I’ve used the words ‘tough’ and ‘challenging’ to describe life in general more than I care to remember over the past 11 months. As I’m writing this article in the middle of lockdown number three, like so many parents on a daily basis I’m balancing home schooling with work, trying to fit in exercise and fresh air, some form of healthy eating, fun time with the kids and a smidgen of down time where possible. It’s at times like this I think about what’s important to me and at work, it’s definitely my colleagues.
A few years ago, a colleague said to me ‘there’s nothing more important at work than your colleagues and looking after them’. At the time I laughed – it was an obvious thing to say – but it struck a chord with me, perhaps more so than I realised at the time. Having worked at Solace for several years now, I see so many of my colleagues as my friends – in fact, they’re my second adopted family.
For me, working in a COVID-affected world and looking after my wellbeing the way I’d like to doesn’t go naturally hand in hand, though those two things are absolutely entwined. Put simply, if I don’t try and look after myself I won’t be able to help others or be in a position to contribute effectively at work. When work gets busy you’re dealing with the uncertainty of a pandemic and adjusting to a change in your own day to day while trying to keep your head above water – it can be challenging to lift your head up, observe your surroundings and look out for your colleagues. But it can be one of the most valuable and rewarding things you can do.
The effects of the pandemic have been far reaching and the impact on our wellbeing and mental health has been huge. I often wonder if we run the risk of rolling into a ‘mental health pandemic’ in the not-so-distant future. In November 2020, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) released wave eight of their latest survey which is an ongoing UK-wide long-term study of how the pandemic is affecting people’s mental health. The MHF are working with a handful of universities and have already pulled together a number of key stats at various points of the pandemic. Their most recent findings revealed that ‘almost half (45%) of the UK population had felt anxious or worried in the previous two weeks, which rose to 64% of respondents who have a pre-existing mental health condition’.* Although generally the survey highlighted that ‘62% of people feel that they are coping with the pandemic-related stress very well or fairly well…There has been a slow decline since April in the populations’ ability to cope with the stress of the pandemic from 73% to 62% in late November.’*
It will be interesting to see what trends are identified by the MHF over the coming months, but so far it is evident that there is a slow erosion to individuals’ resilience and mental health due to the strain of the pandemic.
So, what can we do as a sector and as individuals? I’ve recently trained with Mental Health First Aid England to become a qualified mental health first aider in the workplace. There are now three of us at Solace who can provide assistance if we spot one of our colleagues is experiencing a mental health crisis, and we are there to offer a friendly ear, to listen non-judgementally and to be able to sign post individuals to professional help if required.
It’s a role I’m honoured to undertake; I want to ensure wellbeing continues to be a key focus for us at Solace. It sits comfortably as part of our organisational culture and values and I’m confident that this contributes to our high staff retention levels. We’ve run a number of staff sessions focusing on wellbeing and how to build personal resilience, but like looking after your wellbeing, it’s an ongoing continual process. We’ll need to keep moving as an organisation, adjusting to external and internal changes; focusing on employee wellbeing and resilience needs to be at the centre for us to be successful.
In my conversations with various sector leaders, it has become clear to me that organisational culture plays an enormous role in ensuring the wellbeing of individual staff members. I recently spoke to one chief executive who ensures, along with his senior management team, that he remains visible and accessible to staff at all times – not just during the COVID crisis but as part of their ongoing strategy to build a proactive and positive culture. As leaders he explained that they work hard to treat people well at all levels, so employees can thrive and make a worthy contribution to the workforce. The council has focused recently on providing excellent communications to staff, including sharing blogs written by the senior management team – demonstrating how they have been personally affected, what they were doing to combat any wellbeing issues, as well as offering their support to others.
During the pandemic, this chief executive felt that it would be helpful to replicate opportunities for ‘normal’ social interactions and day to day conversations. He set up working groups where each member of the senior management team called six people to reconnect and talk through how they were coping – they promoted this throughout the organisation, so in turn each person who was called also made a promise to call six people and so on. Keeping things ‘light and having some fun’ also enabled people to destress and reconnect. Over time they identified that sickness levels had gone down, people did ‘magnificent jobs’ supporting on things outside of their day-to-day roles and they successfully created a caring family-feel organisation, built on trust and honesty, where staff were empowered to say ‘I’m not ok and I need help’ if they needed to.
Given the stresses and strains the local government sector is currently under it’s uplifting to hear how well this council has adapted and focused their efforts on culture and wellbeing and I’m sure there are many similar success stories across the sector. Perhaps trailing one of these simple suggestions could work for you and your organisation? At Solace, we’re always open to hearing about what employee wellbeing techniques and strategies have worked for you all, undoubtedly, we can all learn from one another.
From a personal perspective trying to make self-care a priority and give it the space and time it deserves is tricky, but it’s well worth the investment. At such a difficult time, the test really is to remember ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup, take care of yourself first’ then you truly will be able to help others.
Gemma Stevenson-Coupe is an associate consultant at Solace