Simon Blake OBE, CEO, MHFA England: Why We Must Keep Mental Health Top Of The Agenda
Simon Blake OBE is Chief Executive of leading social enterprise, Mental Health First Aid England (www.MHFAEngland.org.uk). MHFA England has a vision to improve the mental health of the nation and a mission to train 1:10 of the adult population in mental health knowledge and skills. We have currently trained 1:67 including a significant number of Mental Health First Aiders in the Highways Sector.
Simon is a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute and was awarded his OBE in 2011 for services to the voluntary sector and young people. He is a dog lover and has a dog called Dolly, a horse lover with a horse called Boris and a reluctant runner.
Please tell us a bit about your professional background at MHFA England. How did you come into your role looking after workplace mental health and wellbeing?
I have always worked in the social sector as an educator, trainer, campaigner and policy maker on social justice issues, primarily working with children and young people. I spent 20 plus years working in sexual health, including running Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity. The overlap and intersection of sexual health and mental health is really clear. I believe that our mental health and wellbeing is at the core of who we are.
Our organisation has a vision to improve the mental health of the nation by training one in ten people in mental health awareness and skills. We have chosen to focus on the workplace because this is where we can influence systemic change and reach a good proportion of the population, with those skills then rippling out into the community. Workplaces are also so important because work can really boost or hurt our wellbeing. Creating culture change through our training and campaigning is fundamental to our aim of transforming workplace mental health.
What would you say has been the most effective aspect of your internal workplace mental health and wellbeing programme (in general)?
The old adage, culture eats strategy for breakfast is as true when it comes to wellbeing and mental health as it is with every other bit of the business. Wellbeing is so deeply rooted into our culture, our thinking and our processes that we often don’t even notice.
When I first started as Chief Executive I noticed a really different approach to wellbeing at MHFA England, from wellbeing being part of every 1:1 conversation to our summer and winter wellbeing weeks which are in addition to our annual leave entitlement. It is the combination of all these practices which results in a culture of care.
Since COVID-19 what has been the most effective aspect of your workplace mental health and wellbeing programme?
Throughout the pandemic our focus on wellbeing has continued and been amplified. If I had to choose one thing it is that we have been open and honest from the outset, even when we have not known all the answers. I know from feedback time and again that this is critical for employee wellbeing.
There are two other important aspects: on a practical level the first thing we did was to really focus the organisational objectives and refresh those on a rolling monthly basis. Our aim in doing this was to bring some sense of certainty for our staff during a really uncertain time.
Organisation wide we have created space for creativity from the team and used a single Teams channel – Staying Connected – as a place for communication about a wide range of activities from running our own internal Radio station hosted by a member of our team, to meditation, virtual kitchens, fitness sessions and Monday motivational playlists. Individual teams have also found ways to stay connected as a team throughout.
The pandemic has forced mental and physical health to the top of organisations’ agendas. Our goal is to make sure it remains a priority and becomes embedded as business as usual post-COVID-19. What do you think is the biggest obstacle that might stop this vision from becoming a reality and how can people driving this agenda within their workplaces overcome this?
I am delighted to see that mental health has leapt to the top of the agenda during COVID-19. The human, moral and economic case is absolutely clear. Yet we know under pressure people often revert to old ways of doing things; there may be budget constraints and if we are tight for time and tight for cash, mental health may go back to being a nice to have, not an essential.
But that is not inevitable, particularly as the government has just announced new measures which are likely to be in place for the next six months and which have the potential to continue to impact people’s mental health.
We have to be steely in our commitment, speaking our truths repeatedly, using employee engagement data to underwrite the importance of staying focused on mental health, and using the data published by Deloitte last year about the economic costs. We cannot and must not go backwards, the costs of doing so are too great.
Is there anything you’d like to share about your participation in the session “Mental health: the next frontier in diversity, inclusivity and belonging” at the digital MAD World Summit on 8th October?
This topic is vitally important and timely. I truly believe we have to think about mental health, inclusion and belonging together in the workplace. We know that feeling included and trusting that you belong is fundamental to your wellbeing and your mental health.
That is why we launched the My Whole Self campaign in March this year and have just released some new campaign resources which focus on creating anti-racist workplaces and supporting People of Colour and Black Colleagues (find out more at https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/.)
The campaign is based on the premise that when we are given permission and feel able to be our whole self at work without fear or trepidation, we can be comfortable and fully in the moment, which leads to innovation and people being their best selves.
I have met the panel. They are great. It is a session not to be missed!