(SB): “We have already seen that employers are taking mental health more and more seriously over the last decade, and this has accelerated during the pandemic. There is a national crisis and employers up and down the country are taking action to support their employees. We believe it will continue to be looked at differently – as we understand more about the moral, social and economic case for investing in mental health. That said, there is so much more that needs to be done.
“At any given time, one in six working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health. Mental illness is the second-largest source of burden of disease in England and experts predict 72 million working days are lost to mental ill health. This means that employers will need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing more than ever before. We know that improving the mental health of your workforce is better for wellbeing and better for the business.
“Organisations have had to transform both what they do and how they do it over the past year. Businesses have asked people to give a lot of themselves during a very difficult time, and employees have responded with commitment and determination. As COVID-19 restrictions ease and organisations consider what their working practices might look like going forward, now is the time to evaluate what is working when it comes to employee wellbeing and how it can be improved.”
SHP: What are your thoughts on the recent Ten-Minute Rule Bill proposal, from Dean Russell MP, which is looking to make mental health first-aid part of first-aid training requirements in workplaces?
(SB): “We’ve been campaigning for the past five years for Health and Safety legislation to be updated to include mental health in the First Aid regulations and we believe it’s a case of when, not if, it will happen.
“The Where’s Your Head At campaign devised by Bauer Media, mental health campaigner Natasha Devon, and MHFA England, attracted a high level of cross party political support from a range of back bench MPs, government and shadow government ministers, and the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. We also had over 200K members of the public sign our petition to change the law, and big businesses such as Royal Mail, Ford of Britain, Bowmer and Kirkland, and many others support the campaign for change. We therefore welcome Dean Russell’s Ten Minute Bill to make Mental Health First Aid a mandatory part of Health and Safety requirements in the workplace, however we recognise that this change in law would not be enough on its own.
“Over the past 12 months we have seen a growing deman from employers for inclusive and evidence based mental health training – we also know that where Mental Health First Aiders are in situ, staff are accessing wellbeing support more than ever. We believe wholeheartedly that every workplace should make provision for Mental Health First Aid, but we also recognise that it’s not the whole solution.
“Taking a wide-ranging look at workplace policies is key to effectively embedding practices like Mental Health First Aid and to designing a mentally healthy business. Investing in the mental wellbeing of your staff will help retain excellent employees, allowing business to grow while creating a more supportive, open culture.”
SHP: If this Bill is passed, do you think that there should be an independently governed qualification for mental health trainers, to make it more aligned with the qualifications for physical first aiders?
(SB): “Like with physical first aid, we would not expect there to be one single route for achieving a Mental Health First Aid qualification. So, if mandatory Mental Health First Aid training becomes a legal requirement under workplace Health and Safety law, we would expect there to be an implementation plan which identifies quality standards, competencies required, and qualification routes to achieve the intended outcome of the regulations.
“Also, if employers are required by law to implement Mental Health First Aid in the workplace, they will rightly expect that there is a choice of suppliers to deliver that training, so they can make decisions based on the needs of their workforce.
“Through MHFA International there is over 20 years of research-based evidence to help inform the development of a quality standard for Mental Health First Aid trainers and we would therefore strongly encourage any developments in this quality standard to take this learning into account.”
SHP: What are your top tips for starting an effective mental health and wellbeing programme?
(SB): “A strong mental health and wellbeing strategy should be in place year-round, but now more than ever, organisations need to have this front of mind and provide tangible support to employees as we navigate the roadmap out of lockdown.
“It’s important to reach out to colleagues regularly. Staying connected as a team can really help those who are struggling, by giving them the opportunity to speak up and ask for help. It also helps to motivate people and can create an atmosphere of psychological safety.
“Explore your organisation’s options, such as access to Mental Health First Aiders or an employee assistance programme. Sometimes an employee’s situation may be more serious, so information should be made available about where else to seek mental health support.”
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