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Wendy Canham: Mental health blog

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Wendy Canham discusses mental health in the workplace and how looking after staff's welfare is everyone's responsibility.

Wendy Canham Wendy Canham

Wendy Canham is Service Manager (Human Resource & OD) at West Suffolk councils (St Edmundsbury Borough Council & Forest Heath District Council).

She is an HR professional working in local government.


It is well evidenced that mental health can affect anyone, it is the leading cause of sickness absence costing UK employers some £2.4 billion per year. Mind suggest that 1 in 4 people will have a mental health issue this year - with many too worried to share it for fear of discrimination.

And then we ask ourselves - Do our staff feel comfortable talking about their problems, sharing them, or do they hide them and mask the issues? Do we know if our staff are able to talk about their feelings at work, to let others know how they are feeling and feel safe to do so?

Organisations can have a real impact on the people around them if everyone is aware of their attitude towards mental health. Mental health is everyone's business and responsibility - whether that is in terms of maintaining our own mental health but also being respectful and supportive of poor mental health of others.

At West Suffolk councils we believe that looking after the mental health of our staff is everyone's responsibility.  It is not just written in a policy or documented in a report. It is not fixed by arranging activities which embrace mental health but it is about a continuum of support, advice, activity, understanding and effective management. We will not "crack" mental health but we can make a difference in supporting our people.

Just over a year ago we started with the easy bit - writing a Mental Health at Work Policy. It had been on the to do list for a while and had seemed to be a nice to have, when there was time to do, it was on the to do list without any priority. How wrong that now feels. 

What was also difficult was finding some example policies out there to model our own on. There were lots of good examples of wellbeing policies which gave mental health a mention, a paragraph or even perhaps a page but there was little evidence of stand alone mental health policies available to use as a rule of thumb, an example of good practice.

Writing the policy was not easy, but it was the realisation that we were doing a lot of good stuff around supporting our staff with mental health but it was perhaps localised to those managers who really knew their staff and for others it was managing situations without knowing how to get to the real issues but managing all the same.   

What was clear that we weren't actually doing anything to openly share our commitment towards supporting our staff with mental health issues. We instead relied on our staff talking to us, telling us how they were feeling, sharing concerns about work, life and everything else around them and asking for our help if they needed it - as oppose to managers seeing the signs, being in there before things became difficult, realising that someone was struggling, quiet, withdrawn, acting differently.

The Mental Health at Work Policy was the first step, supported by Unison, shared with staff and included on the list of policies on the staff intranet. Job done. Of course not. This was just the start.

A flurry of activity followed but now with confidence that we were doing something that actually mattered and we were bringing it to the forefront of our every day activities. We supported Mental Health Awareness Week and World Mental Health Day and a raft of activities followed such as Mindfulness sessions, lunch time walks and time out activities. Suffolk Mind delivered Emotional Wellbeing Managers toolkit training to our Chief Executive and Management Team and commitment was then given to deliver this training to all our managers and team leaders. Norfolk Mind delivered Mental Health First Aid lite training to our staff, helping them to become more self aware of good mental health. This followed a number of other specific courses which have now formed part of the annual corporate training programme.

Earlier in September, with the support of our Mayor and Portfolio Holder for Resources & Performance we signed the Time to Change Employers pledge, publicly showing our support for making a difference to reducing the stigma and discrimination around mental health in the workplace.

Our pledge is simply "we are committed to protecting our employees' health and safety and welfare. We will continue to support staff with regards to mental health issues, by increasing awareness of mental health issues through our councils, initiating actions to prevent and manage issues of mental health and by supporting our managers to help support their staff to stay well and in work.

Part of the pledge is that we work with "champions" in the organisation to help and support others. Even after the progress we have made there is always a part of me which thinks that getting others, who at times may have found if difficult to deal with their own issues, and unsure who to turn to and how to, to come forward and volunteer themselves as a champion will be difficult. And yet I was proved wrong as this is exactly what happened in just a week. A range of employees and managers across the whole organisation expressed an interest in becoming a champion to support others.

The types of discussions are changing and managers at all levels are starting to discuss more openly and more confidently about the commitment to supporting mental health within the workforce. Managers are approaching HR after identifying a member of their team may be needing support and balancing performance and outcomes with the health of their staff.

With the injection of more apprentices into our organisations the demands on the skills of the 21st century manager is greater than ever. The millennials are a different breed, they are more open and they are a generation with higher awareness and acceptance of mental health and are also openly discussing mental health. Managers for the future will need to refine their management skills, especially in terms of emotional intelligence and be able to talk openly and manage expectations of their staff, work with mental health as opposed to either avoid, or worse, ignore it.

It is important that we understand if we are supporting mental health that we say it and do it and change the way we might have approached mental health in the past. Openness, discussion, support and also being realistic are key to making a difference. Having support from the top has been key in driving this forward and so now with the policy, the pledge and an action plan we can continue to embed this work.

We have started on our journey. We are proud to share what we have done - and we know that our most important asset are our staff and it just makes perfect sense to keep them well.

1 Comment

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  • Posted by  |  23 May 2018, 7:17PM

    We are a long way to this illness been recognised and taken into acount if you make the wrong decision at work.