UNLEASH gets a quick call with Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England to talk research, bias, wellbeing, inequalities, and the contents of their recent race equity report. Spoiler alert: it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
Race and mental health: How can employees ensure that the promises they make about race equity turn into actions?
I think the key is that you’ve got to make sure that it’s not just words, it’s about making sure that you’ve got real clarity about what you’re going to do, why you’re going to do it, but also that you build it into everybody’s objectives.
It’s very easy to create a list of actions, it’s harder to create a culture in which everybody’s got the level of understanding they need, but also the mindset to be thinking, what does it mean to have an anti racist lens on this?
What does it mean to be thinking about this from a white race-equity perspective, so that people are making the constant evolution, because we know that it’s about looking at everything we do with a fresh set of eyes and acknowledging that there is inherent in all of our systems and processes the biases, orthodoxies, the status quo, that have led to those inequalities.
It’s about ensuring that you’ve got absolute commitment at a leadership level, but that you’re also providing the training and leadership which is needed for people to be understanding about privilege, bias, and systemic racism.
You’ve got to create that two way conversation and the ability to understand what support people of color and black people might need at the same time as doing the work across the organization.
Do you think workplace inequalities have been exacerbated by hybrid working policies, and if they have, what can you do to mitigate this?
There are some really interesting points here. The first is that for people who just enjoy working from home, there is a set of expectations that people might have that first of all, it’s safe, when we know for some people home isn’t safe, and also that you’ve got plenty of space, and that you’re able to either sit at a desk or to be quiet or be able to move freely around and have the space to actually work.
We know that those things are not always true. We know that some people have had to work from their bedrooms. We also know that women have had to do more of the childcare, generally, and the burden of house work while working from home so yes, working from home and by extension, hybrid working will emphasize and exacerbate some of those inequalities and and yet there isn’t going to be one size that fits all my own view.
Relationships are a really important part of work. The bubbles we work in can easily be popped, the silos can easily be broken down when we’re in rooms and spaces with each other. The office is also a way of facilitating those relationships, the conversations, which help creativity and innovation.
It may also be a safer place for people than home, a more comfortable place for people to be able to work than from home. I think the key thing is the honesty of conversation, the transparency about when we need to be in the office, and when is the office available for people for whom it is a better place to work?
Do some work-life balance boundaries need to be put back in place to safeguard employee wellbeing while employing a hybrid working strategy?
Let’s just remember as context for this that we already were in an environment where remote concerns and perceptions of being at your desk meant that those boundaries were blurring. We know from the Deloitte report that one of the significant economic implications of poor mental health was a result of that always-on culture which digital was driving. So there were already issues about people feeling pressured to prove that they were doing longer hours.
[Being] busy isn’t a KPI; long hours should not be worn as a badge of honor, so we’ve got to be better at ensuring that we’re taking a mental health perspective, ensuring that jobs are manageable, ensuring that work can be done, and that people have the skills and the tools to do so.
We’ve got to get better at enabling people to work in a way which means that their life is balanced. And to do that with the flexibility and autonomy to make choices that work for them. There are things that managers and organizations need to do, such as reinforcing that we don’t expect people to be working all the time, making sure that you are taking holiday, making sure that people can see that you’re not working all weekend. For the mental health and wellbeing of our staff, we need to make sure they don’t feel as though there is an always-on culture.
How does protecting employee mental health help businesses stay agile and productive?
You can’t pour from an empty cup; we have to care for people and also encourage them to be able to care for themselves. We talked earlier about creating boundaries, having an office space or freedoms around hybrid working to create that safety and then ensuring that structural inequalities do not mean that change or innovation impacts people positively or negatively, disproportionately.
If you’re well, you can be productive and innovative. And when you’re inventive and productive, you get the energy that reinforces wellbeing, so they do feed each other.