How unions can support your workplace mental health journey

Beckett Frith
Beckett Frith

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 things are changing​Coping with change PDF Change in the workplace is often inevitable, but the impact it can have upon employees will differ. This guide helps managers guide their staff through stressful periods of change.Free By: RBS Group View resource, 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 can speak openly​Start the conversation Video One of the first, and easiest, things you can do to start improving mental health at work is simply to start a conversation. In this video, people from various industries talk about the importance of talking to someone.Free By: Dorset Mind View resource about 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.

A bustling office

“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 the pressures​Making decisions under pressure Web page This web page from the NHS is designed to help team leaders working in healthcare to understand the impact of difficult decision-making while under pressure, and offers ways you can help to ease that strain.Free By: NHS England and NHS Improvement View resource on 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 risk factors​Stress risk assessment Web page Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing, and acting on, a risk assessment. This is an easy-to-use template you can use, along with examples from three small to medium-sized businesses.Free By: Health and Safety Executive View resource 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 reasonable adjustments​Reasonable adjustments at work PDF What's reasonable at work? Whether you're looking for work or are already employed, this guide has information on rights at work for people with a mental health problem. Free By: Rethink Mental Illness View resource (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.”

A woman waits in a cafe.

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 recognise signs of mental distress​How to spot the signs of a potential mental health issue PDF This one-page PDF from Nuffield Health suggests some warning signs to look out for that could indicate someone is experiencing poor mental or emotional wellbeing.Free By: Nuffield Health View resource, 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 freelances​How you doing? Helping freelancers to look after their mental health PDF 60% of freelancers say mental health has negatively affected their ability to work. 45% haven’t even thought about it. This guide is full of tips to look after yourself if you're self-employed—or, if you're hiring freelancers, to consider their wellbeing.Free By: Leapers View resource, managing trauma​Self support techniques after a traumatic incident PDF Healthy processing of traumatic incidents is essential in policing to reset your stress response, to file events as past, and to move on to the next job. This guide can help.Free By: Police Dependants’ Trust View resource, 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 ‘resilient​Building your resilience PDF Every day, things happen that test our resilience. This factsheet explores what employers and staff can do to help build up their resilience and bounce back from problems they are experiencing.Free By: RBS Group View resource‘ 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.”

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