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Why we shouldn’t stop talking about mental health

This article was written by Rick Borges, BSB Head of Assessment (UK and International).

Last year I had the opportunity to train and become one of four Mental Health First Aiders at the Banking Standards Board (BSB). I was already what some would call a ‘mental health champion’ – in my definition, that person who keeps bringing the topic up in discussions and asking people if they are OK mentally as well as physically. This training not only equipped me with knowledge to help a work colleague who may be experiencing mental health issues but also gave me the confidence to talk more about mental health and mental wellbeing. Talking can help prevent small issues becoming bigger problems. It is always good to talk about mental health; even better when we had a whole week to continue to raise awareness about it.

Mental Health Awareness week took place from 18 to 22 May this year and has been run by the Mental Health Foundation since 2001. The Foundation describes it as the ‘UK’s national week to raise awareness of mental health and mental health problems and inspire action to promote the message of good mental health for all’.[1] We marked the week at the BSB with style and a lot of engagement from our colleagues. It was a real team effort and I wanted to share some of what we did here, in case any of this is useful for other organisations, and especially perhaps for smaller or newer firms (the BSB has around 30 people and has just celebrated its fifth birthday). And we would also welcome hearing about anything that you have been doing, so we and others can learn from that.

We kicked off with our internal newsletter highlighting stories of kindness, the theme this year, submitted by BSB employees. There were lovely stories describing acts such as talking to people who may feel lonely, sending someone a card to mark a happy moment or being a generous neighbour who offers to help. We also included links to relevant resources and events taking place during the week. I attended some, including lunchtime meditation sessions and a webinar for Mental Health First Aiders to share hints and tips on dealing with the psychological impact of COVID-19. According to the World Health Organisation, the main psychological impact of the pandemic in March was elevated rates of stress or anxiety. But with lockdown and its effects on many people’s usual activities, routines or livelihoods – levels of loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour are also expected to rise.[2] In my view, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that mental – as well as physical – health remains at the top of our agenda, particularly over the coming months.

Talking about getting physical, exercise was a key component in the activities organised by the four main teams in the BSB. Each team successfully designed and led an activity for Mental Health Awareness week. The first activity was a treasure hunt where colleagues were invited to go out for a walk and search for listed items that included from wildlife to an act of kindness in the street. Another team set the ‘5k challenge’, inviting everyone to run, walk or cycle 5k and to donate £1 for each ‘k’ completed to a charity. The perfect combination – be kind to your body and to others.

The third team activity was a lunchtime session with a physiotherapist who kindly recorded herself teaching stretching exercises that could be done at your desk to help with aches and pains caused by hours of sitting down in front of a computer. Colleagues were asked to donate to the charity of her choice as a small token for her kind donation of her time. The fourth team activity was a ‘Happy Quiz’ that combined fun with key information about mental wellbeing, human connection, and stories of kindness.

To register these precious moments people were asked to take a ‘snappy’ of what made them happy or smile throughout Mental Health Awareness week. The photos were posted on an online group that generated happy dialogue and camaraderie. The plan is to create a poster with all the photos and hang it in the office after the pandemic so we can look back at the moments that mattered the most during these difficult times.

Finally, we organised two ‘tea and chat’ sessions hosted by two different colleagues, one in the beginning of the week and another at the end. The sessions were designed to be a safe space for people to talk about mental health in general or to share their own experience, about themselves, family or friends. These sessions were popular with half of all employees attending them, including our Mental Health First Aiders; a success in my view.

Employee wellbeing is a key priority in the work of the BSB. In our 2019 Survey with more than 82,000 respondents across 29 banks and building societies, we found that a quarter of employees said that working at their firm had a negative impact on their health and wellbeing. This proportion has shown little change over the past four years.[3]These results combined with the psychological impact of COVID-19 and the pressures of modern life, give us even more reasons to not stop talking about mental health and wellbeing.