Would you believe it’s International Stress Awareness Week?

2nd Nov 2020

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Oh the irony! Coincidence or what? It’s International Stress Awareness Week of all weeks. Let’s not accuse our government of lack of planning on this one, just as we go into a second lockdown.

I was speaking to Wandsworth’s Clinical Reference Group on Mental Health at the end of last week. They are doing some fact finding to build a picture of what’s going on locally. I gave them a short update about what we’ve been doing. I told them about the stress and anxiety, as well as the depression, despair and suicidal thoughts that some of our members are going through. In fact, what many have been experiencing since we went into the first lockdown in March. Many of our members, particularly our elders, are lonely and isolated, with physical and mental health conditions. That’s why we work with them! Lockdown has definitely exacerbated these and adversely impacted on their mental health. And now, we’re going into a second lockdown. Guess how that’s going to pan out for them?

We have been working closely with all our members since July to resume our face-to-face community services. This is what most of our community services are all about – bringing people together and doing fun, positive, engaging stuff. We’ve been talking to our members throughout to help us plan and redesign our services. We also been using a mix of risk assessments, following government guidance(s), drawing on our experience and expertise, and a healthy dose of common sense and humour.

We held a fantastic series of events and activities during the summer holidays for our young people. Read about it here. For some it was the first time they’d left their flats in 4 months. Our Homework Clubs started back just before half-term. On 14th September we resumed our ESOL (English) and Maths classes. Although classes are in smaller groups we still have 100 students attending face-to-face and online classes successfully. And our Elders were have been out and about in small bubbles since August taking trips to Richmond Park, Brockwell Lido, Battersea Park and more; and we’ve recently started up face-to-face coffee mornings and our exercise programmes with our elders.

For 7 months we’ve delivered all of our programmes virtually: online, over the phone, WhatsApp, emails, doorstep visits and sending letters, parcels, exercise programmes and activity packs using the good ol’ fashioned postal service! We’ve just been getting back into the swing of things seeing everyone in-person (albeit following the Covid-19 social distancing/hygiene rules). This has had a significant impact on reducing their stress and anxieties. And now, from Thursday (5th November), we have to resume our ‘virtual’ programmes again and close our face-to-face services.

We kind of knew it was coming and have been planning for it. Our Senior Management Team meets every Wednesday at 12pm. The Covid-19 restrictions and changing environment is a key fixture on our agenda. The debate for us recently has been the extent to which we can resume our face-to-face work knowing that many of our members are in the most vulnerable categories. But we’ve talked with our members throughout these last few months and made these decisions together.

The other side of the coin, in terms of stress, concerns our staff and volunteers. For me they are the unsung heroes who have been dealing with the consequences of this Pandemic. The support they’ve given our members has been above and beyond. But it has taken its toll. Many are tired and a bit drained, stressed (more than normal), feeling a bit fed up with not being able to do their jobs as they’d like, and worried and concerned about our members knowing how hard lockdown 1 has been for them.

Their mental health is paramount if we are to continue providing a top notch service. We’ve put a number of things in place since March to provide more support to our staff and volunteers. Including weekly team meetings, more frequent 1-2-1 supervision meetings, clinical supervision, we’ve bought in an Employee Assistance Programme, and at the height of lockdown we did lots of quizzes, coffee mornings and general silliness on Zoom to let our collective hair down.

So back to the Clinical Reference Group. Commissioners rightly should be looking at what support they can give to residents who are stressed and have low-level mental health concerns. They should also be looking at what preventative/early action services they could be investing in. I know the health service is like an oil tanker: it takes time to steer a new course for such a juggernaut. But they could be shifting the funding rudder (even if it’s by 1% a year) to invest in more early action work. An investment in preventative work generally means better outcomes upstream with less people falling into crisis later on (which is expense and pretty awful for everyone involved), or if they do then they have the resilience, resources and networks to recover more quickly. This is surely better for everyone involved and the public purse.

In addition, Commissioners should be thinking about the support they can put in place for local support services (supporting the supporters – the staff and volunteers that provide services to residents) to reduce their stress and anxiety. Investment in shoring up the social support infrastructure now will enable these frontline services to be better able to take the strain and continue for the months ahead.

So as we all go into a Lockdown 2 spare a thought for all the staff and volunteers working in charities and community groups, not just in Battersea, but in communities across the UK. It’s going to be a stressful time for all involved. You could play your part in helping reduce their stress by simply asking them how they’re doing and providing a listening ear. Simple but effective – it works.

Thank you in advance for reducing our stress levels and please take care of yourselves during the stressful weeks ahead.

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