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Mental wellbeing for men this COVID winter

Across the country, public sector employees have worked relentlessly to keep council services running during this torrid year of COVID-related disruption.

Keeping calm and carrying on through lockdowns, they have selflessly continued to maintain homes, clean our streets, repair vehicles and collect refuse. Everyone has pulled together, enabling a semblance of normality in the most demanding circumstances.

Now as we face an uncertain winter, many HR leaders will be asking these questions: Is employee resilience waning? Are we likely to see physical and mental burnout among these essential workers nine months into the pandemic? And will individuals – particularly male employees – speak up if they feel exhausted, anxious or depressed?

A big issue is that men are not always willing to talk about their feelings. Recently, a male colleague picked up the phone and told me, in no uncertain terms, that he needed help. I was able to act immediately to assist him and his family. But sadly, this kind of direct approach is far too rare.

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Practical help is key

Field-based teams are undoubtedly under pressure. They are dealing with increased complexity in their daily work due to having additional COVID-19 safety protocols to adhere to.

There’s a risk of stress associated with fears over coronavirus, particularly for plumbers, electricians and maintenance staff entering homes during the winter months when infection numbers could well be rising. Even Christmas – a seasonal tonic that helps us all endure the winter – has lost its sparkle this year.

At ODS, our Winter Wellbeing campaign, launched in October, offers very specific help to our valued tradesmen, as well as to head office and operational teams.

We’ve learnt that for male colleagues to engage in mental wellbeing support, you have to pitch the programme very practically, and communicate with empathy, encouragement and warmth.

Offering flu jabs for every member of staff has been an obvious place to start. We’re also running online mental wellbeing workshops, entitled ‘Are You Alright Mate?’ in partnership with ABDCCT.

These are delivered by a mental health expert, with an approachable, friendly tone, injected with humour. It’s an ideal opportunity for our colleagues to have honest conversations about how they feel, while also learning when and how to seek help if they need it.

Multiple touchpoints, fast reactions

Now more than ever, it’s vital to have first aiders trained in mental health. They can act quickly if anyone has a problem, signposting where to find help. Equally, line managers should be well equipped to know what advice to give as soon as someone says they are feeling depressed, stressed or anxious.

As email is not the best means of communication for field-based colleagues, it’s a good idea to use social media such as Facebook groups to publicise a wellbeing campaign and share resources and details about events.

Engendering a culture of acceptance that ‘it’s OK to talk’, I would recommend using your comms channels to sensitively share personal experiences of COVID. One colleague’s story of coping with anxiety when he contracted COVID-19 and spent time in hospital was told very movingly in our newsletter.

Hold the corporate jargon

For all large organisations, the challenge is engaging everyone, even frontline guys who think they will never need support.

Tone of voice can really help. We’ve studiously avoided corporate jargon in the Winter Wellbeing campaign – hopeful that a more caring, personal approach will strike a chord.

Throughout the pandemic, frontline service teams have heroically committed to keeping the community safe - repairing potholes, removing litter from parks, ensuring council homes are warm, safe and dry, and even delivering essentials to vulnerable local residents during lockdown. Their resilience will carry us through to spring and better times. It has to be our number one priority.

Anne-Marie Scott is director of people and corporate services at Oxford City Council-owned ODS.