Acas chief: Why kindness is key at times like these

Acas chief executive Susan Clews

Acas chief executive Susan Clews outlines some of the key points from its new mental health guidance and highlights some of things the organisation is doing to promote kindness among its employees.

To coincide with the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, ‘kindness’, Acas has published new guidance that aims to promote a kinder approach to relationships at work.

For many of us work provides a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as a distraction.”

As Mark Rowland, chief executive at the Mental Health Foundation said: “to receive or to give kindness is an act of courage”, and I believe that in the current health crisis, kindness is a lens which helps us to:

  • Respect each individual story in these difficult times – whether that’s about being furloughed; home-educating children, or shielding vulnerable relatives
  • Understand that our physical health is intrinsically connected to our mental health and what ‘safe’ means will be different for everyone
  • Recognise the heightened levels of stress and anxiety and attempts to normalise the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by so many.

Our guidance splits the responsibility for promoting positive mental health into three sections:

Looking after your own mental wellbeing

Everyone has their own lockdown story, and most have involved responding to new challenges. As well as the stress and anxiety we all may feel about the health of loved ones, the new normal has provided an opportunity for self-reflection. Getting to know yourself at a deeper level is an important step towards wellbeing. Only you know what coping mechanisms are good for you and which ones you should avoid.

But individuals cannot do it all on their own. We know from recent research that poor mental health is linked to financial insecurity and inequality. Only by working towards the vision of ‘good work for all’, first outlined in the government’s review of mental health at work in 2017, can we make sure everyone thrives at work.

How managers can help

Managers are the custodians of the unwritten psychological contract between an employee and their employer. This should be based upon clear expectations about how employees will be treated and how they will work in return. But these expectations can feel very fluid at the moment: what feels a safe working environment for one person may not feel so safe for another.

Working on personal rapport is critical to maintaining trust. For many of us work provides a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as a distraction. Finding the right balance between being too vague – “do what you can” – and too prescriptive – “I’ve invited you to the three-hour Skype meeting” – can be difficult, but the trick is to keep doing all the old-fashioned things like talking, listening and consulting.

What employers can do to support their staff

Organisations’ internal communication has never mattered more than in the current crisis. At Acas we have tried to create the right blend of advice and information – with strong core messages complementing a more organic sharing of personal experiences. And it is vital to include all internal partners in this collaborative effort. We have:

  • encouraged social networks to help people connect and tell their stories and offer tips
  • developed online training packages – to help managers look after the mental health of their staff, and for everyone to work through on their own
  • Created a ‘corona kindness’ portal where we provide clear updates on issues affecting colleagues – such as financial worries, isolation and loneliness – as well as sharing inspirational stories.

The duty of care that all employers have towards their staff will come under scrutiny as never before in the coming weeks and months. As leaders, we do not have all the answers, but we do have a responsibility to be as honest and open as we possibly can, whether the news is good or bad.

Employers who prioritise wellbeing will come out of this far better off than those that don’t. Looking after each other’s mental health isn’t a nice to have – it’s essential to work and life both now and in the future.

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Susan Clews

About Susan Clews

Susan Clews is chief executive of the conciliation service Acas
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