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HRD interview – Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England

Bernice Cole

Following Mental Health Awareness Week, MHFA England Director of Finance and HR, Bernice Cole, tells us about her approach to workplace wellbeing.

Last week’s theme was ‘Surviving or Thriving’. What do you think’s the difference between an employee who’s surviving and an employee who’s thriving? I think an employee who’s surviving is someone who shows up day-to-day, does their job to the best of their ability, goes home, but maybe doesn’t enjoy the work they do. They’re perhaps not engaged at work and aren’t invested in their work culture or the tasks they carry out. If you’re thriving however, I think you’re happy to come to work and working in a role that fits intrinsically with your personality – your values, the ways you like to work and the direction you want to go in. Thriving in the workplace also means that you’re supported to work at your best by your line manager and your HR team, that you feel like you have the stability and opportunities to push on, to develop and to achieve your goals.”

What do you do personally to support your workplace wellbeing? “I try to be mindful and keep an eye on my stress levels during the day; if I feel I need some headspace then I’ll pop out of the office for a short walk or head over to the kitchen for a cup of tea and a quick chat. I also recently started exercising more in the form of yoga, which has had a really positive knock-on effect on my stress levels. Practising switching off when not at work is something I find helps too – in an age of 24/7 connectivity it can be easy to get into bad habits of constantly checking e-mails that can be left to the next day. A detailed diary plan also helps me avoid doing this and ensures I have space to complete key tasks. Self-improvement is another thing I think is a big driver of wellbeing for me. In terms of development, I push myself to keep learning via free webinars and training courses. I’m always looking for ways I can improve in my role as HR and Finance Director and I’ll always accept new challenges.”

What do MHFA England do differently to other workplaces?
“We subscribe to a ‘whole workplace’ approach to wellbeing at MHFA England. This means we try to thread wellbeing into every area of the company. For example, we offer flexible working to help manage disabilities, mental health issues and childcare, we have a communal lunch table to encourage staff to eat away from their desks and we have a health and wellbeing noticeboard providing useful information on sleep and nutrition. We also place a lot of emphasis on training and development and ensuring people have the opportunities to learn and grow. We offer all our staff the opportunity to take our courses and become Mental Health First Aiders as standard. Because the course, in-part, provides information on how to look after your own mental wellbeing this means our team have great self-awareness when it comes to supporting their own mental health. As part of our staff assistance policy we also subsidise six sessions of counselling to ensure that people know additional support is there should they need it. In terms of line management, we ensure that physical and mental wellbeing are included as a core component of one-to-one review sessions, which are conducted on a monthly basis. Our line managers are also well versed in our approach to workplace wellbeing, as laid out in our Line Managers Resource, which we created specifically to support the development of healthier workplaces.”

What steps can individuals take to look after their own mental health in the workplace? “I think admitting when you’re struggling and accepting or asking for help is an important step in looking after your wellbeing at work. Muddling through in an overworked and pressured state can only serve to have a negative impact on wellbeing, and employees should never have to feel hesitant in highlighting this to line managers and seeking support. By the same token, I think being honest with yourself and asking if a role is a good fit is also important in helping you to then make the changes to improve your wellbeing if the answer is no. On a more day-to-day basis, making small adjustments to your daily work pattern can certainly help break up the day, improve your focus and manage stress levels. I encourage my team to take regular breaks and even to pop out for a walk around the block if they’re feeling their concentration wane. Having honest conversations about your mental wellbeing with your line manager or colleagues is another way of looking after your mental health – not only does this create a dynamic of mutual support in the workplace, but over the years I’ve actually learnt a lot from talking to my colleagues about the strategies they use to look after their wellbeing.”

What three tips would you give to organisations looking to improve their approaches to workplace wellbeing and help their employees thrive? “Take an holistic approach – from our work with all kinds of companies, we’ve found that those that implement an holistic approach to workplace wellbeing really reap the benefits in terms of staff morale, loyalty and engagement. This is an approach I would recommend all HR professionals consider; it means thinking about an employee’s journey from recruitment to retirement and how their experience can be optimised at the level of line management but also at an organisational level. Management style is crucial – HR professionals should instil in all managers a coaching and mentoring management style that encourages participation, delegation and constructive feedback. A participatory approach is key for ensuring employees are engaged and fulfilled in the work they do. Creating a culture is key – we all have similar stresses and strains in high pressure jobs, but fostering friendship, camaraderie and a spirit of collaboration is one of the best coping mechanisms that your workplace can have if thriving is top of its agenda.”

And finally… have you got a message to employers and HR professionals following Mental Health Awareness week? “Incorporate wellbeing in every aspect of your strategic planning when it comes to managing your team. Always keep an open mind – small adjustments may make all the difference and can have a positive impact on the company’s performance as well as the individual.” The MHFA England Line Managers Resource is available to download for free at

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