05 July 2021
The social care sector faced unique pressures during the Covid-19 pandemic. Its workforce was stretched and challenged like no other. The physical and emotional toll on staff became a priority issue for Optalis.
Optalis employs 700 staff who, across a range of services, support 5,000 adults – people with physical disabilities, older people including many with dementia, adults with learning difficulties and people with mental health problems.
Like many organisations working in health and social care, we soon began to see the impact of Covid-19 on staff. Staff were feeling the strain of taking on additional shifts to cover teammates who were self-isolating. While in some other services, staff were dealing with the uncertainty of redeployment.
However, we already had workforce wellbeing at our heart and have been signed up to the Mindful Employer Charter for eight years. This meant we were well-placed to support staff through the pandemic.
Jeannette Crisp, who helps lead the mental health agenda at Optalis, said:
‘Our approach has always been to ensure staff can deliver a service in the best possible way. Staff wellbeing is fundamentally linked to their ability to provide good support. The more we look after them, the better able they are to look after others.’
To support staff wellbeing, Optalis acted early. ‘We already had five trained Mental Health First Aiders, offered free independent counselling, an Employee Assistance Programme, online health, and wellness courses and a dedicated area on our intranet for wellbeing information. But we knew we had to do more.’
The Mindful Employer Champion provided weekly drop-in sessions in person (socially distanced) and by phone or video call. A partnership was developed with a specialist bereavement charity to provide resilience training and support to colleagues.
‘We recognised that in certain situations a special approach was needed. We brought in a professional service to provide intensive support for individuals or teams experiencing sudden and unexpected bereavement.’
Recognising the link between physical and mental health, Optalis also put on sessions provided by a sleep expert and a postural health session focussed on colleagues who were home-working for the time.
Having a diverse and dispersed workforce presented additional challenges. Some staff are rarely online, so we had to use different methods and materials to make sure everyone knew what help was available. Posters, leaflets, social media groups and e-newsletters ensured every office, service and site had easily accessible information.
But a cultural shift was also needed. ‘You can set up all the support in the world, but unless people feel comfortable talking about their mental health, it’s all for nothing. It became more vital than ever to truly embed our wellbeing agenda within the whole organisation.’
Staff appraisals and regular supervisions now include wellbeing questions. Managers have resources to use and share, so everyone feels empowered to help colleagues who may be struggling. ‘The conversation has to be an integral part of everyday work. Rather than having to set aside time to talk, we want people to know it’s OK to discuss wellbeing at any point in the working day.’
Despite being a very challenging year in the sector, Optalis has seen the benefits of this approach. In our annual staff survey, in October 2020, three quarters of staff said they felt well supported through the changes brought about by Covid-19. And 69% said Optalis had proactively supported employee wellbeing throughout the pandemic.
In a sector that can struggle to recruit and retain staff, Optalis has also enjoyed an increase of 10% (to 71%) in staff saying they would recommend the organisation as an employer of choice, as well as a boost to their Mindful Employer Index (up 2% to 74%).
As teams begin to return to the office, wellbeing remains a focus. ‘We have definitely seen some staff benefit from working from home. Future work arrangements will be decided with our teams.’
Optalis has renewed its commitment to the Mindful Employer Charter and the conversation with staff is ongoing.
‘We will continue to work hard to understand our staff’s needs and priorities, and to improve both the working environment and the support we provide.’
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