Jun 21, 2021

Stress at work— some advice from the experts

Ama Afrifra-Tchie, MHFA England’s Head of People, Wellbeing and Equity

Like most companies over the past fourteen months, Mental Health First Aid (MHFAE) England’s team hasn’t been immune from the impact of COVID-19.

Like its own clients — many of them leading UK businesses — MHFAE had to pivot early in the pandemic.

This meant moving the entirety of its Mental Health training courses from face to face to virtual, pretty much overnight. With this pivot, the organisation and its team had to adapt rapidly to new ways of working whilst trying to balance working at home (during a pandemic). It’s no wonder that the pandemic’s impact on the team’s mental wellbeing was felt quickly. So how did MHFAE support its team during an unprecedented time and what lessons can we learn from their experience and their expertise?

This month, People + Culture Partner, Liz Afolabi, sat down with MHFA England’s Head of People, Wellbeing and Equity, Ama Afrifa-Tchie to find out more.

In what ways are you seeing stress impact the team at MHFA England?

Firstly, our mission and vision is to improve the mental health of the nation and support and advise others on how to better manage their mental health. So as an organisation, it was and is important that we’re able to lead by example, and authentically ‘ live and breathe’ our mission. We wanted to ensure that our teams/employees felt fully supported and put care is at the heart of our employee experience. A vital part of this is ensuring that our team are satisfied at work, feel engaged and energised about what they’re doing and about making a difference. This can only happen if we look after our people and create an environment where they are enabled to do great work and are ultimately empowered and given the tools they need to take care of their mental health and to address their stress. Not an easy thing to do, and we don’t always get it right, but we definitely put it at the core of our culture and people experience.

How have you raised awareness of stress and its impact internally at MHFA England?

We focussed on two key things. Firstly we used our team meetings to raise further awareness of stress — I’ve found that sometimes you need to give people permission to take care of themselves, and this is a message we share often. Secondly, we started from our mission — we encourage employees to have regular 1:1 wellbeing check-ins and find ways to connect with each other. We also encourage use of our mental wellbeing toolkits and guides that we produce for our clients and wider community members. Our website is packed full of different types of content that cover a wide range of topics — everything from how to work at home effectively to manager guidance on how to best support a team’s mental & emotional health using 1:1 check-in questions.

What are you doing at MHFA England to support the team in dealing with stress?

We’ve recognised the importance of finding ways to embed and encourage our teams to take care of their wellbeing to minimise the effects of stress. An important part of this has been to sense check with the team how they are feeling about certain things — more recently, for example, we sought their views about flexible working and how they were feeling about the transition to a ‘different way’ of work. We want our people to feel part of the process and to help us create solutions — partly because we know that when you give people agency and choice this massively minimises the stress, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

As part of this strategy, we’ve focussed on a number of things such as:

Listening

We seek regular feedback from the team on the areas of work that are causing them the most stress. Our CEO invited employees to ‘ listening sessions’ for team members to share their experiences — both good and bad. It’s only when we listen to understand that we can address whatever is concerning our people. For example, early on in the pandemic, our team told us that they were feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of online meetings, so we introduced a rule so no meetings are held between 12–1 pm every day, and we encourage people to build in breaks in between meetings.

Finding ways to stay connected

At MHFA England, we have various forums that enable our teams to stay connected to each other. For example, we have a ‘stay connected’ channel on Teams to enable that sense of belonging and connection that’s been missing this past year and is so vital to our wellbeing. It’s not an overstatement that a sense of connection and belonging, alongside good relationships, keep us happier and healthier.

Physical wellbeing

In terms of physical wellbeing (which is vital for good mental wellbeing and for addressing stress) — we offer weekly virtual fitness classes, which are well attended by the team.

Fun at work

As a leadership team, we feel that it’s important that we tackle the issue of fun at work. So we looked at how to incorporate the fun element during the pandemic through activities like ‘craftnoons’ sessions, MHFAE radio and Friday quizzes throughout the pandemic! Fun is such a core component of staying well mentally and a key tool to help teams minimise the effects of stress. Like most leaders, we’re still figuring out how to find the right balance!

Equity matters

As an organisation, we know that there’s so much work to be done on the issue of equity and we’re passionate about doing the best for our teams and to ensure that everyone feels that MHFAE is a place they love to work. We’re committed to doing the hard work rather than being all talk! On the 18th March 2020, we launched a campaign to enable workplace culture change called ‘My Whole Self’. We recently celebrated it again last on 18th March this year and we encouraged organisations again to participate and commit to workplace culture change. We also published our statement of intent and commitments to being an anti-racist organisation in June 2020. It was important for us to integrate the learnings from this work internally for ourselves as well as externally — from providing guidance to equipping our leaders and managers with the necessary tools they require to ensure people feel that they belong and have equity at work.

Why does this work matter to you and to MHFA England?

Because it’s the right thing to do, and not only that it is good for employees and it’s good for business. I firmly believe that if companies don’t engage with and address toxic cultures and stress in the workplace, they will lose great people. Employees have come to the realisation that work has changed, and the last year has done much to reinforce this. Employees are no longer just motivated by pay and benefits; rather they care about how companies treat them and look after them in all areas. Companies that fail to engage with their employees’ wellbeing and fail to create inclusive environments will lose amazing talent, regardless of their brand. Companies need to ask themselves what costs they are willing to pay — from a reputational to profit perspective — of not looking after the welfare of their employees. You only have to look at the recent exodus of employees from Basecamp to see this in action, and the social media furore it’s caused in recent weeks.

If there’s one takeaway I hope people take from our experience at MHFAE, it’s this — mental health support and wellbeing are no longer ‘nice to have.’ They are vital, and it’s important to be intentional about integrating them into your company strategy to ensure that looking after your people is core to your culture.

Written by People + Culture at Unleashed Partner Liz Afolabi.

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