Acas: mental health ‘enlightenment’ a pandemic silver lining

Fujitsu has developed some 'talking tips' to help managers open up wellbeing conversations with staff
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To coincide with Time to Talk Day, Acas has published a policy paper showcasing how three organisations are building employee resilience and responding proactively to wellbeing challenges. Adrian Wakeling looks at some of the key take aways.

What do Amnesty International, Fujitsu and the MoD’s Defence Intelligence have in common? They are all on ‘the road to enlightenment’ – in other words, they are all taking mental health seriously and responding proactively to the impact the pandemic is having on staff wellbeing.

A new Acas policy paper finds that this road is paved with not just good intentions, but unexpected challenges and thousands of human stories.

The good news is that after years of fine words about getting mental health on a par with physical health, change may be on the way. And it’s just as well – the statistics paint a truly awful national picture.

We have seen rising levels of loneliness and depression, an increase in the use of poor coping strategies, and an underlining of many pre-existing societal inequalities – with the pandemic, for example, having a greater impact on black and ethnic minority groups, as well as the young, women and those with caring responsibilities.

But, if greater awareness of mental wellbeing offers a silver lining in these troubled times, it is hardly going to be felt by many workers for some while yet. On another level of stress and anxiety altogether are our key workers. Research from the RSA shows that “half of all key workers feel it is likely they will face burnout this winter (rising to 63% of NHS staff and 58% of social carers). They will need ongoing support now and in the future.

A national experiment

If you had just landed on this planet from outer space you might think we were conducting an experiment to find out how well humans cope under high levels of stress and anxiety. In other words, our coping strategies and how well they are working are being challenged.

As the Acas paper says, “it wasn’t supposed to be this way”. The government’s review of mental health at work, by Lord Stevenson and Mind’s Paul Farmer, placed the responsibility for getting employees to thrive at work, rather than strive, very much at the door of employers.

So, what are employers doing? The interventions that Amnesty International, Fujitsu and Defence Intelligence have been working on reflect the responsibilities employers have, but also those that lie with managers and individuals.These responses broadly take three forms:

  1. Quick interventions often aimed at individuals. Fujitsu has introduced, for the first time, a global employee assistance programme covering 14,000 employees; while Defence Intelligence has launched a mindfulness initiative, with 15% of its workforce now meditating on a regular basis.
  1. Training for managers. Amnesty has developed special guidelines, “lockdown lives”, to help manage staff remotely. Fujitsu has created a new section on their intranet for managers, with “talking tips” on what questions to ask staff and how; as well as a charter which sets out expectations about the pastoral care managers should provide to their teams.
  1. Seeing the bigger picture. Amnesty’s mental health strategy is broken down in to three parts of a pyramid – with reactive measures like equal access to support at the top, upskilling managers and identifying the causes of stress in the middle; and the tricky “preventative systemic factors” at the bottom. Defence Intelligence has created a dashboard to measure broad drivers of wellbeing like relationships, job purpose and feeling of job security.

All three organisations are trying to articulate a response to the mental wellbeing challenge that operates on different levels. The real problem with mental wellbeing at work may be that, unlike physical health and safety, it is often only implied in the employment contract.

My colleague Gill Dix makes the case for a new form of ‘collective contract’ which better reflects the changing values and expectations of working life. Gill calls for “a greater emphasis on compassion, power sharing, and trust” at work.

The government review had an ambitious vision of good jobs for all in 10 years (good work being the bedrock of good health). That was four years ago. Let’s applaud all the efforts being made but, as we mark Time to Talk Day, let’s also remember that we still have a long way to go.

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Adrian Wakeling

About Adrian Wakeling

Adrian is a senior policy advisor at Acas.
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