The mental health of frontline and key workers should always be at the forefront of public conversation. But, how can we support the mental health of those working in social housing (and the people they support)?

As we step into a new year following the first lockdown, many of us may find ourselves reflecting on the ways in which the past 12 months have impacted us; physically, emotionally and, of course, mentally.

There is no doubt that this time has challenged us in ways we could never have imagined. Research by a leading mental health charity has shown that loneliness is yet to return to pre-covid levels, people’s stress tolerance is dropping further and further and thoughts and feelings around suicide have gone up. This is a frightening, heartbreaking landscape - one that we must prioritise improving and supporting.

So, how can we support the mental health of frontline and key workers in social housing? We must ensure that social housing professionals are given the space to voice their concerns, struggles and needs while creating more mental health-friendly tenant services.

The need to improve the support given to frontline housing professionals and their tenants is not a new concept; but now, more than ever, we need to give it the attention it deserves.

Mental Health Support for Social Housing Frontline Workers

Why should mental health support for frontline and key workers in social housing be a priority?

Simply put, anyone in a role where they are required to support others should receive support themselves. You cannot be expected to provide much-needed support to tenants - many of whom will be struggling with their own circumstances - if you are struggling. And you shouldn't have to. You cannot pour from an empty cup, after all.

It’s got to come from the top (doesn’t it always?). Managers need to be fully equipped to help their frontline teams with mental health, and - in return - their staff can be of the best possible service to your tenants and their difficult situations.

Because there are enormous strains that come with social housing work; and that’s before you even bring a pandemic into the mix. Staff will often be in situations where tenants are in distress - angry, anxious, panicking… There are endless emotions that come alongside recovery policies and procedures, and unsurprisingly this is incredibly hard both for the tenant (of course) and the staff member delivering and chasing the bad news.

We must also remember that frontline and key workers - from those working in healthcare to those in retail - have been put into an entirely different experience than the rest of the country throughout these 12 months. Not only are they putting themselves at risk every time they step out to work, but they also have to deal with the pain and suffering of those that they provide a service for. It’s no surprise that key workers have reported higher anxiety, panic and depression levels than pre-pandemic.

And besides - ALL businesses should be putting the mental health of their staff first. Whether they are out on working on the ground or sitting behind a computer screen, the time is now that we create environments where mental health is given the space and support necessary.

What is already being done to support frontline social housing workers?

Here at Moxie, we recently ran a webinar session focused on mental health for frontline housing professionals. The webinar looked at lived experiences as social housing professionals supporting others, while struggling with your own mental health. There was an open discussion, the sharing of experiences and guidance on how workplaces can get better at offering the right level of support to staff. It’s something that we are happy to see more and more organisations delivering, and one that we will continue creating and sharing for anyone who might need it.

Earlier in the year, the Government announced that housing key workers would jump up the vaccine priority list; we see this as an enormous positive, not just for the obvious benefit of workers receiving the vaccine sooner, but also the acknowledgement that they are putting themselves at a higher risk and have done throughout the entire pandemic.

And social association key workers are not the only ones who have had to push to be considered frontline key workers within the realms of the vaccine rollout. Catherine Docherty - from The Salvation Army - spoke to us about the steps they had taken to ensure their support staff could get vaccinated:

“As frontline workers in homeless services, it was brilliant to realise that we would be vaccinated quickly, in line with NHS and Care staff. Everyone who is wanting to be vaccinated has now been vaccinated across the teams, both first and second dose.

We have also been keen to reach out to our agency workers as part of the vaccination drive and support those who have wanted to access mass vaccination at test centres and in our hostels.

I feel it is really important for agency workers to be considered the same as other frontline workers, particularly as many agency staff work across multiple centres, hostels and homes.“ - Catherine Docherty, The Salvation Army

Person getting vaccinated against Covid-19

What should we be doing to support the housing frontline and key worker’s mental health?

  • Regular mental health training.

First thing’s first - staff should be given regular mental health training. This should be a core element of any business and should not be seen as a tick box activity; it needs to be one that is brought back annually and given to all new staff members as part of their induction. This is particularly important for management staff looking after other team members.

  • Create an open communicative environment.

There should also be an open environment for staff members to share any challenges they might be facing or overall elements of their life that could impact their mental health. Ask yourself - how much do you really know about your team, about their lives outside of the office? If you don’t know the situations they might be navigating outside of the 9-5, how can you truly support them within it?

  • Increase flexibility for timescales and deadlines.

We recommend bringing more flexibility into targets and timescales if needed. Often, the rigidity of operational targets - and the time pressures that come alongside them - get in the way of wellbeing. For example, if a deadline is causing your staff to spend their lunch breaks consistently eating at their desk, then you can pretty much bet that something is amiss. Take a step back and make sure that staff wellbeing and business targets have the right weighting.

  • Reapproach absence management procedures.

This also presents an opportunity to consider your absence management policy and procedures - again, can you make these more flexible? We regularly find companies with policies that only reflect physical health, and ignore the mental health absences that staff may need to take. And when your staff know that this could cause a problem for them further down the line, they may avoid taking the time off in the first place, even when they desperately need it. The problem will build until it overflows. They’ll burn out - something that can be avoided. It all comes down to the culture that we build around mental illness.

  • Prioritise resident mental health support.

Finally, it’s critical that you build and maintain an environment that nurtures tenant mental health. This means that you need to genuinely care about their mental health. This should encompass everything from ensuring income and debt recovery is more mental health-friendly, to offering flexibility based on people’s individual circumstances (rather than sticking with a ‘procedures over people’ mentality).

You should strive to empower your residents to live their best lives. Without realising it, a service that doesn’t embody this flexible, truly supportive nature can actually do the opposite: it sets people up for failure. And with 1 in 3 social housing tenants experiencing mental health problems - and unhappy with their home - this is something that needs serious attention.

You can approach this in many ways, including making sure your staff are fully trained on how to speak to tenants. Our tone of voice and mannerisms can have an enormous effect on the energy in the room - it will either put a person immediately on edge or make them feel seen and heard. Clearly, you want to opt for the latter. As a result, tenants will engage more with your staff and feel far better in the process.

They should be spoken to as human beings, and never have to face any prejudice or stigma (something that is more common than you may think; one in seven people experience stigma from housing officials during their social housing application process). In addition, any processes that you can simplify - do it! More than one in four people reported problems with benefits such as universal credit or housing benefits during a Mind Charity study: are there any ways you can help them more with these tasks? Any guidance or support you can provide?

Happier tenants, happier staff, happier business. It’s a no brainer, right?

The past year has been difficult, and we’re still learning many lessons about how we want to take our experiences and funnel them into a better future. One thing we must all remember - as we get closer to normality, the neighbourhood clapping stops and the rainbow posters come down - is that we still all have a duty of care to support our staff and those we serve, each and every day.

Couple with a kid happy social housing tenants

Click here to find out how Moxie is playing its own part in supporting social housing residents. Or, if you’re searching for your own way to leave a positive mark on your community, get in touch for an informal chat about our latest housing jobs and opportunities in charity or property.

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