Facing mental health challenges together: our experience during COVID-19

Published: 09 Oct 2020

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2020, our CEO Rachel Lambert-Forsyth shares how the Society, as an employer, has taken on the unique mental health challenges posed by COVID-19. 

What challenges has the pandemic created for us as an employer, in relation to mental health?

Before the pandemic, the mental health of our staff team was a priority for us, and we already aimed to create a transparent working culture that makes it safe for employees to talk openly about their mental health. But when lockdown hit, we were mindful that this huge change to our lives would impact everyone in different ways.
Crucially, we lost two of the most important things that keep us mentally healthy; our usual routines, and being able to be around colleagues, friends, family and loved ones. We knew that people would have different reactions, coping methods, tolerance to distress or difficult feelings, and that they might process the experience in their own way. So, we needed to make sure that we could support our employees in a holistic way. It was important to me as CEO to be deeply involved with this work, and I was capably supported by Anna Clark, Head of Business and People Services, with further support by the senior management team. 

How have we dealt with those challenges?

We decided to actively promote the importance of looking after our wellbeing and health right from the outset. The first step was to make sure that we were signposting to resources that were already available for our staff, but that they might not have thought about using before. One example of this is Health Assured, our Employee Assistance Programme service, which has a 24/7 confidential helpline that employees can use and can also provide access to counselling.
The Society uses Slack, an instant messaging platform for businesses, for our day to day communication. We knew that it could continue to be a useful tool when we were working from home, so we set up the following channels:
Wellbeing channel where we shared useful tips, resources, and information to help with self-care, and created a space for employees to reach out to each other and share their own ideas
Remote Working Ideas channel focussed on the practicalities of adapting to working from home
Parent life channel for employees who have children and can share stories through to fun games and activities to do with their kids
We also encouraged the use of our existing social channels for interests like book club, film club, birdwatching, recipes and our social calendar channel for organising online quizzes and games.
We set up weekly teatime meetings over video, for the team to get together and have informal chats. This helped to recreate the casual interactions we would have in the office in the kitchen or break out areas. This has also happened in smaller groups, and we encourage everyone to suggest a coffee break via Slack if they need a break and would like some company.
Our senior management team and line managers have also been very active about checking in with their teams on a regular basis. We have also offered fortnightly HR drop-in meetings, an increase from the monthly meetings that we held before. This has been very well received, as have regular updates and communications. Keeping a good flow of information, without over burdening the team, has been crucial.
On a personal level, I started on the very first day of lock down and my first Society-wide action was to close the office. I was mindful that most of the team didn’t know me, and that they had yet to see how I behaved as a leader and in a social environment. I wanted to be open about the challenges ahead and how I was facing these, and to respond to the messages I was hearing in an authentic and personal way. One of the key ways I have been doing this is through short vlogs. I have used these to communicate major decisions, reflect on new restrictions put in place and what this means for us as a team, and where appropriate, to share my own emotional response to events.
I also wanted to support those who were in management positions, ensuring that they looked after their own wellbeing and thought carefully about the support that their teams needed. Recognising that individuals will- and have -reacted in different ways to the past six months has been a work in progress. Most of us have had to adapt and be more open, because it is more challenging to see when colleagues are struggling in a virtual environment. We encourage everyone to ask each other, ‘how are you doing?’ and listen for the answer, but also look for cues that might tell a different story. We could be better at this and will continue to look at ways we can support individuals to develop their emotional intelligence in this way. 

Looking ahead and adapting to the ‘new normal’

As we look ahead to when we can safely reopen the office to all staff, it is really important to listen to any concerns people have to returning to the office, whether that is dealing with the emotional impact of returning or arrangements like childcare or shielding. We know that it is important that we do not rush employees back to the office before they are ready to return, and we have committed to helping make the transition back to the office as smooth as possible. On the other hand, when we surveyed the staff team to hear how they were doing, a small cohort of staff indicated that for them, working from home was not easy, and that as long as the office remained closed their wellbeing was negatively affected. With this in mind, we took the decision to safely open the office for their use, in a COVID secure manner. Feedback has been positive and by having a nuanced approach to our office set up, we have managed to accommodate the breadth of needs as much as possible.
Recently upsurges in the infection rates and a return to increased lock down guidelines, means that we will not reopen the office to all staff until at least 2021. We have committed, during this time, to working with the wider staff team to evolve our working patterns to reflect the changing expectations of employees now and in the future. We have continued to communicate the steps we will take to ensure that the office will open in a way that mitigates any potential risks, this includes having more sanitation stations, frequent cleaning and employees returning in cohorts. 

What have we learned?

Facing these challenges together, it has been become clearer than ever that we have a fantastic staff team that is adaptable, supportive, and caring. We have continued to communicate and share experiences, which has been crucial during this time. I am extremely proud of how we as the Society and the team have approached the pandemic; we have managed to continue to deliver beyond expectations, while understanding each other’s limitations and barriers.

One area which we are reflecting on at the moment is how we recognise that for us, the pandemic did not reduce workloads, and for many in the team it brought to the fore urgent and publicly visible activity. We have had to reassess what is possible to deliver together, and over the last 6 months we have taken time to review team objectives, budgets, and our external presence to ensure we nurture our member community whilst supporting the staff team to reprioritise workloads when needed.
We are proud knowing that we had existing support in place, but that we were flexible and adapted to suit remote working. It should not take a pandemic to see the importance of nurturing mental health in an organisation, but it is really positive to see how employers are investing in supporting mental health and wellbeing. 


Here are some resources that we found useful, that may help you too:
NHS Every Mind Matters
NHS Moodzone short audio mental wellbeing guides
NHS mood assessment quiz
From Mind: games and puzzles to distract you when you are struggling and need time to process your thoughts and feelings
Information from Mind on how to support someone who is struggling with their mental health
Clear information and guidance from the Mental Health Foundation


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