As you may be aware, the Members’ Services Team runs a monthly phone-in Q&A session for MPs’ staff. The next one is taking place on Wednesday 16 December, 3-4pm and the theme of this session will be dealing with distressed and suicidal callers.
For further information and a link to join the meeting, please see this page on the intranet:
The Wellness Working Group is a cross party group of MPs’ staff with the aim of placing a focus on staff welfare and improving support for MPs’ staff well-being. Support mechanisms have tended to focus almost exclusively on Members and House Staff, with MPs’ staff needs often being forgotten or left in the background. The uniqueness of working for an MP cannot be overstated. The Wellness Working Group is firmly of the belief that more needs to be done to recognise the often complex and challenging role of MPs’ staff and the unparalleled challenges they face. Many staff have already shared their experiences and we are keen to hear from as many MPs’ staff as possible, regardless of party colours since the challenges we face are some that only MPs’ staff will be fully able to relate to.
MPs’ staff are increasingly under pressure with intense workloads and are often dealing with very distressed and vulnerable constituents who bring issues that are harrowing and emotionally demanding. The cumulative effect of this type and volume of work can have impacts on our own mental health. This makes it crucial that we have measures in place to cope and be able to look after ourselves. It is only by looking after ourselves that we will be able to continue perform well and to help others. Staff are often overstretched, which in a crisis gets worse. Also, staff are often left with lots of distressing details and nowhere ‘to put’ them. This is not exclusive to caseworkers. Administrators are often the first point of contact in the office by answering the phone or filtering the inbox and researchers and parliamentary assistants can be involved in very harrowing topics for debates. Office managers are often in a difficult place between the Member and the staff team and many find themselves picking up any additional workload the team faces. In addition, they often feel responsible for their team’s well-being, which can be especially difficult given the harrowing nature of the work, whilst perhaps not having the same outlet or well-being support that they are providing to their teams. The Wellness Working Group believes more adequate support needs to be put in place for MPs’ staff well-being. Furthermore, training on mental health ought to be offered so that a greater focus is placed on self-care, allowing staff to be better equipped to cope with demanding and important work.
The increase in the number of campaigns and heated nature of politics means it is common for MPs’ staff to be put in the position of answering aggressive correspondence, directed to their Member as a public figure, and feeling the force of people’s anger. This extends to threats and abuse made to staff who have not signed up to be publicly accountable. So often staff are isolated, whether in small offices in Westminster or in constituency offices all around the country. Now with Covid-19 and home working, we are conscious that staff might feel even more disconnected and overwhelmed with the work they are facing. We understand many staff relied on their workplace for social interaction and support, which has been somewhat lost in many cases, also meaning boundaries between home and work are blurred.
We were pleased that IPSA added £4000 to the MPs’ staffing budget for well-being and training recently. We see this as a starting point in staff welfare being recognised as a concept and see that we have much further to go if staff welfare is to be properly considered. The Wellness Working Group has several aims, which include: developing a well-being policy, establishing peer support networks that could provide a space to share experiences, knowledge and expertise whilst creating more of a sense of community, the provision of better mental health training and having a ring-fenced budget from IPSA so that well-being costs do not have to come from already stretched budgets, to name a few.
We would encourage you to join our Group because it is by supporting one another that we can make a difference. What we have in common as staff is unique. Working for an MP is a job that is often hard to describe to those who have not experienced it. Members of the Group come from all parts of the UK and from all political parties. We understand that the challenges may differ but all are equally valid when people are struggling. So far we have held meetings in Scotland and in London, but we are now holding these meetings virtually. We are trying to avoid the focus being on people reaching crisis point and more on creating something that helps people to avoid that point, or recover quickly if they do.
When debts start to mount up, it can have an adverse effect on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
This guide offers lots of helpful information such as:
Understanding the impact of debt to mental health – the different kinds of debt (e.g. tax debt) and how they can be a key source of stress, depression, and anxiety if not planned and managed properly.
Advice for dealing with debt such as setting up a Debt Management Plan or an Individual Voluntary Arrangement (IVA), qualifying for a Debt Relief Order (DRO), or even filing bankruptcy to get some protection and keep life essentials like pension savings safe from creditors.
What to do if debt problems begin affecting your mental health. This includes recognising the symptoms and early warning signs of mental health problems associated with debt as well as advice on where to turn to for help and support.
Other useful information and resources, including debt charities and organisations that are dedicated to helping people conquer their debt problems
Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and ensure your bedroom creates optimal sleeping conditions, the room should be the right temperature between 15 to 22 degrees Celsius, free from noise and light.
Don’t nap during the day and limit exposure to bright light and screen usage in the hour before you intend to sleep.
You should keep connected to your team, with regular contact through calls, skype and/or video hangouts, to see how they are. Regular check in times are key as is striking a balance between having a routine and making sure each day has some variety.
Be sure you have up to date contact information for vulnerable/older friends and relatives who may have to self isolate for longer periods.
Tips for Emotional Wellbeing while working from home
Working from home will mean different things to different people, and the impact of this move will vary depending on the type of work you normally do, whether this can be done easily from home or not and your personal situation.
Below are some ideas to help you look after your wellbeing over the coming weeks.
We all have our routines and when life changes happen these routines are disturbed and this can cause a sense of unease at a time when we crave stability. It is therefore important to keep as much day to day normality as possible while working from home.
Give some thought to how you can maintain your daily routines or supplement them in a positive way.
For example, stick you your normal wake up/ bed times, shower and dress each day and deliberately use the extra time (saved from travelling etc.) in a positive way; exercise at home, read a book, have a leisurely breakfast and so forth. Identify other routines you have and keep/ adapt them accordingly.
As above it is important to stick to your normal work schedule as much as possible and breaks are as important at home as they are at work, perhaps even more so. It can be easy to get distracted when working at home and attention is a finite resource, taking regular short breaks allows the mind to rest and then re-focus on the task at hand. Lunch breaks are also important, don’t be tempted to grab a bite to eat and work through, consider using the time to eat healthily, spend time with other people in the household of get some fresh air if possible.
It is important to have clear boundaries for your workday, not just to ensure you meet expectations, but to ensure you do not overwork. Because you are on your own, you may be tempted to start earlier, finish later and not take your breaks, but this is counterproductive as you risk burning out – try to keep to your normal daily hours and routine.
Physical boundaries are also important, try to set up a dedicated workspace (even a corner of the kitchen or a different seat to normal) so you mentally enter and exit the “work zone”, this will help you focus on work when there, and let it go when you are not. It may be worth talking to other household members about your boundaries too, so you don’t get drawn into non-work conversations and situations when trying to work.
Acknowledge how you feel.
We are in the midst of a difficult, worrying time and so it is normal for us to feel different about life, to worry, to think about possible outcomes and to struggle with the uncertainty. On top of this, it is normal to feel a sense of concern about working from home, we may feel anxious or stressed as we worry about whether we appear busy enough, we may be overly concerned with trying to make ourselves available or proving how productive we are being. We may also feel a sense of guilt about not being in the office, not being able to complete certain tasks, and all these emotions can lead us to question our own worth. So be kind to yourself, allow space for these thoughts and feelings but try not to let them overwhelm you. it is important to remember that these are thoughts not facts and it is perfectly normal to experience them.
Practice Compassion and Gratitude.
This is already a testing time for many, and things may get worse, creating uncertainty and even fear. In these conditions it is normal for humans to focus on themselves, and this may lead to irritability, anger, frustration etc. towards others. By choosing compassion towards others (especially family members!!), trying to understand what other people are going through and how they feel, and practicing gratitude for what we have (rather than focussing on what we do not have or have lost) we can maintain good relations with those around us and create a much better environment for us all to live and work in.
Humans are social animals.
Remember humans have evolved to live and work in groups, and so any kind of isolation places an extra burden on us. Being isolated from work colleagues that we normally spend a large amount of time with can impact on how we feel, so make a concerted effort to stay in touch, and not just about work related issues.
Also make a point of reaching out to your social circles, friends, family, groups etc. and maintain those links that we all need for our wellbeing. It is also a good idea to keep in touch with those people who may be vulnerable at this time, encourage them to look after themselves and offer help where possible.
Look after your Psychological needs.
We have all heard stories about people bulk buying food and provisions to ensure their physical needs are met, but what about your emotional/ psychological needs? We all have psychological needs (such as the need for recognition, significance, achievement, connection to others and growth) and work plays a large part for most people in getting those needs met.
While working at home it is important to recognise that these still need to be met, but the mechanisms that previously supported us are temporarily unavailable. Therefore be kind to yourself, you may feel worried or alone, you may feel like you are not as “good” as normal or achieving as much as normal, and that is OK. Take time to focus on what you have achieved, learn to congratulate yourself, acknowledge any negative thoughts or feelings you may have but remind yourself these are difficult times and that you are only human.
Look after your mental health
The change to routines, the pressure of appearing busy, being productive, being isolated, losing connections and feeling guilty/ anxious may impact on our mental health, and anyone who has an existing mental health condition may find it is impacted.
It is important to plan ahead for our mental health, figure out what supports our mental health, who we can talk to, what help is available locally and nationally and what to do if we feel in crisis.
Resources and contacts
Below are some resources we can all access to help support us through the next few weeks:
Your line manager can help with work issues but may also be able to offer support on other topics.
NHS – Please follow the most recent advice regarding contacting the NHS, however the NHS website is accessible to everyone at any time https://www.nhs.uk/ and contains a wide range of useful information and links to other resources.
Now that most of us are working from, we’ve prepared a short guide to how to manage it, with advice on how to stay healthy and look after yourself
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government’s order that all but a few essential services switch to working from home, has meant that the living room is the new office for many people. On top of all of the other stresses and anxieties that we will all, inevitably, be dealing with in the coming months, all of us will now have to adjust to a very new way of life.
For most people, working from home involves a radical change in the way that they think about their work and homelife. Coming home from the office after an exhausting and possibly stressful day can be real source of relief. Likewise, going into work often serves to structure most people’s days and give them a break from the hustle and bustle of home-life.
Although some adapt easily to working from home and find the lack of structure liberating, for others having their home become their workplace can be a real shock.
There is no guarantee that the transition will be smooth for everyone, but there are ways to find structure and even enjoyment in your new domestic worklife.
With this in mind, we present our guide to working from home during the pandemic, and how you can make the best of it.
Maybe it’s the dining room table. Maybe you’ve had to get creative and repurpose an ironing board as a standing desk. Whatever the solution for your space, try and have a clear, designated work zone you turn up to each morning. This will of course be easier for some than others, but boundaries will help you focus when it’s time to work, and relax once the day is over.
Working from bed is a clear no-no. You may think that the luxury of working from home is that you can do it wherever, and however, you want. But, once you turn your bed into an office you’ll find it impossible to separate work and free time. Just think of your partner having to share a bed with you and your work folders! What starts of as a lifehack can quickly turn into a house colonised by work documents and computer cables.
What’s true of how to use your home space is also true of how to use your time. You may think that being able to work from home means that you can pick and choose when you work, but try and stay within the parameters of the working day.
Some people do the boring, administrative, work within their workday and then save the more fun stimulating work for the evenings. This sounds appealing, but it can lead to burnout as the admin piles up and the creative tasks become a burdensome to-do list.
Part of any sustainable working schedule is a healthy work-life balance and during the pandemic you won’t get as much time to leave the house as you’re used to. Separating work time from non-work time can be one way of getting a break from what could easily become a pretty claustrophobic environment.
Dress the part
Anyone that has ever thought about the benefits of working from home has imagined themselves rolling out of bed, unwashed and in their pyjamas, at 8:45.
After leisurely leaving the bed room you might imagine yourself meandering to the kitchen to make yourself a coffee just before 9am when you wipe the sleep from yours eyes and look over the morning’s emails.
The time spent avoiding the morning’s traffic jam, thinking about what to wear and packing your lunch can be exchanged for time in bed.
As alluring as this may sound, avoid the temptation. Get up early and go through your normal morning routine: shower, eat a healthy breakfast and settle down in your designated working area. If you don’t, you’ll make it harder for yourself to focus on the task at hand and feel like you actually have work to do. As we said earlier, the most important thing to do is set boundaries. Without them you’ll find yourself spending all day on twitter or social media. Which reminds us…
Designated break times
You normally take a break in the middle of the day at work, so take one at home. Breaks not only help you to relax, but they also help you to be more productive when you do go back to work.
Be careful about how you spend your break. If you’d normally go for a quick walk at lunchtime, use this part of the day to get in your allowed outdoor exercise. And again, stick to your boundaries. We really can’t say it enough. There is a slippery slope which starts with a twenty-minute viewing of your favourite Netflix show during a slow period and ends with you binge watching. Your house is normally where you relax but remember you are at work and doing the things you normally do when you’re relaxing can lead to you forgetting that.
Pick a place with a view
This is another one that many of us don’t have very much control over. But, if you can, park yourself up somewhere with a view. Don’t sit up against a wall, or in the darkest, dingiest corner of your home. Find somewhere near a window so you can see some trees or open sky when you look up from your laptop or desktop.
We may not be able to enjoy the first days of Spring in our usual way, but it’s still possible to take pleasure watching local birdlife enjoy the new peace and quiet, or noticing the growth of new flowers from our windows. Your body (and sleep) will thank you for it too – sunlight helps us maintain our circadian rhythms, keeping our body in time with the day.
Tech will save us
We all know that laptops are not particularly great for using long term, because the force us to sit in crouched positions that can lead to back problems and RSI. If you have one available, try and work on a desktop instead.
Don’t panic if you haven’t worked on a desktop since the noughties though. There’s no need to invest in a tonne of cash in a new computer if you’re not expecting to work from home for a long time. Set your laptop in a higher position, mayb on a few hefty books, or a tilted stand. Invest in a separate keyboard and a mouse and your spine and wrists will thank you for it. Your eyebrow should be level with the top of the screen so you can sit without slouching.
Remote Access to the Parliamentary Network and Parliamentary Apps
From the Office 365 Portal, Members and staff can access pretty much all of the things that they would be able to access from their parliamentary computers including: Word; Excel; Outlook; Calendar; Skype for Business, ACT; IPSA Dashboard; internal ‘people’ directory; OneDrive; SharePoint; OneNote; PowerPoint; MemberHub; LexisNexis; the Commons and Lords Libraries; PDS; and more.
All Members and staff are able to use Office 365 from parliamentary machines and also on your personal devices. If you haven’t already accessed it, the first thing you will need to do is set up Multi-Factor Authentication on your mobile phone – check this guide on the intranet. To install Skype for Business, please see the instructions here.
Do not go out and buy Microsoft Office! All Members and Staff are entitled to download a licensed copy of Microsoft Office for free onto their personal devices using their Parliamentary credentials. For further information, please see this note.
If you are not already using OneDrive and SharePoint, then you should be! OneDrive is your personal drive, where you can store all your documents and then access them from wherever you happen to be working. SharePoint is your shared drive, where you put all the documents you share within your own team.
Working at home, and working at home whilst isolated, can be terribly lonely. But, in the age of social media and video services it doesn’t have to be. Reach out to your colleagues throughout the day – they’re also stuck at home and probably missing your (in)famous water cooler jokes (ok, maybe not).
There are now dozens of programmes that can help you keep in contact with your workmates.. If you live alone, or even if you miss seeing your colleagues, they can be a fantastic way of feeling like your back in the office. One suggestion that we’ve heard from colleagues is that you could eat your lunch with a video call open so you can recreate the lunchroom environment that you’re missing.
A little email asking how they’re doing and making light chat can really make a difference to your day, as well as theirs. You could suggest the manager sends a team email thread to say good morning to everyone at the beginning of the day and another one at the end of the day to say good night. Your colleagues will really appreciate it and it’ll help you to set up and keep to your own routine. Did we mention, you should have boundaries?
However you should be careful about the tools you use on Parliamentary devices. Free voice and video call apps, such as Zoom, are unsupported and unaccredited by Parliament and carry an increased and uncertain level of risk. You should use only accredited tools for parliamentary business, and read this guide to the risks of other tools you might use for personal conversations or in your constituency work, or if other organisations ask you to use them for meetings they are hosting
At work you may normally have popped out to a local café, or restaurant to grab a quick bite during your lunch. This won’t be an option whilst working from home, unless of course you decide to order take away during your lunch breaks. If you don’t want to do this however then leftovers are your friend. You can save a lot of time during the workday by cooking enough in the evening to have leftovers for lunch the following day. This might seem a tad monotonous, but it’ll save you a tonne of time which you can spend doing yoga, going for a walk, or whatever else it is that you want to do during your break.
Don’t forget to leave the ‘office’
Ok, so we know that you can’t go off to the theatre, pub or cinema after the end of a working day but this doesn’t mean that you can’t leave the desk. If you’ve created a designated work space then pack it up at the end of the day. It may seem like a bit of a hassle but not seeing your work computer and folders staring at you from across the room whilst you bite into your lasagne will really help you to strike up a healthy work life balance.
Also, try and go for a walk and get some light exercise during the day. Try having a default activity that you do during your breaks so you can use it to break-up your own day; if you have a dog, you’ll already know there are mental and physical health benefits of having to go for a walk each day no matter what.
As well as going outside to exercise during your breaks and at the end of your workday you can also squeeze in some gym time during your breaks. There are dozens of really wonderful online yoga classes, for both the gurus and gormless among us, so you could use your breaks as a chance to pick up a new hobby in the thirty or so minutes you have before you have to get back to work.
Or tune into new online classes. We love the breadmaking course set up by Breadahead, at 2pm every day on Instagram Live. Check out the websites of your favourite theatres, publishers and galleries too. Lots of them are making content available for free to help us all stay entertained in this strange time.
If Unite members need advice on a COVID-19 related employment law query that is not covered by the information above and your workplace rep is not available, you can call Unite’s dedicated COVID-19 Legal Advice Line on 0333 202 6557.
If members need advice on a COVID-19 related benefits query, information is available from the DWP online here and Unite have set up a dedicated benefits advice line which members can access by calling 0333 202 6563
Unite has launched a helpline and volunteer care service for its vulnerable members during the coronavirus crisis.
All UK-based Unite members can call the helpline number 0330 1072351. The helpline is fully staffed between 08:00 until 19:00 Monday to Friday with an overflow service at other hours. A Unite volunteer will then be assigned to assist anyone who needs help with picking up shopping, posting mail, collecting urgent supplies, such as prescriptions, or simply talking to those who are experiencing loneliness.
Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK – “a group of volunteers supporting local community groups organising mutual aid throughout the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK. We focus on providing resources and connecting people to their nearest local groups, willing volunteers and those in need.” – https://covidmutualaid.org/
The MP and Staffers’ Guide to Mental Health has been updated and is full of useful information on how to support and signpost constituents with mental health needs. We highly recommend that you read this guide.
Here’s what’s in it:
An overview of mental health
How much help should you give?
How to help someone in distress
Handling difficult emails and phone calls
Signposting and local information
You can view it on the Rethink Mental Illness website here.
As an aside from those of us at W4MP who have been around for a bit: if you are new to the job you might just be thinking that you are the only one who has ever had to help constituents with mental health problems. Everyone who has ever worked for an MP, and particularly those based in constituency offices and dealing with casework, tends to be surprised how much of an issue this can be, particularly in your first few weeks. Hopefully this booklet will help you put things in perspective. Good luck!