Optalis employs 700 staff who, across a range of services, support 5,000 adults – people with physical disabilities, older people including many with dementia, adults with learning difficulties and people with mental health problems.
Like many organisations working in health and social care, Optalis soon began to see the impact of COVID-19 on staff. Staff were feeling the strain of taking on additional shifts to cover teammates who were self-isolating. While in other services, staff were dealing with the uncertainty of redeployment.
- Is compulsory mental health first aid training at work the right move?
- Alastair Campbell: the importance of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic
- Return to the office could be bad for mental health
The organisation already had workforce wellbeing at its heart and has for eight years been signed up to the Mindful Employer Charter. Our approach has always been to ensure staff can deliver a service in the best possible way. Staff wellbeing is fundamentally linked to their ability to provide good support. The more we look after them, the better able they are to look after others.
Though we already had five trained Mental Health First Aiders, offered free independent counselling, an Employee Assistance Programme, online health, and wellness courses and a dedicated area on our intranet for wellbeing information, we knew we had to do more when the pandemic hit.
A Mindful Employer Champion provided weekly drop-in sessions in person (socially distanced) and by phone or video call. And we developed a partnership with a specialist bereavement charity to provide resilience training and support to colleagues.
Recognising the link between physical and mental health, we also put on sessions provided by a sleep expert and a postural health session focussed on colleagues who were homeworking.
Having a diverse and dispersed workforce presented additional challenges. Some staff are rarely online, so we created posters, leaflets, social media groups and e-newsletters to ensure every office, service and site had easily accessible information.
A cultural shift was also needed. You can set up all the support in the world, but unless people feel comfortable talking about their mental health, it’s all for nothing. It became more vital than ever to truly embed our wellbeing agenda within the whole organisation.
Staff appraisals and regular supervisions now include wellbeing questions. Managers have resources to use and share, so everyone feels empowered to help colleagues who may be struggling.
The conversation has to be an integral part of everyday work. Rather than having to set aside time to talk, we want people to know it’s OK to discuss wellbeing at any point in the working day.
Despite being a very challenging year in the sector, the business has seen the benefits of this wellbeing first approach. In our annual staff survey in October 2020, three quarters of staff said they felt well supported through the changes brought about by COVID-19 and 69% said Optalis had proactively supported employee wellbeing throughout the pandemic.
In a sector that can struggle to recruit and retain staff, we’ve also enjoyed an increase of 10% (to 71%) in staff saying they would recommend the organisation as an employer of choice, as well as a boost to the Mindful Employer Index (up 2% to 74%).
As teams begin to return to the office, wellbeing remains a focus. We have definitely seen some staff benefit from working from home, and future work arrangements will be decided with our teams.’
We have renewed our commitment to the Mindful Employer Charter and the conversation with staff is ongoing. We will continue to work hard to understand our staff’s needs and priorities, and to improve both the working environment and the support we provide
Jeannette Crisp is director of HR and corporate services at Optalis