Tackling mental health issues in the town planning industry

Written by: Alex Tapley & Jessica Carnwath, Oyster Partnership
Published on: 8 Jun 2021

Oyster Partnership Logo

Oyster Partnership speaks to two local authorities and a national consultancy about how they’re helping staff to stay positive throughout the pandemic.

Jessica Carnwath and Alex Tapley

Jessica Carnwath, recruitment consultant, and Alex Tapley, team leader, town planning, Oyster Partnership

2020. A year that will live long in our memories. Covid, Zoom meetings, banana bread. Sadly, according to the Mental Health Foundation, in February 2021, more than one in four (26%) UK adults described themselves as feeling lonely (up from 10% in March 2020) and just under one in five said they felt hopeless about the pandemic.

One silver lining, however, is that the spotlight on mental wellbeing has seen many organisations in the planning industry take positive steps to ensure that those working remotely are well supported.

We spoke to Mendip District Council, South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council, and planning consultancy, Turley, to find out about the initiatives they’ve introduced to help staff cope and stay positive while working remotely through the pandemic.

Tracy Aarons, deputy chief executive, Mendip District Council

How we’ve been working during the pandemic...The council has continued to provide all of its usual services, albeit with staff working remotely. We had systems in place prior to the pandemic so we were able to move to 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.

Mental health challenges we’ve been facing include...Loneliness and isolation, which have been prevalent, particularly for staff living alone. Some staff have also been stressed by having to juggle family life with work life in a single environment.

We’ve taken a proactive approach to safeguarding the mental health of staff by...Creating an officer health and wellbeing hub, enabling staff to access support and information on mental and physical health and wellbeing. There are regular staff briefing notes offering support and guidance. Managers hold regular one-to-one meetings with staff to check they are doing okay and regular group meetings to ensure people are and engaging as they would normally.

We have also looked at the impact of home life and work life being in the same place. We have actively focused on staff taking breaks from their laptops and ensuring that they create a mental divide between the end of work and start of home life, as many had said they felt they were permanently at work. We have also advocated meetings to be 25 or 55 minutes to allow a short break between meetings to rest their brains.

Additional initiatives we’ve introduced to tackle mental health worries include... Virtual coffee catch ups so that staff can have the ‘water cooler moments’ that give a mental break when physically working together. We have used events such as virtual escape room challenges and team walking challenges to bring in the ‘social contact’ that people were missing. We meet regularly with union representatives to look at any issues bubbling up and actions that we could take. We have held a wellbeing week with a focus on supporting mental health, and sessions on mindfulness and addressing loneliness.

Our initiatives are having an impact by...Enabling staff to come together to support each other. Most initiatives have been advocated by employees themselves which gives an additional benefit of staff addressing their needs while feeling empowered.

Advice to other local authorities when it comes to employee wellbeing...Work is intense and it can feel more so in the current environment. Help staff realise that taking a break is as important as doing the job. Support them to support themselves, and ensure that there are forums where staff can identify the support they need and how to obtain it.

Michelle Hodgkiss, senior specialist for HR at South Hams District Council and West Devon Borough Council

How we’ve been working during the pandemic...Since lockdown in March 2020, all of our office based staff have been working at home. 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 or site visits. This put us in a good position and enabled us to continue working and delivering our services as normal.

Mental health challenges we’ve been facing include...We’ve seen an increase in cases of stress and anxiety linked to personal reasons such as loneliness and difficulties in personal relationships and home life.

We’ve taken a proactive approach to safeguarding the mental health of staff by... Ensuring our staff have somewhere to turn when they need support. As an employer, we take mental health very seriously and have become a ‘mindful employer’ which demonstrates our commitment to this. We communicate with staff regularly and encourage them to ensure they take breaks and work flexibly where possible. We encourage staff to use their flexitime to facilitate longer breaks for things like exercise and socialising and this was particularly important during lockdown periods when schools were closed to give parents the flexibility to support their children through home learning. 

We have promoted lots of material and sign-posting to outside agencies such as NHS Talkworks and mental health charities which offer various types of advice and support. We have also continued to promote our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which offers free of charge counselling sessions and various other helplines to staff.

Additional initiatives we’ve introduced to tackle mental health worries include...Remote training courses specifically aimed at resilience during COVID-19 and we have trained 16 members of staff from across the organisation to become mental health first aiders who are available for staff to approach. We have also introduced additional informal meetings which staff can opt to join in with (both in existing teams and across teams) which are just short ‘chats’, not work related - just the type of conversations you would’ve had with colleagues in the kitchen.

Our initiatives are having an impact by... Helping staff to realise that mental health is important and support is out there in lots of different forms. We have enabled and encouraged staff to take some time to talk to colleagues or access other services if they are struggling. A recent staff survey has shown an overwhelming positive response about people feeling supported by their managers and that teams are communicating well and staying connected despite being physically separated from each other. 

Advice to other local authorities when it comes to employee wellbeing...Reassure staff that there is support for them (whether internally or via an external organisation), maintain a flexible approach to working and have clear ways for staff to access information or self-help tools (such as mental health first aiders, EAP and internal messaging/intranet pages). Make health and wellbeing a priority and facilitate opportunities where possible to promote a positive approach to mental health and to keep people talking.

Chrysta Poppitt, senior director, HR, Turley

A bit about our planning consultancy...Turley is a full service planning and development consultancy operating throughout the UK and Ireland. We are employee-owned and each employee is a co-owner. We provide an integrated planning and design service to both public and private sector clients across all development sectors including residential, retail, energy infrastructure, health, education, sports and stadia, hospitality and leisure, business space, minerals and mining, financial institutions and transport infrastructure.

How we’ve been working during the pandemic...We have actively monitored the developments related to COVID and we continue to follow government guidance to prevent the spread of the virus. We have caring, considerate and compassionate leadership. Co-owner health and wellbeing is our top priority and we work in ways that continue to provide the best professional client service. Our approach is to listen to co-owner and client feedback and focus on exemplary client service, line management, strengthening team bonds and ensuring our technology facilitates connections and collaboration with our clients and teams.

Mental health challenges we’ve been facing include...Supporting co-owner mental health and wellbeing as a result of working solely from home for a prolonged period, which has impacted social interactions, loneliness and isolation. COVID and lockdown has impacted people in many different ways, and it is very important to treat people as individuals to understand their experiences and what we can do to best support their needs.  For instance, some people continued to work during 2020 and experienced a high level of pressure within the context of a global pandemic, and some people accepted a period of furlough but experienced higher levels of anxiety as a result of not working and feeling guilty about their colleagues who were.

Each and every contribution to our company over the past 18 months or so is equally valued because these sacrifices (alongside short term monetary and benefits sacrifices which we are currently repaying and we have repaid the JRS Government grant in January 2021) meant that our company is performing much better than we had expected.  This is a feature of employee ownership – all people acting together swiftly to support each other and the company through a very challenging period.

We’ve taken a proactive approach to safeguarding the mental health of staff by...Valuing regular conversations, check-ins and feedback to counter some of the challenges of remote working, which we did full-time during lockdown. We had new co-owners join the company during this time and we have adapted our company and team induction to facilitate a smooth transition.  We have listened to feedback about these experiences and we continue to learn and adapt our approach.

We’ve continued to invest in our strategic activities, such as our company business strategy goals; working closely with our clients; investing in our sustainability team; becoming a carbon neutral business in June 2020; and establishing our Dublin presence which is going from strength to strength.   

These good news stories have been important for our company’s resilience and co-owner morale.  Our approach has been to communicate regularly throughout the pandemic, make tough decisions when needed (with reference to our guiding principles) and to update co-owners about our business response to COVID balanced with our approach to the new normal and our future.

Additional initiatives we’ve introduced to tackle mental health worries include...Taking a proactive approach to wellbeing and resilience through a variety of resources designed to support co-owners.  Co-owners have shared their personal stories and experiences of COVID and lockdown, including the impact on their mental health.  Senior people in the company shared their story which meant that more people opened up and shared their stories too.

We also have co-owner wellbeing and resilience leads who champion wellbeing and resilience (W&R leads) within their teams. This includes advocating and promoting healthy lifestyles and positive mental health, engaging with co-owners on wellbeing initiatives, organising activities, and being available to informally talk to co-owners in addition to the HR team or through line management.
W & R leads have encouraged ‘tea and talk’ which are informal catch ups with people that you might not have connected with for a while. We have operated informal flexible working through our Freedoms Framework since 2015, which complements our trust-based culture. Our practical transition to working from home in March 2020 was therefore relatively straightforward. We believe that flexible working is essential to support co-owners and it also has a positive impact on inclusion and diversity.
Our initiatives are having an impact by...Creating a healthy culture which demonstrably improves people’s lives, supports recruitment, retention, inclusion and diversity, productivity, and ensures the long-term sustainability of the company.
Our blended flexible working model means that co-owners are given choice, freedom and flexibility as to where, when and how they work. Flexibility helps us to achieve our purpose – we are in business together so that our people, places and performance will flourish.
Our forthcoming company conference will be virtual with a focus on collaboration and the opportunity for social interactions in smaller groups within locations.

Teams are completing a charity challenge to support our chosen charities, Home Leone and Mission Direct. Donations can be made here. This challenge is an excellent way of having fun, connecting to a common goal and raising money for two fantastic charities.
Advice to other organisations when it comes to employee wellbeing...Prioritise employee health, wellbeing and resilience. Encourage conversations (keep people talking), connections, social interactions (virtual and face-to-face when possible), check-ins, exemplary line management and listen/act on feedback.

Explore town planning jobs with Oyster Partnership