Time to Talk mental health and wellbeing

Last February, exactly a year ago, I wrote a recruitment and retention article exploring the relationship between work and wellbeing and the importance of organisational culture in fostering an environment where mental health is openly discussed (‘Work and wellbeing in a COVID world’ – The MJ 4 Feb 2021).

The date of this issue is 3 Feb 2022 – which happens to be ‘Time to Talk Day’*.

It’s a day when Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in partnership with the Co-op have come together to encourage us all in our communities, workplaces and at home to talk about mental health. For me this is a perfect reminder that we really do need to talk more openly about our mental health and de-stigmatise these types of conversations. Campaigns such as Time to Talk provide great platforms which we can organisationally and personally use to get more comfortable with this significant topic.

Twelve months on and the world of work has continued to change, as the pandemic has evolved, the option of a hybrid working pattern has for many individuals and organisations become the ‘norm’. Focusing on employee wellbeing and looking after employee mental health when working in a hybrid environment can be challenging for employees and employers. With less and less face-to-face interactions, the opportunities to potentially ‘spot’ a colleague who could need some additional support or a safe space to talk, is substantially reduced. However, the value of looking after your mental health and wellbeing continues to remain high. 

It’s a topic I often discuss with clients and candidates – how do you navigate the hybrid working pattern while still looking after your own wellbeing and that of others at work? It is something I continue to raise awareness of in my role as a mental health first aider at Solace. 

In September 2021, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) released wave 12 of their ongoing UK-wide long-term study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health.  Their latest findings revealed that since the first lockdown in March 2020, of those who completed the survey, UK adults, in general, have slowly become less able to cope with the pandemic. The proportion of people reporting they were coping well has fallen slowly and steadily, from 73% in April 2020 to 60% in September. And finally, individuals had mixed feelings about the easing of restrictions and returning to previous activities that had not been possible during lockdowns – 28% were happy to stay at home with only 6% feeling excited to be in the same workspace with colleagues/fellow students.**

If the data from MHF is showing that some individuals are experiencing anxiety about returning to work alongside colleagues, organisations need to be on a front foot when understanding how to support employees with this. Hybrid working has its benefits, but we must also be aware of the challenges this poses on mental health and potential staff dissatisfaction and ultimately staff retention.

In my various conversations with local government leaders the impact on employee wellbeing during the pandemic has been noticeable. It’s becoming clearer now that there are some key strategies we can use to improve wellbeing in a hybrid setting and which are proving effective. 

In this vein, one South East unitary has focused its energies on several interesting ways to tackle wellbeing issues across the council. Some of these strategies included collaborating and sharing knowledge – for example, it created a central share point to house tips on looking after your wellbeing, identifying specific support for groups such as parents. It has continued to communicate and engage with staff about mental health including with a wellbeing survey and built resilience by offering support via an employee assistance programme. It has organised a dedicated wellbeing at work week, which gave employees the opportunity to take part in mindfulness sessions, remote yoga and set up a virtual gallery for employees to share their work and achievements (a fabulous reason to celebrate and share success stories). Staff were also encouraged to set up their own support networks whether that be in relation to disability, women, race, LGBT+ they were able to support one another and talk through their mental health, how they’re feeling or any other challenges that they may be having.

It always interests me to hear what other organisations and councils are doing to support staff with their mental health and wellbeing especially given the developing culture of hybrid working. Listening, engaging staff, replicating what ‘social’ elements may have been lost, clear communications and sign posting for help as well as supportive policies and enabling staff to establish working groups/networks as safe spaces to discuss mental health and wellbeing issues are all potential options employers can use in their tool kits to help build resilient teams and organisations.

Role modelling can also be a truly effective strategy for enabling a positive culture based on looking after your own and each other’s mental health and wellbeing. One of my favourite straplines I’ve seen on social media from a local government leader is ‘be a lunchtime hero not a lunchtime zero’. Leaders showing they’re taking a lunch break and acknowledging the importance of down time and in turn saying it’s ok to take a break – we all need one.

Hopefully, many organisations will get involved with the Time to Talk campaign. Discussing mental health doesn’t need to be confined to one day and one day only, but it can be a great starting point.  It’s about creating a safe environment in which individuals can have those protected conversations, with a non-judgemental ear.

Often employee wellbeing can feel like an insurmountable challenge, where to start and what to do next. But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that doing something, chipping away, is better than doing nothing.

So, when a colleague approaches to ask if I am still the wellbeing lead – and can I help –  the answer will always be ‘yes’ and the feedback received is equally rewarding when you’re told: ‘I’m glad we can offer that support to colleagues – what a great place to work.’ 

Gemma Stevenson-Coupe is a  consultant – talent acquisition and development at Solace

*www.timetotalkday.co.uk

**www.mentalhealth.org.uk/research-and-policies/wave-12-september-9-16-2021

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