How Mental Health First Aid England became a top employer for women

This year we had the brilliant news that Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England placed in the top 100 UK Best Workplaces for Women 2022 (medium-sized organisations). Here's how we achieved the status.

We know that there are more women in work than ever before, with many holding senior leaderships positions, yet there is still so much that we must do as organisations and leaders to help support the female workforce.

Women's role in the economy transformed since 1992

Nine in 10 women want better health support at work

Rethinking employee health and wellbeing in 2022

I am proud beyond measure to be part of a supportive and inclusive organisation, but the wider world of work still puts women at a disadvantage.

After slow but steady improvement in women’s employment outcomes, the pandemic put progress back by at least two years towards gender equality in work across Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries.

This was due to higher unemployment among women and a greater proportion of women than men leaving the labour market during the pandemic.

As we all settle into the ‘new normal’ – whether that be returning to the office full time, fully remote working, or implementing a hybrid work pattern – what can we do as leaders to support our female employees? 


Champion diverse and inclusive teams

Create platforms, space and time for everyone to feel supported, so no one feels unheard or suppressed at work because of their gender identity, sexuality, disability, health, age or caring responsibilities.

In preparing for this article, I spoke to several of my colleagues and overwhelmingly, they all said that women have a voice that is heard within our organisation. 

Women should be represented at all levels of the organisation, have a voice in all decisions and policy development, and feel there is a psychologically safe place to have that voice heard.  

Sadly, we know that black women and women of colour still experience significantly worse employment outcomes than white women in the UK. They receive lower pay, and experience higher unemployment rates.

Analysis from PwC earlier this year, found that this disparity had widened over the last decade. It also found that these inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic, with their unemployment rates rising substantially more than for other groups.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, MHFA England committed to becoming an anti-racist organisation. The commitment was underpinned by a 15-point plan which included examining all our recruitment and onboarding processes to ensure a more inclusive candidate experience. We also implemented a zero-tolerance policy to racism and introduced anonymous recruitment procedures.

Our workplace champions are a valuable tool in supporting women of colour across the organisation. At MHFA England we established an anti-racist programme, Project Sapphire, sponsored by our chief executive, Simon Blake, with project champions who lead on holding the organisation accountable and committed to supporting everybody in building an anti-racist culture.


Lead with empathy and trust

Great leadership puts empathy at its heart to foster the right conditions for employee wellbeing, engagement, talent retention and performance.

You don’t have to be an expert in mental health to demonstrate care and compassion. Remember to consider the thoughts of others, listen to your employees non-judgementally and take action that directly responds to those concerns or challenges.

Some things sit outside of our control but sometimes it can be enough to just check in, be curious and ask questions (and realise that you do not have to have all the answers).

In our most recent 'My Whole Self' survey (March 2022), we found nearly half of all employees interviewed (48%) had had no wellbeing check-ins from their employer in the past year (up from 25% in 2021). At a time when workplace wellbeing and mental health are in sharper focus, this is a very worrying trend.  

By listening well, you can signpost people to the right resources. Regular wellbeing check-ins, ensuring managers have the training and resources they need to support their teams and having trained Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace can help achieve this.

As part of My Whole Self, we developed a suite of free resources to help empower organisations of all sizes to support their staff with regular wellbeing check-ins.


Ensure flexible working is flexible

I’ve lost count of the times I have heard organisations say they offer flexible working and then, in the same breath, talk about mandating specific hours and days worked.

If the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that you must be open to learning and adapting, as individuals, as teams and as an organisation. And that’s because there is no 'one-size-fits-all' when it comes to mental health, wellbeing and equity in the workplace. 

When I was appointed, I was actively encouraged to think about flexible working by my manager. MHFA England genuinely live the values of promoting wellbeing in the workplace.

While I am not a parent, or primary carer, the flexibility afforded to me by MHFA England (I work compressed hours to give me a nine-day fortnight) means I can use my day off each fortnight to care for my 22-month-old nephew.

MHFA England also offer two wellbeing weeks a year, one in the summer and one in the winter, where the whole office shuts. This is a chance to unplug and recharge.

For those with caring responsibilities, these extra 10 days help to reduce anxiety around childcare costs and juggling work and home life. While certainly not the solution to the monumental issue of childcare costs, colleagues have mentioned how important wellbeing weeks are in terms of balancing both their work and home lives.

As a social enterprise we are driven by a people-centred approach to workplace wellbeing. As ever, there is more to do, but I am delighted to be part of an organisation that is leading from the front, listening to its employees and helping to mould the workplaces of the future.

Alicia Nagar is interim head of wellbeing, people and equity at MHFA