Mind Matters

Mental Health Awareness week has been and gone for another year, leading many commentators to ask what else can be done to support those experiencing mental health issues for the remaining 51 weeks.

 One organisation working hard to address mental health in the workplace is the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). Sadly, research has found that vets are three to four times more likely to take their own lives than members of the general public at large. This could be due to a number of stress factors, such as the intensity and length of work hours, compassion fatigue as they cope with distressed animals and owners, and performance anxiety.

For this reason, in 2015, the RCVS launched a £1 million project that aims to support and promote the wellbeing of their members called The Mind Matters Initiative. The five-year project offers training for staff whilst pointing members towards existing support programmes such as Vetlife, which has a direct helpline for those in need.

Lizzie Lockett, director of communications at the RCVS and director of the Mind Matters Initiative, says that the organisations regulatory role means that is unusual for such a body to tackle such an issue, but that ultimately the organisation has a duty of care towards its members.

 ‘We don’t offer one-to-one support,’ says Lockett. ‘As a regulatory body, it’s complex for us to get into that because one day we could be investigating a complaint against one of our vets. [What we do is on] a population scale, looking at culture change, support at a preventative level, promoting mindfulness and wellbeing.

 The RCVS offers and financially supports mindfulness webinars on coping mechanisms, how to get a good night’s sleep, all concepts that staff might be familiar with as a result of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

 ‘We chose webinars largely because of stigma and the fact that our audience can do it on their own time, they don’t have to take any time out,’ explains Lockett. ‘They can fit it around their schedules.’

 The RCVS also spends a lot of time educating staff, particularly managers, on specific causes of mental health problems, awareness and the Mental Health Act. ‘It is case study driven and practical,’ says Lockett. ‘We have courses that are one day or half day about how we understand mental health and have conversations about it with co-workers. It gets people over the fear factor. People think if they have these conversations, it might lead to something happening but that’s not the case. The worst thing that can happen is someone getting it a bit wrong and having a slightly embarrassing conversation, but the upside of having these conversations makes that worth it.’

 Starting the conversation is difficult, Lockett acknowledges. Nearly a third of UK employees said last year that they felt isolated and unsure about who to talk to or where to find help of support around mental health issues at work. The research, from health insurer Westfield Health, also found that 32 per cent of respondents felt they were being treated differently by their line manager after returning to work following absence related to mental ill health. One-fifth also felt their colleagues’ attitudes towards them had changed.

 Not surprisingly then, people may be hesitant to admit that they might be struggling with their mental health. The key, to Lockett, is getting leadership to kick start the charge.

 ‘We try to get vets and veterinary nurses to talk about their own challenges,’ says Lockett. ‘We launched &Me, where we encourage senior healthcare professionals to talk about how they sought help and got back into the profession.’

 &Me, which was launched at the House of Commons in January and is a joint initiative with the Doctors Support Network, aims to show that everyone has mental health, and that having a mental health problem does not exclude people from achieving leading roles in healthcare. The project was the brainchild of Dr Louise Freeman,  vice-chair of the Doctors' Support Network, and senior people are encouraged to share their stories on social media using the hashtag #AndMe.

 However, it is not all leadership-focused. ‘It’s important to get the leadership aspect, getting senior vets involved, but the practical stuff needs to come from a more granular basis from the bottom,’ Lockett says.

 In fact, the initiative is so industry-wide, Mind Matters is also looking at changing the culture of practices that may be damaging to mental health. ‘It’s like a turning a tanker around changing culture but it will happen,’ says Lockett.  ‘We offer support for those in a supporting role, such as managers. We’re looking at bigger picture issues too, how practices work, how we can make them less stressful. It’s something we also need to look at from a staff point of view.’

For example, Nick Stuart, senior vice-president of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons and representative on the Mind Matters Taskforce, launched an awards scheme celebrating practices doing good things around mental health in the workplace.

I knew in my own practice, Vale Vets, how important it was for staff to communicate well and to support each other, and the value of social and networking events,’ he writes in a blog post on the Mind Matters website. ‘I wanted to raise awareness of mental wellbeing and the role that this can play in job satisfaction, with the knock-on effects of reducing staff turnover and increasing profitability.

‘I wanted the awards to recognise those practices with management systems and initiatives that motivate and engage their staff and who can demonstrate their commitment to being a better place to work.’

 ‘We want to make sure we don’t just talk about the negatives,’ Lockett adds. ‘We try to talk about the positives of having good mental health.’

 The World Health Organisation illustrates these positives in its definition of mental health as a ‘state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’.

 Organisations, therefore, shouldn’t be tempted to leave tackling mental health issues to human resources. ‘It needs to be visible from a communications basis, not just a HR thing,’ asserts Lockett. ‘When you get into it, it’s getting into communications and learning.

 ‘We needed to create a separate brand. We created Mind Matters, all to come behind that. We launched that at a conference, where we already knew our audience were going to be. It needs to be veined through regular vet activity

 ‘Identify key stakeholders and get them on board with the messages. Get HR involved too, but HR is not always linked. It’s not always trusted because it’s seen as hiring and firing people.’

 Mental health can also impact professional standards. A survey by the UK Government revealed that one in three absences from work were due to stress or anxiety. Research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that eight in ten employees with mental health problems said they find it difficult to concentrate, whilst half are potentially less patient with customers or clients.

 ‘I think it’s vital [that organisations tackle mental health]. The blunt tool is the financial aspect but also the skills and diversity aspect, where communications is important. People who deal with mental health issues might have more empathy around issues that others might not have.  This isn’t just a profession thing. It’s all of us – our client base, our customers …’ According to data from the World Health Organisation, one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

 ‘It’s a mix of moral obligation, financial common sense and also business savvy,’ Lockett says. ‘We have a lot of corporate practices around,  who might have more business-related motivations at play getting involved with Mind Matters, such as reducing absenteeism, but I don’t mind what motivates them [as long as they are involved].’

 Lockett points out that mental health training can also be a way of upskilling staff. ‘These are tools that you can use not just in the workplace, but elsewhere in life. You can add this training onto your CV. It’s trying to get that sense that people see value in it.’

 In January, Mind Matters held a research symposium on mental health in the veterinary profession, to ensure the initiative was working on the right evidence and to keep up to date with the current thinking. While Lockett notes that research is key, she cautions against conducting internal surveys before organisations have a strategy in place. There’s a danger then that people recognise they have an issue but still have no way of dealing with it.

 ‘Call in an expert.  At the end of the day, you’re dealing with people’s lives,’ Lockett advises. ‘Don’t flick out a bunch of training - have a more strategic approach. There are clear stats; anxiety affects more women than men, that’s just fact. Have clear guidelines for staff and keep talking about it. Normalise [talking about mental health] – not to the point where people are gossiping, but where possible get people thinking about it.’

 The RCVS has taken a bold step in helping staff deal with mental health issues, but Lockett’s passion for the Mind Matters initiative shines through. ‘We do a lot of work with other countries, like the United States, and other professions. There’s a bit of a stasis moment, thinking there’s so much we can do, where do we start? But you’ve got to start somewhere,’ she says. ‘People start to take notice and then the positive cascade starts to happen.’

 And for many vets, thanks to Mind Matters, it’s already happening.