Industry Intel

How the Planning Industry Dealt With Mental Health Issues During Lockdown

Alex Tapley

L&D Consultant

Jul 27, 2022

2020. A year that will live long in the memory. Covid, Zoom meetings, banana bread.

An aspect of the pandemic that is having more light shone on it is the mental well-being of staff within the Planning industry. Authorities have worked hard to ensure that those working remotely were supported as much as possible.

In February 2021, 26% of people described themselves as feeling lonely according to mentalhealth.org.uk. This is up from 10% in March 2020. On top of this, in February 2021, just under 1 in 5 adults in the UK described themselves as feeling hopeless.

We spoke to two authorities who brought in several changes and initiatives to help staff cope and stay positive while working remotely through the pandemic. Mendip District Council as well as South Hams and West Devon Borough Council have both let us know what changes they’ve made.

First up is Tracy Aarons, the Deputy Chief Executive Mendip, who explains their progress when it comes to mental health within the planning sector.

Tell us about your organisation and how you’ve been working during the pandemic.

The council continued to provide all services although obviously with staff working remotely. We had systems in place prior to the pandemic so we were able to move into home working with immediate effect once the lockdown was announced. The main impacts have been difficulties with things like site inspections and posting of planning notices, and the knock-on impact around the opportunities for the public to respond to consultations.

What mental health challenges have arisen during the pandemic?

Loneliness and isolation were prevalent, particularly for staff living alone, but there was also stress due to juggling family life and work-life in a single environment.

How have you taken a proactive approach to safeguard the mental health of your staff?

We created an officer health and wellbeing hub with information to enable staff to access support and information on mental and physical health and wellbeing. There were regular staff briefing notes offering support and guidance. Managers held regular 1-2-1 meetings with staff to check they are doing okay and regular group meetings to ensure people were engaging as they would normally.

We also looked at the impact of home life and work-life being in the same place. We actively focused on staff taking breaks from their laptops and ensuring that they create a mental divide between the end of work and the start of home life because people were talking about feeling that they were permanently at work because the office was not their home. We also advocated meetings to be 25 or 55 mins to allow a short gap on each side where people can take a break between meetings and rest their brains.

What kinds of initiatives have you introduced to tackle mental health worries?

Along with the above, we also introduced virtual coffee catch-ups so that staff could have the ‘water cooler moments’ that used to give a mental break when physically working together. We used events such as virtual escape room challenges and team walking challenges to bring in the ‘social contact’ that people were missing. We met regularly with union representatives to look at any issues coming forwards and actions that might be taken. We held a well-being week with a focus on supporting mental health. In addition, there have been sessions on mindfulness and addressing loneliness.

What impact are these initiatives having?

They were positively received and staff came together to support each other. Most initiatives were advocated by the staff themselves which gives an additional benefit of staff addressing their needs and feeling empowered.

What advice would you give to other authorities when it comes to taking care of employee’s wellbeing?

Work is intense and it can feel more so in the current environment. Help staff realise taking a break is as important as doing the job, support them to support themselves, and ensure that there are forums where staff can get support and identify support needed.

Lastly, Michelle Hodgkiss, the Senior specialist for HR at South Hams and West Devon detailed the work they did in order to support their staff during the hard times.

Tell us about your organisation and how you’ve been working during the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic the majority of our workforce were agile and could choose whether to work from home or the office depending on their role and whether they were due to attend meetings/site visits etc. Since the lockdown in March 2020, all office-based staff have been working at home.

What mental health challenges have arisen during the pandemic?

There haven’t been specific problems within our organisation but a range of mental health problems have arisen over the last 12 months, however we have seen more cases of stress and anxiety for personal reasons (loneliness/relationships etc.) rather than work-related.

How have you taken a proactive approach to safeguard the mental health of your staff?

We are registered as a ‘Mindful Employer’ and take mental health very seriously. We communicate with staff regularly and encourage them to take breaks and work flexible hours to enable them to use their flexitime to facilitate longer breaks for exercise etc. We have promoted lots of material and signposting to outside agencies such as NHS Talk works, mental health charities etc. We have continued to promote our EAP service.

What kinds of initiatives have you introduced to tackle mental health worries?

We provided remote training courses specifically aimed at Resilience During Covid 19 and we trained 16 Mental Health First Aiders who are available for staff to approach. Informal meetings (in teams and across teams) which were short ‘chats’, not work-related, just the type of conversations you would’ve had with colleagues in the kitchen.

What impact are these initiatives having?

As the last 12 months have been different from any other 12 months in our organisation, it’s difficult to compare like for like data. However, in the early days of the pandemic (quarters 1&2), our absence levels actually declined. We have seen them increase again in the latter quarters of the year but they remain average for our organisation

OP: What advice would you give to other authorities when it comes to taking care of employee’s wellbeing?

Reassurance to staff that there is support for them (whether internally or an external organisation). Clear ways for staff to access signposting information or self-help (Mental Health First Aiders, EAP & internal messaging/intranet pages). Maintain a flexible approach to working (this was particularly popular during homeschooling periods).

As you can see, mental health is now rightly getting the attention it deserves, could more be done by local authorities and other organisations? Perhaps, but employees now have more emotional support than ever before and every authority appreciates how looking after their staff will benefit everyone in the long run.

Share this article

L&D Consultant

Alex Tapley

Alex started out his recruitment journey at Oyster in 2017, joining the long-established Town Planning team. He slotted in immediately and started to grow his network of candidates and clients, most of whom have stayed faithful to him throughout his developing career at Oyster. Fast forward to now, and Alex is our L&D Consultant, responsible for training all new recruits in our 12 week academy programme.

More from our blog