Everyone knows that we’re facing unprecedented crises in public health and the global economy. But there is another crisis which has been with us for decades, and it isn’t going away. 1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from poor mental health each year, and this has only been deepened by the ‘invisible impact’ of lockdown, which has seen a collapse in mental health support networks and essential services, leaving thousands more vulnerable than ever before.
At the same time, hundreds of UK businesses are now recognising the importance of supporting the mental wellness of their workforce, as coronavirus brings this widespread issue back into the spotlight. But there is one sector which recognised the importance of this early. Social enterprises not only lead the way in staff mental wellbeing, but many have brought the fight against mental illness into the core of what they do.
During this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we should recognise the key work carried out by social enterprises (a sector which is facing the full economic threat of the COVID pandemic), and emphasise the fact that businesses which prioritise social impact over profit can naturally take the lead in this area.
One way in which social enterprises lead the way here is by offering recruitment and training to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, offering a level of support which is hard to find elsewhere. For instance, the London coffee outlet Change Please exclusively employs people facing homelessness, providing them with training and job opportunities whilst assisting them directly and indirectly with issues affecting their mental health (financial security, counselling services, housing, etc.). Similarly, RAW Workshop in Oxford provides training and employment for people who have suffered a range of hardships, including ex-offenders, refugees, and those with mental and physical disabilities. This offers a crucial support network to those at high risk of developing mental illness. In Warwickshire, Nuneaton Signs is an employee centred social enterprise, with the majority of their workforce being made up of people who have physical and mental disabilities. Again, their strong social focus allows them to accommodate the needs of their staff and provide a supportive and tailored work environment.
Other social enterprises have made improving mental health their direct social mission. Designs in Mind in Shropshire use the power of design and creativity to create a support network for sufferers of severe mental health issues. By connecting up with NHS services and utilising art therapy techniques to run tailored workshops, they have become a community hub which offers crucial support and treatment avenues beyond primary care.
Better Health Bakery in East London has a similar mission. They are a part of The Centre for Better Health (a Hackney-based mental health charity) and offer bakery training to those who have been marginalised from the workforce as a result of their poor mental health. Alongside this, they provide on-site counselling services, ensuring that mental wellbeing is built into the workplace.
This week, we rightly recognise mental health as one of the key challenges we face as a society, and in the face of these growing crises, it’s become clear that we need a new normal. Whether by jobs and training, or opportunities to come together and be part of a supportive community, social enterprises are helping people to improve their confidence, wellbeing and self-worth, whilst gaining access to essential support. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made many sufferers of mental ill-health more vulnerable, it might also provide an opportunity to restructure our society with them in mind. Social enterprises have shown that they can naturally adapt to this challenge, offering a model for a future which facilitates mental wellbeing and a heightened awareness around what it takes to get there.