Monday, 3 September 2012

Mental Health and Kent's Councils

One of the things I quickly discovered about being a trade union rep for my old employer was the fact that Policy and Procedure are everything. You could terrify a middle manager with the right reference to this policy or that procedure and you could find good people being made to suffer for not dotting an I or crossing a T.

One of the positive things about this was the fact that in the main, if you could get the top brass to put it in writing, policy was a good guide as to how you would be treated and a good defence if you were treated badly. I didn't always agree with the policy, of course, and often got sideswiped by it too. What it gave, though, was an idea of issues that had been thought about and considered by my employer.

My employer had a pretty thorough set of health related policies, for example, which pleased me no end. Although I can't recall if every one was enacted, there was a sickness/absence policy, a policy for addiction/abuse and a policy for work-related stress, along with recognition of specific health issues within equality policies. The aim of these was in the main to be supportive, but with the threat of more firm action if the relevant staff member didn't play ball.

One policy, which affects around 1 in 5 people, was conspicuously absent however. The policy in question was a mental health policy. Whilst mental health was perhaps partially covered by the other health related policies, the lack of a stand alone policy was something I found disturbing given that mental health issues are so prevalent in the UK. Before I left, I did say that I would try to draft one myself, using others for guidance, but I must admit to that still being a work in progress.

I don't know if my former employer has plans to enact a mental health policy, irrespective of whether I finish writing one for them, but I must admit to a curiosity about the prevalence of such policies. I found a number online to use as crib materials, but didn't find many locally. So, given my curiosity and my ever so slight politics addiction, I decided to turn my gaze on our local councils by e-mailing each one to find out the lay of the land. 

The response I got will probably come as no surprise to most. I sent the e-mail last Wednesday so not everyone has spotted it yet, including the mighty KCC, but every response so far has been a big fat NO. To be specific, Shepway, Dartford, Medway, Gravesham, Tonbridge & Malling, Dover, Swale and Sevenoaks Councils all lack a Mental Health policy. Given the prevalence of shared HR services in Kent, I expect that figure to grow. 

Why does this matter, I suspect comes to mind. There are three major reasons why I think this matters. Firstly, mental health issues affect a huge number of people. They cost businesses and the public sector a huge amount of money and that needs to be managed. Secondly, people with mental health issues are subject to stigma and discrimination. Discrimination and fear are damaging to the well-being of any workforce, and can be catastrophic for individuals. Thirdly, people with mental health issues need support and understanding. Whilst a policy doesn't create or engender this, its presence can be a starting point. 

So, I've discovered that many Kent councils lack a mental health policy. Some, to be fair, had considered mental health within existing policy and others had training in place for staff. It seems to me, however, that if we are to improve the nation's mental health and improve recovery rates from mental ill health, as set out by the "No Health without Mental Health" strategy document, then we must first recognise the key role that employers have to play in doing so. For me, stand-alone mental health policies within large employers are a key starting point for this. Here's hoping local councils, and colleges, agree with me.

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