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A view on mental health in the public sector

Sharing our Experience

At Penna we’re privileged to work with front-line staff from social care, to the NHS, higher education, to the emergency services. The mental toll of key-working is often discussed with us; clients have been putting in never seen before hours and energy to their work. Helen Alwell, Consultant in our Executive Search team, discusses the issues faced and a clearer way to mental wellbeing for public sector employers and staff.

Mental Health is something that we all have, previously a taboo subject and within the health and social care sector, it was deemed to be the poor relation. Data shows that 1 in 4 people currently have mental health difficulties. In reality it's 1 in 2 people and 3 in 4 of us have a lifetime risk of experiencing mental health difficulty.

Since the pandemic, it has become more important to highlight the support available to the workforce as well as groups who face a higher risk to mental health issues, such as children and young people, younger adults and older people. There has been a sharp rise in emotional and psychological distress and a rising prevalence of common mental health conditions and coping mechanisms including alcohol misuse.  Societal worries play into this too, lockdown has been long and economic worries still loom large.

What has been happening to front-line staff?

The pandemic has put added pressure onto individuals who are already in highly pressured jobs, the lack of informal ‘water cooler’ conversations has made some individuals more isolated. The addition of home schooling has also provided an additional level of anxiety to parents. I spoke to one individual who explained that their mental health has been largely affected when trying to home school as they felt the added pressure of teaching their children when often the content of the education is alien to them and there is an added concern of ‘doing it wrong’.

One of our contacts said that they were concerned about the impact of working from home on colleagues. He advised that he felt that they were less likely to take breaks and were working for longer hours with no travel time between meetings – he is actively trying to encourage an hour down time in diaries at least 3 times a week if not daily to ensure that colleagues move away from their screens and either go for a walk or move to a different room to get some respite.

How has the demand from communities for mental health services changed?

Public sector workers are facing an increased demand for mental health services. CAMHS referrals have increased by 30% during the lockdown period, for some local authorities their CAMHS services were running at capacity and with reduced budgets prior to the lockdown.

Innovative solutions are being produced to cope with the demand. Our clients tell us more regular contact with service users via virtual platforms has been beneficial.

A number of clients have introduced ‘wellbeing’ calls daily to schools, care homes and community providers to ensure that there is an added layer of support during these difficult times and this supportive network approach needs to continue beyond COVID.

There has also been intervention at a national level. A new community-based offer with regards to mental health services has been set out to include access to psychological therapies, improved physical health care, employment support, personalised and trauma informed care, medicines management and support for self-harm and coexisting substance use. By 2023/24, this will enable at least 370,000 adults and older adults per year nationally to have greater choice and control over their care, and to live well in their communities. This ambition is supported by an additional £1 billion new Long-Term Plan funding per year by 2023/24 to ultimately transform the provision of community mental health care for adults and older adults with severe mental illnesses, says NHS England.

How can employers help lighten the load?

Even though Covid-19 has happened to all of us, it is important to remember that the impact of the pandemic and trauma is different for everyone and we need to support each other at appropriate levels.

A key level of support is ensuring that the offer of proactive mental health support for the highest risk groups, including financial support, the need to create trauma informed spaces and approaches and the offer of bereavement support.

Vigilance and adaptation to mental health and wellbeing along with ongoing and meaningful engagement with people who use and need services are key to the effective commissioning of the services and support that keep people of all ages and backgrounds safe and supported at this difficult time.

What next?

We have a saying at Penna, ‘We are Family’. We feel the importance of looking after one another as we would our own. This extends to our clients and candidates too.

We ran our first mental health and well being support session for our interim managers this week and there are more to come.

If you would like to talk to us about mental health in the workplace, please get in touch.

Helen Alwell is a Consultant in our Executive Search Team and specialises in social care recruitment.

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