Vicky Knight

Changing the conversation about mental health at work

We chat to mental health first aider Vicky Knight from UCU about tackling stress and trauma in the workplace.

Vicky you’re doing inspiring work on how we approach mental health at work.

Every workplace has to have a physical first aider, so why not a mental health first aider? I’m working with the TUC to encourage unions and employers to adopt this role. It’s important that we normalise mental ill health and break the stigma around it. If we do this, we can prevent people becoming stressed and unwell, rather than reacting when people have gone off sick. Sadly, mental health is often the forgotten element of a company’s policy and decision making structure, but it doesn’t have to be like this. It makes sense to be proactive rather than reactive.

What unions and industries are you working with?

We respond to the needs of any affiliate union. We’ve just finished a project with UNISON and the Environment Agency to recruit a whole army of mental health first aiders to support staff who are dealing with people in distress. We’re also working with the National Education Union and University and College Union to encourage schools, colleges and universities to adopt the mental health first aider role to support both adults and young people.

Is mental health an issue in the education sector where you work?

Yes, no workplace is immune. Lecturers and staff working in further and higher education are delivering more for less. For instance, they are now required to play a role in preventing terrorism as part of the government’s Prevent agenda. We’re being asked to make judgements about individuals in relation to their religion, race, the subjects they’re studying, what they’re reading in the library and their prayer patterns. Terrorism shouldn’t form part of a lecturer’s role so this is causing huge levels of stress.

On top of this, education cuts are driving people’s workloads up and staff numbers are falling. Cases of stress and depression are rocketing and we’re even seeing increased numbers of suicides.

Tell us about your work to support women with mental health issues.

As part of a union work group, I’m leading a work group focused on women and the pressures of working life and the impact this has on mental health. We’re looking at everything from periods, menopause and maternity, to violence, stress and sexual harassment as well as gender pay issues.