Everyone suffers from fragile mental health in some way, shape or form during their lives. For some, it can be episodic, for others it is an almost constant occurrence which requires daily management.
Poor mental health manifests itself in many ways and is fiendishly complex – both to understand and to effectively respond to. There is no doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated the problem – both for the people that councils are here to serve and for our workforces. The full extent of the impact of COVID on mental health is yet to be known, although clear signs are emerging.
As large employers responsible for multiple complex functions, councils have long recognised the need to do more to support the mental health of colleagues. The pressure that the sector has been under for well over a decade has only become more extreme over the past couple of years.
More and more, local government is required to step up to respond quickly to support some of the most vulnerable in society – we have done so during the pandemic and we are doing so now in response to the cost of living crisis. Every day, councils are asked to do more without access to more resources. These pressures take their toll on colleagues, with burnout and stress related sickness a big concern.
Most councils recognise that creating the environment to support good mental health is a critical requirement but the best organisations are going beyond just talking about mental health – they are taking action.
In Norwich, I am proud to have launched the city council’s first ever mental wellbeing strategy in May as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. It marked a big moment for the council, and the fact that so many colleagues attended the launch shows how far we have come. For me, the origins of our new strategy and how it came about are just as important as the document itself.
It started with a conversation in city hall a few weeks after I arrived at the council in early 2020. A colleague came to speak to me, wanting to tell me about his own experiences of poor mental health and the impact it has had. He also wanted to tell me – respectfully – that the council could and should be doing more. I listened to his compelling and honest assessment and gave my full support. We decided we needed to do something about it.
Almost immediately, the colleague who raised it with me had reached out to others to set up a working group – formed of like-minded colleagues who wanted to make a difference and create a better environment for us all. It wasn’t a hierarchical group full of senior officers, instead colleagues from a range of teams and directorates came together with a single vision – to articulate a commitment to do more and to develop a plan for action.
The group quickly developed a project plan; held workshops; conducted a staff survey; assessed the support currently in place; identified gaps; and looked at best practice from elsewhere. They turned their findings into a report to the corporate leadership team (CLT). As an evidence based assessment of where we were and what we needed to do to, it was one of the best reports I have seen in my time at the council. The CLT endorsed the report and it was developed into what has become one of our most important internal strategies.
But what has been produced is more than an abstract vision – the strategy is backed up with actions and outcomes against which the council is already delivering; a determination to go further; and a commitment to monitor progress via a new mental wellbeing steering group which I chair.
The strategy itself is important – and is also one of the most well-written and researched documents I have read – but how it was developed is equally significant. It started with a group of like-minded colleagues using their initiative and personal experiences; determined to make a difference; stepping out of their ‘day jobs’; and taking on extra responsibilities to make things better for others.
For me, this is equally as impressive and important as the work they have produced and is a model of empowerment we can use to tackle other challenges we face. I am proud of what my colleagues have done and I am equally proud of how they have done it.
Stephen Evans is chief executive at Norwich City Council