Why the gardening industry has a mental health crisis and how to help

"In 2009 I burnt out and was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder. I would twitch and jerk in response to sound or touch. I looked like a peculiar air drummer with no rhythm."

So writes Perrywood Garden Centre communications and HR director Hannah Powell in her new book My Green Recovery. After her experiences, Powell is concerned that many people have been working flat out since the pandemic started and says employers need to be more proactive rather than waiting for problems to blow up.

Powell openly talks about her issues with her own neurological movement disorder in staff newsletters, which makes it easier for employees to come forward and discuss their struggles.

Mental health charity Mind has reported that one in six people will experience a common mental health problem in any given week, with many cases going unreported. This has been exacerbated by lockdown.

"I think we're doing way more than most because I've had health problems and have been through that journey," says Powell. "Maybe other people have not had that, but increasingly they will have to because I don't think the NHS can provide immediate support anymore."

Powell believes the tradition in the industry was previously to "just keep going", but says this is changing among the younger generation of employees, who are looking for support.

"There's really been no let-up. It's been constant. Christmas was really busy and this season started early. People in physical roles like in the planteria are doing up to 30,000 steps a day. It's physically and mentally demanding, and we're seeing more people with anxiety issues.

"Some are around when they come back into the workplace. They may have been shielding and are now finding it difficult to be surrounded by so many people. They may have been homeschooling, which can cause family crises. They have fewer options for childcare and they may have to reduce hours to look after sick family members.

"There's no release. For instance, people are missing out on supporting their sports teams and other outside work activities."

Extra staff

Perrywood, which has garden centres in Tiptree in Essex and Sudbury in Suffolk, has hired extra staff, brought coffee shop staff into the planteria and is seeking more to unload trolleys, with up to 40 a day arriving. "Like most people, if product is around we have to buy it because availability is a problem," says Powell.

"We’ve been reminding managers to make sure they and their teams are working smarter during this busy time. Not carrying plants back and forth when you could use a trolley is a simple example. Making sure health and safety procedures are being followed and aids such as powered pallet trucks and trolley pullers are being used correctly to avoid injuries."

Powell, who writes about mental health issues under the name “The Cactus Surgeon", adds: "I think the other issue is the NHS, which is less able to cope with demand at the moment. For a doctor's appointment, you have to phone that morning where we are. Waiting times are longer and I don't think that will change. Employers will need to fill the gaps."

Perrywood uses an employee assistance programme (EAP), available 24/7 to offer consultation face-to-face or by phone/email for advice on health, debt, relationship and other issues. Staff members get six free meetings and six phone calls a year, and the cost is only pounds per employee.

Powell says: "You can phone up and talk to someone. This gives managers somewhere to send people. Getting a doctor's appointment is not that easy and you might only get put on a waiting list for a counsellor." 

Occupational health support is available too for anxiety, digging down into what is triggering that stress. Mental health first-aiders among managers and staff are trained to look for signs of poor mental health among staff and offer a friendly ear. 

Powell found the support after employing a local consultant two or three years ago. This led to a management restructure so there was easier line management support for staff: "Everyone should have a manager they can go to, but if the structure isn't right, that's going to be hard."

Government schemes include Access to Work — support for disabilities or health conditions. "You can use it to support lots of people, including those with dyslexia or taxis to work with a broken leg, etc," says Powell

Also available for mental health support is Able Futures, offering free advice and resources, and nine months of support for employees with mental health issues.

Perrywood also has an HR manager who can offer support, though Powell realises not every business is big enough to bring in all these measures. She suggests that they could cherry-pick ideas instead and help to avoid employee distress leading to long-term sick leave.

The EAP service provides:

  • Up to six sessions of face-to-face counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) per person, per issue, per year.
  • Up to six sessions of structured telephone counselling per person, per issue, per year.
  • A confidential 24/7/365 helpline.
  • Critical incident and trauma support, 24/7.
  • Day one intervention for stress – "Reducing Absence via Occupational Health Nurse Intervention. Combating the sick note."
  • Online help and support covering issues such as alcohol/drugs, debt, family problems, bereavement, relationships, domestic abuse.
  • Health e-Hub app — unique content, relevant support and preventive wellness programmes straight from your phone.
  • Monthly well-being newsletter.
  • Assigned relationship manager.
  • Management information reports.

An EAP is often positioned as a highly-valued employee benefit that promotes well-being and a strong work/life balance, but it is also proven to:

  • Greatly reduce absence — 34% reduction on average (source: CBI Absence Survey).
  • Improve productivity in the workplace.
  • Reduce stress in staff members and colleagues.
  • Improve staff retention.
  • Give great value to the organisation — a return of £10.30 for every £1 invested (source: CBI Absence Survey).

The total cost to cover 200 employees and their immediate family would be £7.68 per person per year.

Well-being scores

Meanwhile, an RHS/University of Sheffield/University of Virginia study, published in the journal Cities, surveyed more than 6,000 people and results indicate that those who garden every day have well-being scores 6.6% higher and stress levels 4.2% lower than people who do not garden at all.

University of Sheffield Department of Landscape Architecture senior lecturer Ross Cameron tells Horticulture Week: "If you were a nursery or garden centre owner, for example, the first few weeks of the initial lockdown must have been hell — prime sales period of the season and your market is cut off from you."

"Lots of financial and logistical headaches will have taken their toll in terms of mental well-being. Obviously, if you went online and survived, then the rest of the year would bring some peace of mind. I noticed that my local garden centre was still quiet in subsequent semi-lockdown periods and really has only picked up since more people have had the jab. 

"There is some evidence that all the 'green is good for your health' aspects that we think gardeners/dog walkers benefit from probably do not translate across if you actually work in the profession. Issues around work worries, job security and unsocial or uncomfortable working conditions will override many of the benefits of working with plants.

"The 'sister industry' of farming is notorious for having relatively high suicide rates and we suspect worries over business viability, and perhaps long periods of working on your own are not compensated for by being outdoors and exposed to lovely country views.

"What horticulture does have going for it are a lot of second careers folk, and they may still see the benefits of the lifestyle — anything being better than stuck in the office nine-to-five. Again, financial security is key, of course. 

"What has been one of the few pleasant surprises of the whole pandemic is the wider valuing of outdoors and gardening. We normally have a 100% student employment with our landscape architect graduates at Sheffield and this has been holding up over the last year, so an indication that the sector is still strong."

Finnish study published in the National Library of Medicine found there was a difference of 5.6% (1.56) on the Short Warwick & Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale between people who did "leisure-time vigorous physical activity that lasted at least 20 minutes per session at least four times a week" and those who did this "less than once a week".

A four-year research project by the RHS and the universities of Sheffield, Westminster and Virginia examined the effect on participating households of adding ornamental plants to previously bare front gardens in economically deprived streets of Salford, Greater Manchester.

Before the experiment, 24% of residents had healthy cortisol patterns. Over the course of the year following the plantings, this increased to 53%. Additionally, residents’ perceived stress levels decreased by 6% once the plants had been introduced. More than half (52%) of residents said their front garden contributed to them feeling happier, 40% said it helped them to feel more relaxed and a quarter said it helped them feel closer to nature.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, working in partnership with the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, says findings from the Big Farming Survey will be published at a live launch event in the autumn. There were 15,500 responses to the largest ever research project on the health and well-being of farmers.


#A new report by the charity retailTRUST has found that UK retail workers are suffering among the lowest mental wellbeing of any employee group, with the pandemic continuing to worsen staff’s mental health.

A survey of 1,300 retail staff revealed their average wellbeing levels are much lower than in people working within a range of other sectors, including healthcare and education with 84% of retail workers saying their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, leading to symptoms like increased anxiety, changes in eating or sleeping habits and long-lasting sadness for more than a third of staff. Nearly two thirds of retail managers said they had been left overwhelmed by the extra work created by the pandemic.

People working on the shop floor and in distribution warehouses, as well as younger retail workers in their 20s, have the lowest levels of wellbeing according to the study.

RetailTRUST also carried out research among more than 20 household name retailers to find out what they are doing to help staff. It found many are introducing measures to increase communication with employees and provide access to mental health services and training, although several admitted they were investing in this area for the first time and most others said they have not increased their mental health budgets since the pandemic. 30% said they have now put in place a strategic plan that allows them to measure the success of initiatives and their impact on staff wellbeing.

Some 91% of retail managers said they have noticed an increase in mental health issues among staff but 28% said they didn’t have enough help from their company to support them.

Leaders from a number of retailers including Morrisons, ASOS and John Lewis will take part in a free digital event being run by retailTRUST on 10 and 11 May looking to advise four million-strong workforce.

RetailTRUST provided more than £800,000 in financial aid in 2020 to help retail workers stay in their own homes and meet other essential needs, a 125% rise on 2019. The charity also ran more than 6,000 counselling sessions as demand for its mental health support grew by 164%..

See retailtrust.org.uk/forthefour to register for retailTRUST’s free Championing The Health Of Retail event which takes place during Mental Health Awareness Week.

#Perrywood Garden Centre is growing plants for She Grows Veg's Lucy Hutchings' allotment garden at RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival in July.

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