May 2021: We must keep the focus on mental health in the workplace

To support May’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Simon Blake, Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid England, reflects on how the last year has made us focus on mental health and wellbeing and suggests ways that employers can learn from this as we start to reshape our work and workplaces.

Local Authorities, like many organisations, adapted fast and embraced new ways of working in the face of COVID19. I don’t think any of us could truly imagine just how long we would be working under lockdown restrictions, or indeed how deep the impact of the pandemic would be on our working lives or indeed our personal lives.

While some of us may be healthier and happier working from home, for others the experience has been really challenging. The pandemic has both amplified existing inequalities and created further social, economic, and health uncertainties and insecurities. And COVID19 is not the only pandemic.

Over the last year we have seen the damaging impact of systemic and institutional racism across the globe and we were reminded yet again of the horrendous violence that women experience. My colleague Ama Afrifa-Tchie blogged about how stress in the workplace is not always about work per se.

Without underplaying the very difficult circumstances some people have found themselves in, I think it is important to acknowledge how quickly and how well we continue to respond and adapt, at the same time as acknowledging the impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of the nation.

It probably won’t be a surprise to any of us that the Centre for Mental Health estimates that an additional 8.5 million adults and 1.5 million children will need support for the mental health as a result of Covid19. Against that backdrop many employees are looking to their workplace for support.

Local Authorities, with the support of the Local Government Association, have stepped up their focus on employee wellbeing through the year and across the country will have tried different approaches over the last year.

As we all tread a path in uncharted territory and try to navigate new flexible, sustainable ways of working, we must build on our learning from this last year to promote and protect mental health and wellbeing at work; and to ensure access to appropriate mental health support when it is needed.

Mental Health First Aid England is a social enterprise. Our mission is to train 1:10 of the adult population in mental health knowledge, skills and understanding. 1:10 because we believe that will create the cultural shifts we need where mental health is not stigmatised, where enough people are open and confident to talk about mental health and signpost to support.

We focus on the workplace because work plays such a significant role in our lives. At its best work is rewarding and good for mental health. And at its worst it has a negative impact on our mental health. The legal, moral and human case for investment in employee wellbeing is clear. So is the financial case: before the pandemic Deloitte found that the cost of poor mental health to employers was £45 billion.

As we look to the future there are some things that we definitely want to make sure continue and develop even further at pace;

  • Taking a whole organisational approach to supporting mental health and wellbeing –creating positive and open cultures which break down mental health stigma, removing stressors wherever possible, and where leaders and managers are constantly asking themselves ‘what are the implications of this decision for wellbeing and equity?’
  • Looking out for each other, talking about mental health and learning and understanding more about our own and others wellbeing, including providing mental health and mental health first aid training. You can email [email protected] to find out more about workplace training.
  • Creating positive and equitable workplace cultures where people feel able to talk about their mental health and bring their whole selves to work.
  • Using awareness weeks and days, like Mental Health Awareness Week taking place this month to raise awareness and redouble our focus on mental health. This year the theme is connecting with nature. Evidence shows that being outside and connected to nature is good for wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation research shows that for 45% of people getting outside for a walk was an important factor in protecting their wellbeing. I wrote a short blog about connecting with nature.

The last year has brought enormous challenge and change and I wouldn’t want to predict what the future holds, but I do know this: we have been on a crash course in emotional and mental health literacy over the last year and we must keep moving forward.

All of us employers, employee reps and employees – people – working together to support each other in the weeks and months ahead. Only by supporting our own and each-others wellbeing will we be able to serve the communities we work for.

LGA and Mental Health Foundation England will be working together to help councils to support staff as we move through the next stages of living and working with COVID-19.

Simon and his dog outside