As Mental Health Awareness Month continues, the focus this week is on the importance of employers supporting staff who are struggling with mental health problems. One North-East tells PETER BARRON about his experiences

AS someone on the frontline of the cost-of-living crisis, Peter Locke knows all too well how important it is to be able to recognise the symptoms of mental health problems before they spiral out of control.

And yet, it wasn’t until he was on a mental health training course, designed to help him spot the challenges facing others, that he realised he was suffering himself.

“It was a two-day course and, when it came to a session on anxiety, I thought: “That’s me!” says Peter, 39, who works as Head of Communities for North Star Housing, which supports some of the most vulnerable people in the North-East.

At the same time, Peter’s wife, who was working for a mental health charity, had also done some training, and she recognised the same symptoms and behaviour patterns her husband had been displaying.

It was the trigger he needed to make an appointment to see a doctor, and he was diagnosed with anxiety disorder.

According to the mental health charity, Mind, one in six workers is dealing with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression or stress.

“This can stop people performing at their best,” says the charity. “Organisations perform better when their staff are healthy, motivated and focused. Smart employers support employees who are experiencing mental health problems to cope and recover. The support people receive from employers is key in determining how well and how quickly they are able to get back to peak performance.”

Not every employer heeds that advice, but 39-year-old Peter considers himself to be lucky to work for an organisation that puts the health and wellbeing of its employees at the heart of its operations.

“I feel privileged to be in a working environment where we’re encouraged to talk about mental health and to be open about how we’re feeling,” he says. “There’s a responsibility to talk about it, so other people don’t have to go through what I went through when I was working for previous employers.”

Peter’s feelings of anxiety began around the age of 18 after his parents divorced. He started feeling sick, and experiencing other physical symptoms, but he didn’t make the connection with mental illness at the time.

He continued to suffering while at university in Leeds and when he started working. “When I started jobs, and got nervous or felt anxious, I put it down to having an edge – deciding that it showed I cared,” he explains. “There’s a level of anxiety that can be positive – but it’s a thin line before it becomes debilitating."

The condition became worse after Peter and his wife had their two children, and amid the extra pressure and responsibilities at home, he became very withdrawn.

North Star was quick to put support in place, providing counselling – six free sessions, with more if required.

“It was really valuable in helping me to get to the root of my problems,” he acknowledges.

“My mental health never stopped me functioning at work, but it did have an impact at home, and having that support in place made me realise it was OK to talk. Knowing you don’t have to hide it, and you can be open, is so healthy.”

North Star prides itself on continually developing and reviewing wellbeing initiatives that benefit staff and the business, with a number of groups established to aid the process.

The Stronger Together group maintains regular contact with teams across the business to monitor wellbeing, highlight issues, and feed them back to the senior management team. The group has its own budget to organise staff events, internal awards, and to support a charity of the year.

The Inclusion Group regularly reviews the organisation’s approach to equality and diversity. Initiatives include the development of an Ethnic Minority Apprenticeship scheme. The group has also been responsible for bringing in experts to raise awareness of men’s health, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and disability. In 2023, the focus is on neurodiversity and anti-racism.

North Star’s counselling service is confidential, and other support includes free staff physiotherapy, and access to independent financial advice, provided by the Centre for Financial Education. There is also a Mentoring Framework, with eight experienced members of staff chosen to act as mentors in providing guidance, motivation, and emotional support.

In addition, staff are given 35 volunteering hours a year, to widen their horizons and enable them to experience the feelgood factor of contributing to the local community.

“Peter’s story is just one of many examples that remind us why we have to make sure that mental health is central to everything we do – both for service-users and our own staff – and it is an area we are constantly developing and reviewing,” says North Star’s chief executive, Angela Lockwood.

The organisation has seen a 56 per cent increase in referrals to its welfare benefits team over the past year, and Peter has no doubt that there’s a direct correlation between the cost-of-living crisis and mental health.

“It’s having a real impact because people don’t know how they are going to cope,” he says. “I talk to tenants every day who ask: ‘How will I put food on the table? How will I heat the house? ‘How will I pay the rent?’ That all adds up to a sense of hopelessness for many people and, as an organisation, we need to understand the challenges people are facing.”

Dealing with those kind of issues is rewarding for staff, but it can also take its toll on their own mental health, which underlines the importance of having the right support in place.

“If I hadn’t had that mental health training, I would still have been struggling and who knows where that could have led?” says Peter. “Thankfully, I’m in a place where I know I can get help when I need it – but not everyone’s so lucky, are they?”