By Jen Vinton

Back in 2008, our management team considered Dame Carol Black’s report “Working for a Healthier tomorrow”. Our organisation, Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) recognised that it was essential to integrate health and wellbeing into the day to day activities of our organisation.

YHN is an arm’s length housing organisation responsible for managing Newcastle City Council’s 26,000 homes. We also manage 1600 leasehold properties and 600 Leazes Homes properties. We currently employ around 820 people to achieve this mission.

We recognise that without staff who feel well and are at work, we could not deliver a quality and effective service to our customers. In addition, Centre for Mental Health recently estimated the cost to employers of mental health problems at work to be £34.9 billion each year. We thus recognised our responsibility, and also the business case, for supporting employees' wellbeing. We have adopted a supportive approach to both physical and mental wellbeing – this is both in relation to problems which occur at work, and in people’s personal lives.

Without staff who feel well, we could not deliver a quality and effective service to our customers

A working group was established which is made up of employees who have a keen interest in this subject. They give up their time from their normal day to day work to ensure the programme’s success. Since 2008 we have developed initiatives covering healthy eating, exercise, cancer, alcohol, drugs, and smoking and other substances. All these areas impact on mental wellbeing and need to be taken forward as a holistic approach.

During 2016/17 we became concerned that absence was increasing in relation to mental ill-health, in particular for stress, anxiety and depression. We already had policies in place to support mental wellbeing such as special leave, reasonable adjustments and flexible working, but we recognised we needed to do more to support employees better and prevent absence.

In light of this, we set up a number of new initiatives such as a 24-hour employee assistance helpline, and a private counselling service through Relate, which staff can refer themselves to without declaring this to their manager or the organisation. We’ve also put in place Contact Support Colleagues who are available to offer support to their colleagues who may be having difficulties either with their manager or another colleague. They encourage informal resolution to reduce the number of grievances which can cause lots of stress/anxiety for those involved. Other initiatives include staff network groups relating to disability, LGBT and straight allies, and E-learning modules on coping with stress.

We recognised we needed to do more to support employees better and prevent absence

We also trained 18 staff in Mental Health First Aid. This is another fantastic example of supporting staff to support one another. Our Mental Health First Aiders are all easily identifiable – they wear blue lanyards with the message “keep calm and contact us”, and their names and contact details are on posters alongside the first aid box.

For true change to happen across the organisation, we recognised that senior management buy-in was vital. We were therefore delighted that our Managing Director signed the Time to Change pledge last year. Alongside this, one of our Assistant Directors wrote a blog about how she manages her depression. This was so simple but it had a massive impact on the organisation as previously it had been junior members of staff opening up about mental health difficulties. She began her blog, “I am a strong woman, I’m a senior manager in a large organisation, I like horses and motorbikes and I take tablets for depression.” This blog was very powerful and received fantastic feedback, with staff commenting that they now felt safe to speak openly about mental health and wellbeing.

Understandably, our staff are not affected only by issues in their own personal and professional lives but in local events within their communities. A recent instance of this was the case of Sally Allan, who disappeared on Boxing Day and tragically took her own life. We facilitated workshops with Tyneside Mind around this which staff really valued, as there had been a lot of coverage about this through the press and social media.

One of our Assistant Directors wrote a blog about how she manages her depression. This was so simple but it had a massive impact on the organisation

The main challenge has been time, as the mental health working group is a small team who have to fit these commitments around their day jobs. We’ve also had some people joining the group but subsequently being unable to commit the necessary time; it tends to be the really passionate members who deliver against the actions.

In terms of successes, we signed up to the North East Better Health at Work award in 2008 and in 2017 we were delighted to be the first business in Newcastle to receive Ambassador status for this work.

The impact of investing in staff wellbeing has been really significant: our staff survey had a 78% response rate, and 82% of respondents recognised the importance of health and wellbeing. 81% of respondents thought their Manager cared about their wellbeing, and 74% thought the organisation supported their wellbeing. The most impressive result, however, has been a 32% reduction in absence relating to mental ill-health when comparing April-December 2016 to the same period in 2017. This is a tremendous achievement.

The work of the wellbeing group has provided real benefits to the organisation, but we’re also proud that it has provided immeasurable hidden benefits to individuals which have improved their quality of life. 


Learn more about Your Homes Newcastle