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Employer support for wellbeing

For Mental Health Awareness Week, the Geological Society is looking at ways to support the wellbeing of geoscience students and professionals. In the final of four blogs, we describe how employers can promote wellbeing in the workplace.

As the UK ends its second month in lockdown, health organisations from around the world are warning that the coronavirus poses a risk to both physical and mental health. It is not just those working on the front lines who are at risk – millions of people around the world are facing job and income uncertainty, fears about their health and that of their loved ones, and the need to rapidly rework how they access their support networks and means of self-care.

 But as the crisis unfurls, many companies have moved rapidly to support their workers’ wellbeing. Indeed, some leaders in the HR industry have suggested that we have reached a turning point in how mental health is handled in the workplace; in the coming months, employer support for mental health and wellbeing will shift from a nice-to-have to an absolute necessity.

A long-standing issue

For many industries that employ geologists, issues with poor mental health long pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. Workers in the oil and gas industry experience anxiety and depression at higher rates than the general population, as do those working in academia or studying at the postgraduate level.  The construction industry is in the grips of a mental health crisis, particularly for male workers.

The implications of mental health issues extend beyond the individuals affected: poor mental health is linked to poor decision making, increased frequency of workplace accidents and higher rates of employee conflict. Poor employee wellbeing can also lead to lower productivity, higher absence rates, and frequent staff turnover, all of which increases stress and pressure for others in the organisation.

A way forward

The need for employers to protect the mental as well as physical wellbeing is clear, and in fact addressing workplace stress is one of the UK Health and Safety Executive’s three priorities for occupational health. Under HSE regulations, employers now have a legal duty to assess the risks of workplace stress. Once the risks are understood, there are a number of pathways to creating a workplace that supports mental health. Success depends on creating a culture of awareness, and ideally freedom to discuss and raise concerns. Such a culture is vital to helping mitigate sources of stress, and promote productivity and job satisfaction. Support for mental health is also increasingly serving as a recruiting tool, with top candidates looking for employers that provide support and development opportunities.

The GSL model

Over the past year, the Geological Society has introduced a mental health and wellbeing programme aimed at supporting staff and our volunteers. The programme is based on the scheme developed by Mental Health First Aid England, and was supported by training through their courses. In our model, the Mental Health Champion is a member of the senior leadership team, and has a responsibility to report on staff wellbeing to the rest of the team as well as to the Council. She and four certified Mental Health First Aiders sit on the Mental Health and Wellbeing Group (MHWBG), made up of staff from both our London and Bath offices, and at all levels of seniority.

All staff received Mental Health Awareness training, before being invited to apply to become first aiders or to sit on the MHWBG. The group surveyed the staff about their understanding of mental health, and any concerns they had. The results of the survey revealed areas where the senior leadership team can act, such as clear practice around protected lunch hours and supporting work-life balance, as well as a number of areas in which the first aiders and broader MHWBG can provide resources and training, such as resilience, managing stress, conflict resolution, and communicating mental health concerns. The group also organises team building and wellbeing activities, such as game days, promoting Time to Talk Day, and fruit for the office.

Since instituting this programme, we have found that staff are much more willing to talk about any struggles they are having, and engaging more with wellbeing activities. The Society was also better placed to work to support staff members facing challenges caused by the coronavirus response.

While we are aware that no “model” can be perfect (and mileage may vary from organisation to organisation), we are pleased with the response we’ve had so far from our colleagues, and are looking forward to continuing to develop our resources and approach to mental health challenges in the future. We are also excited to work with our volunteers and many other organisations such as DiG-UK to support anyone looking to improve wellbeing in the wider geoscience sector.

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