Kelsey Lewis, a mental health first aider at the UK IPO, has written this great article about her role and the support available to her and her colleagues. It highlights the importance of a holistic approach to mental wellbeing within an organisation, of which mental health first aid is only a part. The article first appeared in the June 2022 CIPA Journal (an issue devoted to equality, diversity and inclusivity), here. We are grateful to CIPA and the IPO for permission to share it with a wider audience.
My name’s Kelsey and I’m one of the mental health first aiders at IPO. I applied for the role as poor mental health is something I’ve experienced myself, particularly after losing a family member to suicide. I was keen to use my experiences to help IPO create and maintain an environment where mental health is discussed openly, something we’ve made great strides towards in recent years. It’s great to be a part of an organisation that is so passionate about supporting colleagues who are struggling.
IPO has a goal to become an organisation where mental health issues are truly understood and de-stigmatised. To support this, our first mental health strategy was launched in 2016 to support the Government priorities for health and wellbeing in the Civil Service. In this strategy (and the updated versions since), we pledged to support the wellbeing of our people through a range of activities including:
- Our staff counselling service
- Training for managers
- Launching our employee assistance programme
- The introduction of our mental health first aiders
- A peer-to-peer support group
- Encouraging the use of Wellbeing Action Plans
- Daily mindfulness and meditation lunchtime sessions
- Creation of “The Haven”, a safe space in the IPO building for anyone needing a break from the office environment
Let’s explore these initiatives a little further…
Staff counselling service
We’re extremely lucky at IPO to have a team of staff counsellors who are a great source of support for anyone and everyone in the organisation. Equal to counsellors outside of the workplace, they are fully qualified to support staff with mental health or emotional issues, as well as personal or work-related difficulties. Clients can personalise this service, opting for a one-off session or booking in regular appointments if needed – whatever suits them best. Our counsellors also lead and advise the mental health first aider group, supporting them through difficult scenarios or working together to record any trends that may crop up amongst staff.
As well as providing in-house training to improve confidence in handling mental health problems, IPO has developed a toolkit as a source of information and support for managers. Our staff counsellors run regular sessions where leaders can openly discuss general managerial concerns in a safe environment, something that helps us understand if certain areas are experiencing more issues than others. This allows for more targeted support. Managers can also request that a mental health first aider attends team meetings to explain the support available at IPO and offer colleagues the chance to ask questions.
Mental health first aiders
The mental health first aider group consists of specially trained volunteers from different areas of IPO, all with varied backgrounds. We comfort and signpost colleagues with wellbeing concerns, as well as supporting line managers at times of distress or crisis. It’s a completely confidential listening service that can be offered in person, over the phone or via email/message. Recently, we started hosting regular “workplace wellbeing sessions” for staff to learn how to better prioritise their wellbeing at work. These have proven very popular and help us identify themes that might be causing worry. To ensure we’re offering the best service possible, we attend regular training courses on topics such as mental health conditions, addiction and domestic abuse.
Employee assistance programme
Our employee assistance programme is a brilliant service provided by Health Assured to help staff deal with personal and professional problems that could be affecting their home or work life, health and general wellbeing. This 24/7 service comes in handy outside the typical working hours and is open not only to all IPO employees, but to their immediate family members (spouse/partner and children living under the same roof). It provides telephone counselling, a smartphone app full of information and wellbeing tools and an online wellbeing portal which hosts a library of resources.
For those that may not want the formality of counselling or a one-on-one meeting with a mental health first aider, the peer-to-peer group provides staff with a supportive network of colleagues who can share their lived experiences and how they are managing or overcoming their difficulties. It’s very casual so staff can dip in and out of the weekly sessions as and when they need to without the pressure of having to participate themselves. These are run by our office mental health champion who is an avid campaigner for mental health support in and outside of IPO.
Wellbeing action plans
Wellbeing action plans offer a way for managers to support and track the mental health of their team members. The template we use at IPO was created by the charity Mind and the focus is shifting from reactive management of sick absence to a proactive way of prevention through wellbeing and improving employee engagement. These plans have been essential for managers throughout the pandemic providing them an easy, fuss-free way to check in on their staff (especially those who struggle to speak about their issues in person). They also allow staff to take notice and control of their own wellbeing, which is hugely important to recovery.
Virtual relaxation sessions
Meditation can be an effective way to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and create a safe mental space for the person in practice. Our daily online mindfulness and meditation sessions are held by volunteers from our patents department and take place via video online. Staff are invited to join, switch off their cameras and microphones, and listen to a guided meditation shared by the host. This has been particularly beneficial to those in our operations areas who have worked tirelessly over recent years to reduce historic backlogs of casework, offering them the opportunity to break up their day and improve awareness of their own feelings.
For lots of people at IPO, the office space can be distracting, particularly if they work within an analytical or technical environment. Roles in these areas typically require periods of intense concentration and ambient noise can cause discomfort for some. The Haven was created as a safe place for staff to use if they have an urgent need for space and calm. It’s not to use as a private meeting room but to close the door on the busyness of work for however long needed. There’s also a telephone available inside with useful numbers for mental health support.
As well as the above provisions, we encourage staff to talk to our HR Advisors, Harassment Contact Officers or Trade Unions for support. We also share support resources from the Charity for Civil Servants’ online hub which provides information on workplace wellbeing, stress and burnout. We have a wellbeing group on Yammer where colleagues can openly share information, experiences and best practices on a more casual/social basis.
To benchmark ourselves against other Government departments, we’ve taken part in the Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index which we made a Ministerial target in 2018/2019. We were proud to achieve the “gold award” each time we’ve taken part, meaning we’ve successfully embedded mental health into our policies and priorities. This is a huge step to IPO reaching its corporate goal to become a brilliant place to work.
No mention of wellbeing in IP would be complete without mentioning IP Inclusive of course. Mental health first aiders from IPO have delivered webinars and joined other training and information sessions delivered by IP Inclusive for the IP professions in recent years. At IPO we are proud to work with IP Inclusive to share our experience and learn from others, including the charity Jonathan’s Voice, another partner of IP Inclusive events. Everyone, in any role or organisation, who works with IP is welcome to get in touch to benefit from the resources available. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join in or help out.
Find out more
If you or your organisation would like to find out more about mental health first aid at IPO and how we do it, please get in touch via MHFA@ipo.gov.uk.