Simon Blake: Leaders need to talk about wellbeing as much as the work being done

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) speaks to Charity Times about how charity leaders can practice and lead a culture of positive wellbeing during a time of crisis.

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Q: What does good mental health look like?

A: The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.

The important word is wellbeing. We all have mental health even if we don’ t think about it, understand it or take steps to look after it. During this pandemic good enough is keeping connected with how we are feeling and making it through each day.

Q: What impact does a situation like the current pandemic have on anxiety levels as a whole?

A: Worry is everywhere: health, jobs and money. Some people are experiencing bereavement and grief. Key workers are at risk as they go to work. Some people are indoors in violent relationships. Parents and carers are home schooling and working. No wonder Anxiety UK is seeing increased demand for services.

Ordinarily we may be worrying about one or a few things at a time.
Many of us have different roles. For example, at any one time I can be worrying as a chief executive, charity trustee, friend, child of shielding parents who are 250 miles away, or husband. Everybody has their own set of worries. In amongst the worry we can also take courage and inspiration from how adaptable we are proving to be and how communities have come together.

Q: How can leaders recognise when they might be anxious or stressed?

A: Every CEO of a social enterprise or charity I know is worried for their beneficiaries, their staff and their organisations. Long days and long weeks are the norm. A simple check in with yourself is a good place to start. MHFA England has a free tool available as part of our ‘Address Your Stress’ toolkit to understand our stress triggers and then help monitor and balance our stress levels. Self-care is often the first thing to go out the window when we are stressed. Leaders are no good if we burn out. This is a marathon not a sprint.

Q: What can leaders do to recognise these behaviours in team members?

A: Know your team. Know them well enough to know when their behaviour is unusual or out of character. Sudden drop in performance, increased levels of tiredness or sickness absence, decreased levels of punctuality – these could all be signs that someone is struggling, but if something just doesn’ t feel right, ask. The most important thing is to start the conversation early, to reduce the likelihood any issues will develop.

Q: What are your top tips for reducing anxiety and stress through work?

A: Stay well connected; talk about wellbeing as much as the work to be done. MHFA England produced advice on wellbeing while working from home and I wrote a short follow-on blog, available on the MHFA website. We have paused our 2020/2021 business plan and created six priority objectives. Keep focused on the things that have to be done. Communicate, communicate and celebrate.

Q: Is a routine essential for good mental health?

A: Yes! The most important routine is getting some rest and downtime. Without it we will inevitably make poorer decisions. Remember that your routine will look different to others’ and it’ s about seeing what works for you.

With social distancing rules in place, how can people ensure they still have a good support network, in and out of work? Teams need permission to spend time connecting. A t MHFA England colleagues are continuing putting on wellbeing activities for all staff; a virtual kitchen, nutrition workshops, weekly fitness challenges, MHFA Radio, mindfulness and yoga, and a Book Club.

Be mindful some people are not living in environments that are easy to work in. Some may not even be in safe environments. Bring your
Employee Assistance Programme to life and promote it. If you don’t have an EAP, provide information about support services. We have talked a lot about staying connected and we mostly have the hang of it, but we also need to remember to be just as good at disconnecting.

Q: What’s most important to you for your own mental health?

A: To accept the situation, believe the restrictions are necessary and know there is no alternative. I love exercising and being with my animals. Dolly the dog is with my parents. Boris’ yard (my horse) is in lockdown. I can’ t swim. I continue to run and am doing some online learning. I have cried a bit too: a great release valve!

Q: What three things would you advise people to do every day to maintain a positive wellbeing during the crisis?

A:
• 􏰄Focus on the basics – eating well, drinking water, getting some exercise and good sleep;
• 􏰇Choose a dail􏰈y goal 􏰆– it doesn't have to be big;
• 􏰊Prac􏰅tise gratitude – before 􏰋I get out of bed, I think about three things I am grateful for.

Q: What could charities learn about mental health at work through this pandemic?

A: It has been a joy to see the focus on mental health as part of getting our
jobs done. We must make sure we carry on when we get to a new normal. I have learned how quick people can adapt to remarkably different circumstances, the benefit of speed, honesty, and transparency when making decisions. In good times and bad, we must all be connecting the decisions we make to our social purpose every step of the way. ■

Simon Blake is the chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA), a social enterprise offering guidance and advice to organisations to help support mental health in the workplace, and beyond. Find more information at mhfaengland.org.uk

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