The COVID-19 pandemic proved a catalyst for new ways of working. It was also a traumatic experience for many and has prompted ever-growing awareness of the importance of protecting people’s mental health.
Firm and ICAEW member-facing staff in the ICAEW Professional Standards Department (PSD) often deal with complainants and individuals going through disciplinary and regulatory processes on a daily basis. Their roles mean they have had some unique challenges in adapting, first to working solely from home during the pandemic, and now to hybrid working.
“We recognise staff sometimes have difficult and challenging conversations with people who might be vulnerable, angry or upset,” explains Emily Healy-Howell, PSD Director. “And we’re very conscious that when people are dealing with those sorts of calls it can be a little bit more personal when they're at home and don't have their colleagues around them.”
“To support them, we decided we needed to provide them with more tools to cope with calls like that, and ensure they have a very clear idea of what is, and is not, expected of them,” she says.
The aim was also to support people in developing connections and setting better boundaries when working flexibly, and to build resilience within themselves.
To meet these objectives, as well as support staff more broadly in dealing with mental health issues, ICAEW engaged PUSH Mind and Body, which specialises in helping staff to thrive in the new era of work.
“PUSH exists because we realised people need help to work better,” says Cate Murden, founder and CEO of PUSH. “And if you fast forward to now, that support has never been more needed.”
“So many businesses are experiencing the same things,” she adds. “After going through the pandemic, mental health was hugely hit and there has been a much greater awareness around it.”
In ICAEW’s case, she explains, there are lots of different variables going on, not only for its own staff, but for the people they deal with every day.
“You've got two sides to it,” she says. “On one side, mental health awareness has gone up exponentially. But we’ve also been through something that's been quite seismically traumatic. And trauma isn't just the event itself; it's what's left in your brain and body as a result of that - we maybe don't have the capacity to work in the way we did previously, and it's really shaped our view of the world.”
Concern for others
PUSH started the process by conducting a staff audit, and then worked with PSD to put together a tailored programme of interactive sessions led by experts in their fields.
The audit interviews and discussions focused on asking people how they were feeling, what was worrying them and what their priorities and needs were. “It was really useful to get that temperature check of how people felt about their own mental health and their own vulnerabilities,” says Matthew Downton, Director, PSD Finance, Projects and Operations, ICAEW.
Although the audit indicated that people generally felt quite knowledgeable about mental health issues, it also showed they wanted to understand how to have better conversations both for themselves and with others.
“This was a really important and eye-opening piece,” says Emily. “There was this really strong sense that they are a resilient team who care very much about their work. And predominantly their concern is for the people they're speaking to, and how they want to be doing the right thing by them, rather than concern for themselves.”
“There is a huge sense of care and responsibility there,” adds Matthe. “And the results of that audit then allowed PUSH to craft a series of workshops, coaching and training to make sure the needs within the team were met.”
The PUSH sessions, each of which was attended by between 25 to 35 staff, covered issues such as understanding mental health issues within yourself and others, stress and anxiety, building better boundaries, mastering difficult conversations, developing relationships, the power of positivity and reframing challenging situations.
“And there's even more to do once we've been through the training and coaching,” emphasises Matthew. “We need to think about how we help establish boundaries, what policy changes we need to make, and how we provide staff with the reassurance that we understand what they do, and we stand with them.”
The feedback from the sessions has been highly positive, and where people have suggested tweaks or changes, this has been listened to. “It's a safe space to discuss difficult topics and situations,” he says. “And we’re here to help and feed back to PUSH if there's something missing so we can close that gap and help people further. It's our staff driving this and feeding back.”
The PUSH initiative runs alongside and complements the more general wellbeing and mental health advice and support already on offer at ICAEW. This includes services provided by caba - which supports ICAEW members, students and staff - and other mental and physical health training courses.
What is different about the PUSH approach is that it focuses specifically on meeting the needs of a particular group of staff. “We needed to consider the requirements there in detail and then go back out to staff about their own individual and collective needs,” explains Matthew.
“It made us understand that certain patterns of training and coaching can take you so far, but sometimes there needs to be something else. It's those extra skills we can bring alongside some of the things we already do that are more traditionally related to mental health, and it’s about building resilience in all aspects of someone's life.”
Now and in future
The PUSH approach is about much more than simply solving the problems that are already here, it's about looking after people and preparing them for whatever happens next.
“We're asking people to go out and do this and to cope with these situations, so we have a huge responsibility to give them the tools to do that properly,” says Emily. “We want to look after our staff so they can do the best they can do now and as we go forward.”
The programme’s success means there are plans to roll it out across ICAEW’s Professional Standards Department. “In a way, our firm-facing teams have been blazing the trail for the wider department here,” says Matthew. “So, we’re looking at what pieces of the puzzle apply to other teams.”