TJ interviews: City & Guilds Foundation’s Lauren Roberts

As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to a close in the UK, we talk to Lauren Roberts, Advocacy Lead at City & Guilds Foundation about mental health problems in young learners

As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week I am keen to get a sense of how serious mental health issues are among the young people City & Guilds support, whether the numbers are growing, and why might that be?

We work with schools, colleges, training providers, youth organisations and charities – many of which have expressed a concern that the young people they support are increasingly suffering with mental health issues. And the Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters worse – many young people have had to sit exams for the first time without actually having sat a formal assessment before, and without a support network. Groups of young people who were already disadvantaged have also been isolated further, including young carers and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

How does learning improve young people’s wellbeing and should we be tackling these issues earlier in the learning process – while at school perhaps?

Learning has been proven to help improve and maintain our wellbeing, not only because it can boost self-confidence and self-esteem, but it can also help build a sense of purpose. Being a part of learning and education programmes can help individuals to discover where their passions and interests lie, which in turn can help highlight relevant opportunities and careers. From the very moment young people finish their GCSEs, many struggle with stress and anxiety around deciding what they should do next. By opening up conversations and empowering young people with learning opportunities early on, this can help boost self-confidence and support their career decisions in the long run.

Young people who have had a negative experience of education often disengage from learning altogether and can miss out on the opportunities and benefits of lifelong learning. A focus on learning is important at any age, but it’s especially important to help establish a positive connection towards it for those at a young age to ensure they continue to look for learning opportunities that will support their wellbeing as they progress throughout their lives.

According to the Children’s Society, in the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50%. As more children and young people struggle to cope with their mental health, in part due to the rise of social media, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect their mental wellbeing, and better education is part of the answer. Teaching young people as part of their curriculums how to effectively manage their own mental health is incredibly important. From teaching them about resilience, to allowing them to understand the range of emotions it is normal to experience, as well as when to ask for help, it’s important to open up conversations from an early age.

How can employers help managers to feel comfortable talking to their colleagues about mental health problems? 

Mental health can be a difficult conversation to have in the workplace. Managers can feel they could be crossing personal boundaries with their colleagues by asking questions about their wellbeing. We often hear managers say, “I don’t want to pry” or “what if they bring up something that I’m not prepared to handle?”.

To ensure that managers feel comfortable talking to their colleagues, it’s important that all staff are trained in issues relating to mental health. Training should focus on growing awareness and building a positive culture of support, challenging stigma and helping managers understand how to better support their teams. And since mental health challenges are constantly evolving, training should be updated regularly to ensure that managers are briefed on how best to deal with new issues that arise. For example, the current cost of living crisis and the impact this can have on employees’ mental and financial wellbeing. As part of this, it’s also important to educate managers on what support your organisation actually offers, so they can communicate this to their teams. Being aware of the services available or the pathways to signpost if they feel out of their depth can help managers to feel more confident when lending support.

It’s also important to help managers learn what both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mental health looks like in your employees, so they know when to intervene. Different people present different signals when they are feeling stressed or anxious, and therefore it’s important to get familiar with individual symptoms, early warning signs and triggers.

What are the top three suggestions for tackling and reducing stress and mental health problems in young people entering the world of work?

Entering the world of work can be a particularly challenging time for young people. With lots to take in, pressures on presenteeism and a desire to perform, young workers can often feel stressed and burnt out in the first few months. As such it’s really important for managers and employers to help young people as they transition into their first role.

First and foremost it’s important to consult the individual to find out what support they would like, and if they have any concerns from the offset. Since every individual is different, it’s important to understand the specific needs of each employee, rather than to make assumptions. For example it’s useful to ask, what helps you unwind and de-stress? What signs do you first show when you’re struggling? What support would you like from us? By having open conversations from the offset, this sends a clear message that employee wellbeing matters to the organisation and ensures managers are well equipped to support each individual when a situation arises.

Secondly, since it’s easy to feel lonely and isolated when starting out in a new role, it’s hugely beneficial to set up a mentoring or buddy system for new joiners. Through this system, young people coming into the organisation at the start of their careers are matched with more senior members of staff. Not only does this help with career development but it also helps new joiners to learn how to manage workplace stress and build connections within the organisation that help them feel supported.

Finally, it’s important to create and encourage a space or community group that allows young people within the company to interact with like-minded individuals who are going through a similar process to them. It can be daunting to open up to senior members of staff when you first join a company, so by creating a space that allows people to discuss their thoughts and feelings and any concerns they have, this can help young people to feel less isolated.

Lauren Roberts plays an instrumental role in helping young people make more informed choices about their future through apprenticeships, internships and work experience, based on her own lived experience. She has been heavily involved in a lot of work on the City & Guilds Foundation focussed on mental health and is a strong advocate in supporting and encouraging young people to speak openly on this topic.

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