The coronavirus outbreak is quite understandably dominating our thoughts, with many of us moving into new or adjusted ways of working at short notice and for the foreseeable future. We will be making difficult decisions based on a continually changing situation, and it is difficult to know exactly how and when this period will end.
As a workforce we will certainly feel the impact of the pandemic, both professionally and personally. The importance of being supportive and empathetic, and of making authentic human connections with each other will be more important than ever. Like many of you in the social sector, we have been thinking about how Mental Health First Aid England can play our part as a social enterprise to support the workforce through this difficult period.
We recently launched a campaign called My Whole Self, which has been in the works for several months. The focus of the campaign is on ensuring people are free to bring our whole selves to work and not having to protect any part of our identity, wherever we are working.
An example from my personal experience: when I was much younger, I worried about discussing my sexuality at work, even though I had come out to many of my friends. I didn’t want to talk about the outside-work bit of my life – my relationships or which bars or clubs I had been to at the weekend – for fear of my gayness being discovered.
More than 25 years later it is obvious that I was never going to be able to do my best work or be truly happy at work unless people knew me. There have been some challenging moments in which I have still felt inclined to move into this defensive mindset, but over time I have become more confident and empowered to be all of me. The Simon who leaves his home in the morning is the same Simon who arrives at the door of the office.
Over the next few weeks or months, for many of us our workplaces and our homes will be the same physical space. As the pandemic continues, more organisations will be asking staff to work remotely, so we will need to work harder at making those all-important authentic human connections. The first phase of the My Whole Self campaign will focus on keeping people connected through online activities and sharing guidance to support employees experiencing anxiety, disconnectedness or social isolation as a result of the coronavirus.
To kick things off, we celebrated My Whole Self Day on 18 March by encouraging people to build deeper connections with colleagues online. In the days and weeks to come we will also be sharing materials and resources from other fantastic organisations on how to connect with each other, support each other and manage wellbeing during this difficult period.
Over the coming period we will need to be innovative and flexible, to think differently and to be clear and transparent in our leadership. We will need to find common ground, connect with each other’s understanding of the world and be empathetic for people who are in different situations from our own. This starts with being able to feel honest, authentic and true to ourselves.
I am chief executive of MHFA England. I am a civil partner and husband, Cornish, proudly internationalist, a horse rider and a dog lover. I am lucky enough to bring all of this to work. It is 2020. It is time for every single one of us – whoever we are and wherever we are working – to have that same freedom, so we can stay together, collaborate and support each other to the best of our abilities.
Simon Blake is chief executive of MHFA England. You can find out more about the campaign and how you can get involved at mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self