Ama Afrifa-Tchie, Head of Culture and Wellbeing at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, discusses the importance of our staff's wellbeing during these turbulent times.

Although lockdown is easing and we are able to get out and about a bit more, coronavirus has left its mark on society. 

The past four months have been quite extraordinary. We’ve been living in fear about our own and others’ health; being a good enough parent, carer or child; job and financial insecurity; guilt and concern about furloughed colleagues; our mental health and ability to adapt to the current climate, alongside many other factors that are impacting our coping mechanisms. 

Businesses are now reviewing whether they will transition back to the office or continue to work remotely from home. Working from home whilst coping with the effects of a global pandemic has not been easy. We are now at a point where many people are feeling fatigued or burnt out. With blurred lines between work and personal life, extended work days, constantly jumping from meeting to meeting, and an increased workload, we must remember that working from home does not mean that we should be working all the time! 

Now more than ever, people need to recognise the importance of annual leave and take time off to relax and recuperate. There is much research to suggest that taking time out to unplug and recharge is good for your mental health and wellbeing, as well as increasing productivity in the long term.  

At Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, we value and recognise the importance of the wellbeing of our staff. As part of our goal to be an exemplar employer, we give staff two Wellbeing Weeks (one in the summer and one at the end of the year), on top of their annual leave allowance. This is because we know that recharging your batteries is essential for optimum wellbeing. Traditionally during Wellbeing Weeks, we completely shut down our office to enable staff to fully rest and switch off.  

However, this year, we’ve had to do it a bit differently. Like most social enterprises and businesses, we’re doing all we can to minimise the financial impact of coronavirus. We know we can’t afford to shut the office down completely, due to the strong need for our training. But the mental health and wellbeing of our staff is equally important to us, so we have decided to run two Wellbeing Weeks over the summer and split our teams across those two weeks. 

Our staff have been working extremely hard over the past four months, as we launched our online training courses. Having regular check-ins with staff about their wellbeing is something managers are encouraged to do regularly. We also know that July and August are going to be busy months for us, so to enable staff to take annual leave and Wellbeing Weeks, we’ve introduced team wellbeing health checks. 

Ahead of our first Wellbeing Week at the end of July, all our heads of department will run an hour-long workshop with their teams to discuss:

    Team health check results and the actions they will be taking forward. 
•    Workload and ways to make this more manageable.
•    Annual leave and wellbeing week – who will be off when and what support the team will need to ensure appropriate cover.

As well as the wellbeing workshop, all managers will have 1:1 individual check-in sessions where they will discuss summer wellbeing plans with their team members. It has also been agreed that only the most necessary meetings will take place during our Wellbeing Weeks, which will allow staff to have more focus time, and in turn, be more productive with their outputs. 

These strategies should enable teams to reflect on how to work together and support each other, particularly from a mental health and wellbeing perspective. Our leadership team has always been adamant that our wellbeing weeks should go ahead, no matter the circumstances. The mental health and wellbeing of our staff is paramount to us. 

Here are some other wellbeing tips that staff may want to consider:

•   Take short periods of leave. While it’s currently harder to take long periods of leave (although this is still encouraged if possible), why not take short breaks more often? Since lockdown began, I have taken long weekends at the end of each month and tagged extra annual leave where we’ve had bank holidays. Taking these short breaks has given me something to look forward to and has done wonders for my mental health and wellbeing.

   Rethink how you spend your annual leave. Although it is difficult to travel abroad at the moment, it’s still possible to plan an exciting holiday! Staycations will be the new normal until more borders open up and we feel comfortable travelling again, so why not engage in fun activities you haven’t previously had time for? Depending on your circumstances, you could go for long walks, visit friends and family, plan day trips to local attractions, have a social support bubble gathering in an outside space, and catch up on some well-deserved sleep. There are still so many things you can do, just remember to keep safe by washing your hands, wearing a mask where appropriate, and following social distancing rules. 

•   Lead by example. To all leaders and managers - “What you say is less important than what you do”. So, make sure you’re leading by example by taking time off and encouraging your teams to do the same.

Not only is it important that employees take regular breaks away from their laptops during the workday, but taking extended time off to rest and recuperate is essential – especially during this difficult and uncertain time. Pressing on, and not taking the time out to properly look after yourself, risks triggering or exacerbating mental ill health and poor wellbeing.

Staff shouldn't wait to take time off until they have reached the point of exhaustion. Best practice is to schedule time off intermittently, to ensure wellbeing is protected and that there are breaks to look forward to. All staff deserve to rest, so it's crucial that annual leave is taken accordingly!