Mental health matters: how we reacted to COVID-19

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, we invited Lewis Silkin to discuss how they have supported their employees’ mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

happy-employees-on-a-videocall-with-thumbs-up

In the article below, Lewis Silkin share:

  • how they have kept mental health a priority by embedding support firm-wide
  • how they showed that mental health is a priority
  • the ways in which they reacted to the various needs of staff during the pandemic

As we begin to re-enter a semblance of normality, it’s important we take stock of the adaptations and changes made by the profession, and the benefits and challenges we have faced. There are valuable lessons to learn here, especially in the context of mental health.

It is important we realise how much mental health matters in our professional lives, the impact it has on our work, and use our experiences over the last year to make positive changes for the future.

Our initial reaction

During 2019, we had run an awareness campaign both internally and externally on mental wellbeing called #ThisPlaceMinds.

Our ethos was and remains that we create and maintain a culture where people can share their mental health concerns safely, in the knowledge they will be met with support and understanding.

In March 2020 at the start of the first lockdown, we refreshed our #ThisPlaceMinds intranet site to highlight all the support mechanisms that were in place for Lewis Silkin employees and partners.

As we began to navigate the challenges of being away from the office, family and friends, we also provided suggestions, practical tips and links to helpful external sites.

This information was available to everyone, whether they were working from home or had voluntarily accepted a furlough arrangement.

At this time, we also increased the membership of the Lewis Silkin wellbeing team (a subset of our Diversity and Inclusion Committee) to ensure we had representation from across the whole firm.

By mid-April 2020, we had started to post communications weekly or fortnightly, depending on the status of the lockdown across the UK nations, Ireland and Hong Kong. These were structured around four pillars:

  • looking after my physical and mental wellbeing
  • what positive changes can I make this week?
  • where can I get support when I need it?
  • something to think about this week

Each edition would have either a broad mix of information or have a theme that reflected a national awareness campaign, such as Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) or Men’s Mental Health Week.

Evolving with employees’ needs

One of our most impactful methods of communication was inviting people to share blogs of their experiences of lockdown, which could be on a named basis or anonymous.

These were posted throughout April, May and June, providing rich insights into how people were coping.

Topics included:

  • being a working parent
  • supporting a loved one through a serious mental health crisis
  • navigating elder care
  • caring for toddlers
  • being home alone

During this time, we also introduced the ‘kindness code’, a time-recording code for people to specifically allocate time spent on being kind to themselves or others.

We were not prescriptive about when the code should be used and allowed individuals to make their own judgement, but examples might include:

  • attending an organised session during MHAW or another relevant event/activity
  • listening to a colleague who may need your support
  • taking time to be kind to yourself – doing nothing is OK

Safe space calls

During MHAW 2020, we facilitated a series of safe space calls each day focusing on various topics:

  • looking after children
  • sharing with flatmates
  • living alone
  • being vulnerable
  • living with or caring for someone who is at risk and dealing with anxiety

Each session was hosted by a member of the wellbeing team.

We publicised the names of our mental health first-aiders and our employee assistance programme (EAP), to remind people of other available sources of support.

Being kind to yourself

We also launched an internal video, delivered by a several partners and senior leaders, who spoke about the importance of being kind to yourself and that lockdown was not a ‘competition’ to see who could improve themselves.

For many of us, it was enough that we were juggling work, children, home-schooling, eldercare, isolation and feelings of despair: we didn’t need to prove we could learn a new skill, start a hobby, or worry that we’d not run or walked 5 km.

This generated a lot of positive feedback, with recognition that it was “OK to not be OK”.

In our regular ‘wellbeing Wednesday’ communications, we covered topics such as:

  • bereavement
  • money and mental health
  • how to overcome feelings of isolation or anxiety
  • support for working parents
  • how to access counselling/EAP support

In addition, there was a focus on non-working time and social activities, with recommendations for virtual trips to museums, art galleries, concerts, and sites for participation in arts and crafts.

Another theme was encouraging colleagues to get up from their desk, take a daily walk and switch off at the end of the day.

There were firm-wide communications about working the hours that suited individual situations, for example as a working parent who is home-schooling.

Staff were encouraged to apply for temporary flexible working arrangements if required, volunteer for furlough arrangements, or simply to be clear about their times of availability.

We even hosted a drop-in call on Christmas Day, hosted by senior members of the wellbeing team. It was open to anyone but especially for those who found themselves unexpectedly without family or friends that day.

This year we’re taking a slightly more joined-up approach, including an observances calendar to aid planning and cross-referencing activities across all strands of diversity and inclusion. We will be taking advantage of Microsoft Teams as a more immediate mechanism for feedback and contribution.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

For MHAW 2021, we are adopting Mental Health UK’s ‘5 ways of wellbeing’ around the theme of reconnecting with nature.

Each day we will be hosting a different activity or event.

  • Monday: a step-by-step guide to growing cress seeds, avocados, broad beans etc on your windowsill
  • Tuesday: a creative-writing workshop
  • Wednesday: an open call providing a safe space for people to express any concerns about returning to the office (using breakout rooms to facilitate small-group discussion)
  • Thursday: arts and crafts sessions
  • Friday: encouraging everyone to meet for a socially distanced walk, picnic or litter pick with a colleague, to feel more connected (while reinforcing that everyone must adhere to any local COVID-19 guidelines)

Our wellbeing team will continue to play a part in Lewis Silkin’s diversity and inclusion agenda, although the frequency of communications will most likely reduce as we emerge from lockdown.

Lessons learned

We learned early on that everyone’s experience was different. This necessitated flexibility in content, drawing from a diverse group to ensure all views were included.

We were fortunate that mental wellbeing was already high on the agenda as a result of our #ThisPlaceMinds campaign.

The supportive culture that we had embedded meant we were able to quickly respond to the crisis.

We continuously adjusted communication, content and frequency as the needs of our organisation ebbed and flowed during various lockdown stages.

The experience has reinforced our conviction that mental wellbeing for lawyers and business support services is crucially important, with people knowing they have permission to prioritise their health while managing their work and personal lives.

Our journey has confirmed for us that a well-cared for workforce is significantly more positive and productive.