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Why Mental Health Week is every week

Dean Royles, strategic workforce advisor at Skills for Health and co-author of ‘An Introduction to Human Resource Management’ published by Oxford University Press, argues that organisational culture can be one of the most significant constraints to a workforce’s mental health and wellbeing.

It may just be me, it may just be because I spend too much time watching Bear Grylls and Ray Mears, but each time I go out hiking and take a wrong turn, I wonder if I could survive if I got lost, really lost. Could I live off the land? Could I bring myself to kill and eat (a rodent or similar, not my hiking buddy!)? I wonder what I would need to survive? Would it be my physical self or my mental health that would crack first? What would I need to make it through?

A few weeks ago it was mental health week, a time when we try to focus and contemplate the importance and fragility of our own, our friends’ and family’s, and our colleagues’ mental health. Encouragingly, many organisations hold events and activities to draw attention to this vitally important issue. It seems to grow in importance each year.

And yet, despite so much in the media about mental health, about parity of esteem, about the importance of mindfulness, about access to services and despite knowing ‘it’s okay to not be okay,’ this is still a difficult issue in the workplace. Perhaps, the most difficult issue.

People in the NHS do incredibly difficult jobs in incredibly challenging circumstances, sometimes working out the limits of science. The work can be stressful. More often than not, staff are working with limited resources and always working where empathy and compassion are what matter most. Working where empathy and compassion are what can make the difference to a positive outcome or experience for patients and service users. To do this effectively staff need safe and supportive environments.

Increasingly, organisations are taking on a more sophisticated strategic approach to helping staff to look after their own health and wellbeing and there are many great case studies to learn from. There are a number of institutions, tool kits and programmes that organisations can use to help and assist managers and staff.

However, probably the most significant constraint to the mental health and wellbeing of employees is organisational culture. Leaders that can set an example and be a role model are particularly important and I have been impressed and humbled by the way a number of NHS chief executives, successful chief executives, have opened up to speak about their own mental health.

Some have shared stories about the impact of poor mental health in their family lives. It is incredibly brave to be so openly vulnerable and I hope more people feel able to share, so we all learn more about the impact of mental health on our lives and in our workplaces. This feels hugely important to creating an NHS-wide understanding of how we can support the mental health of our staff, despite the daily challenges they face. This clear leadership manifests itself in the way that line managers respond to staff being open about the support they need. Sometimes, just the opportunity to share, to listen and to understand is all they ask for – to be a sympathetic and understanding ear.

Supporting staff with their health and wellbeing isn’t just about providing gyms or mental health first aiders in the workplace – as valuable as those things are. The big difference can be because a manager or a colleague notices you and then asks ‘Are you okay? What can I do to help?’

My experience is that I have most enjoyed work and thrived at work, despite significant pressures, when I know that my boss cared. That she/he noticed when I was feeling under pressure and cared, practically and emotionally.

In the same way that a friend would be the difference to whether I would thrive or survive being lost in the wilderness. A friend at work, a caring manager, makes the difference about whether we thrive or survive in the workplace.

Top image: ipopba


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