As The World Opens Up, We Need To Revolutionise Workplace Mental Health

As businesses start to consider what our new working life will look like, is this finally the year we start taking mental health in the workplace seriously?

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by Natasha Devon |

Let me paint a little picture for you of an average weekday for me, pre-COVID. Often, I’d wake up at silly-o-clock, either because I had an early media appearance or because I was travelling to some far-flung corner of the UK. During my train commute I’d either write, or be engaged in a fruitless attempt to clear my inbox, my thumbs a blur as they frantically passed over my phone’s keyboard. Once at my destination (usually a school or college) I’d do up to eight mental health classes for young people and possibly a seminar for their parents in the early evening. Believe it or not, I’m an introvert (I’m far happier speaking to a crowd of hundreds than making small talk) so the expectation that I’d chat to people over coffees in my break times was incredibly draining. By the time I was back on the train home I’d be so exhausted I’d usually sleep.

Now, let me tell you what my life is like in lockdown: I wake up at a reasonable hour, fully rested. I do some yoga before making myself a delicious breakfast. I usually have a few remote classes during the day, which I deliver from my sofa. When I’m not doing that I write, sometimes for money sometimes purely for pleasure, or walk round my local park. In the evenings I’m making my way through the giant pile of books I’ve been meaning to read and never got around to, as well as cooking some (even if I do say so myself) pretty impressive dishes from scratch.

I want to preface this by making a few things very clear: 1) Whether in lockdown or out of it, I absolutely love my job: I get to do something every day that makes a difference in the world and puts fire in my belly. Not many people can say that. 2) I know I’m privileged. My job can be done remotely. I don’t have any children to home-school. I live with my partner, so I haven’t been lonely and we’ve hardly argued for the past year (although if he keeps leaving his dirty cups on the kitchen counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher that may change). Living as I do with an anxiety disorder, I’ve also had tonnes of therapy over the years and learned numerous techniques to nurture my brain. Who knows, maybe if I hadn’t, lockdown would have had a significant impact on my mental health. As it is, all the exercise, fresh air and general work/life balancing has improved it.

It’s also not like I love lockdown…..that would be weird. I’m desperate to see my parents and brothers (who live three hours away) and to go out for cocktails and a catch-up with my best friend (facetime wine isn’t the same). It’s just the impact the pandemic has had on my professional life hasn’t all been terrible and, as such, I’m apprehensive about going back to ‘normal’.

It turns out I’m not alone: My campaign the Mental Health Media Charter conducted a survey to ascertain how our followers feel about going back to work. Whilst 21% of respondents said they were ‘excited’, 51% said they were generally anxious (a further 15% were specifically worried about safety in relation to COVID).

Dean Russell, MP for Watford, was elected on a campaign promise to train 1000 Mental Health First Aiders in his community back in 2019 and has been leading the charge on mental health at work ever since. He told me many of his constituents are apprehensive: “I understand from conversations that people are conscious of getting back into routines [and] about being surrounded by people again. Some of the worries relate to practical concerns about fitting back into work clothes and managing childcare too.”

Of course, even if we were practically able to, we couldn’t all just work from home forever – The impact on the economy - specifically businesses which rely on footfall – would be catastrophic. But with 60% (according to a study by charity Mind*) of adults saying their mental health has deteriorated in lockdown, it would be naïve and foolish to assume their wellbeing will be instantly fixed by returning to the work place.

That’s why Grazia’s Where’s Your Head At campaign to ensure parity between physical and mental health first aid in every workplace is more crucial than ever. Mental health first aiders learn active listening skills, symptom spotting for diagnosable mental health conditions and appropriate organisations to signpost to for further support. Their presence helps create wellbeing-conducive work environments, which many of us will need during the transition out of lockdown.

Today, Dean Russell will propose a Ten Minute Rule Bill in which this law change will receive its first reading. He’s confident, what with the government providing free online psychological first aid training (meaning no financial barriers for businesses), plus the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s mental health, that the bill will go through to the next stage and ultimately be enshrined in law. He says: “I think the next few months will likely highlight a range of issues we haven’t faced before in society and so it’s important employers are understanding in their approach”.

For us at the Where’s Your Head At campaign, this isn’t just about repairing the damage done by the pandemic, but about revolutionising the way mental health is discussed and understood at work (something we have been pushing for since 2018). Now, 83% of you agree with us that mental health is one of the biggest issues facing our nation (it was 77% in 2018). Stay tuned.

Don't forget, you can still add your name to our petition calling for Mental Health First Aiders to become compulsory in the workplace here.

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