Professional people walking on the way in building

Protecting wellbeing in the public sector and blue light services

By Katie Jacobs

Those who choose to work in the public sector are often driven by a strong sense of purpose and a desire to help others. But while having purpose and meaning is linked to wellbeing and positive emotions, those who spend their lives looking after others can sometimes neglect to show themselves the same care.

The 2018/19 Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index found that 75% of people working in the public sector had experienced poor mental health, compared with 66% of those employed in the private sector. And that was pre-pandemic, an intensely stressful time for those working in public services, and particularly in ‘blue light’ emergency services. Further research by Mind found that 69% of blue light workers felt their mental health had declined since the start of the pandemic, with 25% describing it as poor or very poor.

So, if you work in public service, how can you best support the wellbeing of those doing critical, front-line roles – and protect your own? While the context of emergency services and other similar roles may be highly specific, there are lessons we can draw on from the evidence-base that exists for wellbeing, to ensure those giving so much of themselves to others don’t burn out in the process…

  • Display human leadership

In high pressure environments, we need human leadership more than ever. Human leaders are those who focus on leading inclusively, role model integrity, are authentically themselves and understand the value of relationships and human connection.

When it comes to wellbeing, they are adept and transparent about setting boundaries and looking after themselves. They role model the importance of taking wellbeing seriously, and understand that doing so is necessary for sustainable performance. And human leaders make it ok to talk openly about wellbeing and in particular mental health. The Mind report on blue light services recommends that “senior leaders should make a clear and genuine commitment to prioritising mental health and wellbeing”. Human leaders already know that.

  • Focus on human connection

Our social connections and relationships are fundamental to our sense of wellbeing. In stressful circumstances, peer support and connection can be game-changing. Having friends and good relationships at work not only results in a range of positive emotions (including boosting wellbeing), it also positively impacts performance. A study by Gallup found that when 60% of people in a company have a ‘work best friend’, safety incidents decrease by 36% and customer engagement increases by 7%.

Leaders should allow space and time for building human connection, seeing social cohesion and creating a sense of community as a top priority rather than a ‘waste of time’. For example, encourage people to take five minutes at the beginning of meetings to share authentically about how they are really feeling, without judgement, rather than getting straight down to business.

  • Take a holistic approach to wellbeing

Wellbeing is about so much more than offering free fruit or yoga classes (although eating well and exercising are of course crucial). Any approach to wellbeing needs to be strategic, preventative and positive, and take a holistic view which encompasses psychological, physical and financial wellbeing.

According to Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, which Bailey & French use for all wellbeing work, there are five core elements of psychological wellbeing, These are positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments. Thinking about how to tap into all of these will help your people thrive and flourish at work and in their personal lives. In public service, meaning is often a given but consider how to celebrate successes and deeply engage people through focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses.

  • Lead with compassion

In the UK’s NHS, compassion is a core value, defined as “relationships based on empathy, respect and dignity”. While this initially describes expectations of patient care, it is also essential for how people work together and how leaders show up. Research in the NHS has shown that compassionate leadership results in more engaged and motivated staff with higher levels of wellbeing, which leads to high-quality care and improved financial performance.

Compassionate leadership is a major factor in building psychological safety, which is core to wellbeing, inclusion and a positive work experience. Compassionate leaders are ones who listen to their people, act with empathy and help people reach their potential. In stressful environments, it can be easy to snap and revert to hierarchical ‘command and control’ style leadership, but leading with compassion is what’s needed for sustainable results and people flourishing in the long term.

Find out how Bailey and French can support your people’s wellbeing