How unions can support your workplace mental health journey
Senior Content Officer, Mental Health at Work
The benefits of union membership are clear for employees. When workers join together, they are more effective at bargaining for the things they need from their workplace – whether that’s better conditions, more pay, assistance when, or legal help when things go wrong.
But there are also benefits for organisations when their staff are unionised, too. Unions can help highlight safety issues, organise training and development for staff, and improve communication between employees and their management.
Mental health is a trade union issue
And unions might also be able to help your organisation when you are thinking about the mental health of your employees, too. “Mental health is a collective, trade union issue,” explains Dr Natasha Hirst, disabled members rep and vice president of the NUJ, The National Union of Journalists. “Creating an environment where people canabout mental health and have informal networks of support is a key role of unions. We can also support the work of specialist mental health organisations, and provide skills training and work with employers to have good policies in place.”
So how can you get your organisation’s union involved in your mental health strategy? Matthew Radford is a union representative, or ‘rep’, for Unite at Mind. He explains that the reps in your workplace can be a good source of support when thinking about your workplace culture.
“An organisation will likely have standard reps, but also reps who specialise in different areas of responsibility,” he says. “For instance, I’m a health and safety rep, which means that I have done specific training in understanding health and safety issues at work, and I have a designated space on health and safety boards.”
Other reps might specialise in learning and development, disabilities or other equality issues, employment law, or other crucial areas where support might be needed. So, if you’re thinking about turning to your union for help with a new mental health policy, a good first step would be to find out who the relevant reps might be for your questions.
Normalising discussion of reasonable adjustments and mental health is important
“Union reps are familiar with theon workers’ mental health, whether this stems from culture, workload or other factors,” says Natasha. “Reps can conduct a survey of members and use the health and safety risk assessment process to identify that impact on mental health, in the same way that this can be used to assess physical or environmental risk factors.”
She also suggests that this approach can provide opportunities for members to raise issues that they might not otherwise discuss or take the initiative to seek support for. “It’s an important way to check if there are members who need(RAs) – not providing these RAs creates stress, and can exacerbate mental distress. Normalising discussion of reasonable adjustments and mental health is important to support people to seek help.”
It can be a good idea to check out what events and activities your organisation’s Union hosts. For example, the NUJ is holding a conference and a series of workshops across mental health awareness week, which takes place between the 9th and 15th of May. “We will be sharing resources and good practice from across the union on proactive and collective action that we can take in our workplaces, discuss how we can, and look out for our own mental health and that of our colleagues,” says Natasha. “The workshops will address a range of topics, from working safely for , managing , creative techniques for supporting our own mental health.”
However, it’s important not to lean too heavily on your organisation’s union for support. “Unions do not have infinite resources and nor do they necessarily have the appropriate expertise to provide direct mental health support,” Natasha explains. Instead, try to understand the roles of reps, build a relationship with them, and know who to signpost to when someone needs support.
Employers have a duty of care to protect staff
And even with the reps on your side, it’s important to remember your role as an employer. “The key message is that employers often try to individualise mental health and place responsibility on workers to be ‘‘ and develop strategies to cope,” Natasha adds. “Actually, employers have a duty of care to protect staff and as a union, we take collective action to support (or pressurise) employers to take steps to remove work-related factors that contribute to mental distress.”
“Most of the rights we have in the workplace today came about because of union action,” Matthew concludes. “We want to help workers have their experiences recognised, and that’s where we can help employers to support the mental health of their staff.”