This time of year can be difficult for many with its post-Christmas financial pressures, darker days, and often miserable weather. Add Covid and the new national lockdown with the additional stress, uncertainty, and financial implications it brings, and this year these months will be particularly challenging. Business consultant Neville Stein fears mental health and wellbeing may really suffer in the horticultural industry, and says we all have a part to play in supporting friends and colleagues through this time.
"Mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression can affect anybody" says Stein, adding that the fact that the horticultural industry is still predominantly male increases his concern for the wellbeing of staff and employers alike.
"Of course I have concerns for all genders, but the simple fact is that men are still less likely to share feelings they may regard as weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and then miss opportunities to gain information and support, or to just experience the relief of having something shared. This can then build up like a pressure cooker affecting sleep, clear thinking, relationships, and physical health. It is gradually changing, but the stiff upper lip and man up culture is still out there." He also warns against some of the traditional ‘remedies’. "A lot of the things we do to alleviate stress are counterproductive. Having one more drink, smoking, and comfort eating really just make the problems worse as our sleep, mood, and physical health declines. Spending on things we think will make us happy can just bring debt."
Stein’s expansion into university and college tutoring roles was the catalyst for him to put himself through the ‘Mental Health First Aid England first aider course to learn more about how to look after mental health, and to assist a person in crisis. "The course taught me an enormous amount’ says Stein, ‘there is so much we can do proactively to protect and improve our mental health. It also taught me the importance of responding and helping someone who is in crisis and distress. The principle is the same as in first aid for a physical illness or injury, early help can stop someone free-falling into a more severe crisis and taking a longer time to recover."
Stein praises initiatives to raise the subject, educate and support people, such as those of Perennial, and says there is a wealth of information now available to help people both preserve and improve their mental health. "The NHS Choices website, ‘MIND’ and ‘SANE UK’ , all have excellent practical advice, tools and techniques , and there are also apps available such as ‘Action for Happiness’ or ‘Headspace’. I guess the challenge for us is to actually use them though, - gym membership only works if we show up and do a work out!"
Stein says it is also important to remember employers have a legal duty under Health and Safety law to take measures to reduce work related stress, and to make provisions to help employees with mental health issues as they would with any other physical conditions a person may experience: "Many stress and depression problems are made worse at work, and some even caused by work situations, which is why Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA) aim to have one in 12 people in the work place trained as a first aider." He also stresses it is not ‘rocket science’ to give support and boost morale. "There may be employees furloughed and isolated, or worried about money. A regular phone call to check how they are doing and give updates will be reassuring. Employees still working may be stressed and worried about the virus. Keep conversations going to support and provide what they need. Being listened to helps even if circumstances can’t really be changed."
Stein says it is also frankly in a business’ own interests to look after their employees and their own mental health. "Staff who are in a good place mentally and physically are the most productive, with reduced sickness and absenteeism so it makes good business sense. We also perhaps have a duty under simple human decency to help each other through difficult times. Anyone of us could experience problems one day and need support."