Pensions and HR Leadership

Charity staff, mental health and the pandemic

By Jan Hutchinson, Director of Programmes at Centre for Mental Health

It’s no surprise to anyone that our mental health has in the main been adversely affected by the pandemic. Most charities have had to furlough staff; charity shops and ‘non-essential’ services have been forced to shut. The workload of some finance staff has dropped as a result of reduced transactions and diminished income. Staff have concerns about the security of future employment in an increasingly digital workplace where automation may replace traditional posts.

Centre for Mental Health is a policy and research charity, we didn’t have to cease or reduce operations because our staff (it turns out) can all work from home. But we didn’t escape a significant loss of the funding we had been promised. We took all our work online, including research interviews and our IPS training.

We knew our wellbeing was affected, and as a mental health charity we were adamant that we would provide exemplary support to our team of 22 people – half of whom work two or three days per week. We took practical steps; we:

  1. Ran internal and external staff surveys to understand the feelings, concerns, ideas and opinions of our staff since the start of the pandemic.
  2. Checked in with each person to see what equipment could be provided to improve their home-working set up.
  3. Ensured that everyone took the annual leave they were due in 2020, and had a break away from the desk.
  4. Established twice-weekly staff drop-in tea break times.
  5. Appointed an informal wellbeing lead, to provide a listening ear.
  6. Allowed extra paid time away from work, for exercise during lockdown.
  7. Organised 5pm social activities.
  8. Moved our regular associate onto a permanent contract.
  9. Sent monthly FAQs about our finances, support available and expectations.
  10. Posted out Easter chocolates to thank staff for their efforts.

The staff surveys showed we agree with a report from the Institute of Employment Studies which found:

  • 64% of workers rated the ability to work flexibly as the best feature of working from home.
  • But 82% miss the informal contact with their colleagues – it’s this ‘social deficit’ that workers feel is the worst aspect of working from home.

Our Trustees stepped up alongside the staff, meeting more regularly via zoom, encouraging staff and sensibly quantifying the reserves that we could spend this year, to avoid stringent cuts or redundancies. We reduced our rent by 30% through downsizing our office space, but we decided not to lose the office at this stage. The main reason for this was our commitment to provide a kind of retreat for staff who need to work away from their home environment occasionally or feel the need of the physical presence of a colleague to reduce their isolation.

It was a deliberate choice for us to bring together the complementary strengths in our team for the benefit of the mental health sector. We worked on a series forecasting mental health need and we engaged with people living through the effects of the pandemic on their mental health by launching the Year in Our Lives research project.

Neither of these pieces of work was externally funded, unfortunately the applications we made were unsuccessful, but we took a gamble on our belief that relevance and effectiveness in a time of crisis would lead to the wider recognition of the quality of our work and future commissions to return us to financial balance. Staff salaries were paid, in part from our reserves. We furloughed some finance staff for short periods, but we decided against kneejerk redundancies, which would be unsettling for the whole team, and would do very little in the short term to reduce our fixed costs.

Our duty at this time, as leaders of charities, is to estimate, plan for and meet the costs of the pandemic. Each cost and saving is likely to have a positive and negative effect on the future performance of the organisation and on the wellbeing of our staff. One of the best initiatives that Centre for Mental Health has introduced is the ‘green hour’ – this was written into our contracts of employment before the pandemic and remains a much appreciated staff benefit.

One paid hour each week (pro rata for part-time workers) can be taken from normal working hours for personal wellbeing. It might be an extended lunch break to see a friend, a hair appointment, a long walk, or time with children, etc. We are not overly prescriptive, within reason – if it helps wellbeing, and doesn’t involve alcohol, it is allowed.

We see this as a chance to invest to save. Staff needs are acknowledged, and they are supported. It contributes to staff retention. In practice hardly anyone takes all their lunch hours and their green hour every week, so we lose nothing in productivity and gain by supporting staff in those simple things in life such as a quick dash to the post office with a birthday card.

The next few years will continue to challenge us, not just financially. We don’t yet know how anyone will be able to combine a return to a full and busy office, hold zoom meetings with a range of external partners and have space to concentrate on writing a piece such as this. We will need ideas and input from all our staff, and we will need to support staff to upskill and have the resilience to work flexibly, which can only be achieved by a commitment to prioritise those things which create and support mental wellbeing at work.


About the author

Jan Hutchinson is Director of Programmes at Centre for Mental Health, overseeing operations and supporting the staff team with HR functions, internal policies and a wide range of governance and practical issues. Jan trained as a social worker and has managed mental health services in charities, a Local Authority, NHS Trusts, and a not-for-profit care provider. She is looking forward to the full return of live theatre and to finally attending RunFestRun which has been postponed three times.


This article originally appeared in our Mental Health themed April 2021 edition of Finance Focus our member magazine. If you would like to read our member magazine in full become a member today.



This post was last reviewed on 12 May 2021 at 09:16
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