#HeartUnions Week: building better mental health

Unite Education leading the way supporting reps with mental health courses

Reading time: 6 min

As #HeartUnions Week continues this week (February 12-16), today we take a further look at how Unite Education is leading the way with its popular mental health awareness courses for reps.

In the story below, we hear from Luke Panesar, a rep who’s benefited from mental health courses, as well as Suz Muna, a Unite Education tutor.

If you’re a rep, check out this and other stories, as well as Unite Education’s prospectus detailing all courses and how you can book a place, in our special UniteExtra edition here.*

And don’t forget to check out our other UniteLive #HeartUnions stories this week here.

Unite recognises issues such as stress and mental health should not be ignored and aims to support reps by providing tools that will help them reduce and prevent stress and promote good mental health in colleagues at work, as well as educating and increasing awareness about mental health issues.

As part of this support Unite Education runs the extremely popular Mental Health Awareness courses for workplace reps and shop stewards across the country.

It has also produced a practical resource Mental Health Guide for reps and negotiators which highlights how trade union negotiation can help reduce stress.

Unite’s Mental Health Awareness (MHA) training has recently been held for reps in the South West – the region covering the Hinkley Point C (HPC) site. Courses have been both online, and in the classroom, at Tony Benn House in Bristol.

Many workplace and health & safety reps from HPC grabbed the opportunity to take part, including Luke Panesar – a Senior Unite Shop Steward and Safety Rep working for TG Tunnelling.

Luke explained why he signed up to the training. “I attended the Unite MHA courses to learn more about mental health, to help reduce stigma, and meet workplace requirements.

“In construction, stress and mental health challenges arise due to demanding work, job insecurity, safety concerns, stigma, isolation, and substance abuse. Addressing these challenges involves raising awareness, fostering a supportive culture, and providing mental health support. The Unite MHA courses help with this.”

Luke and his fellow reps have been using the information and resources from the course to develop ways to support members at the construction site and help them maintain good mental health.

Just some of the ideas they have been developing include running campaigns to raise awareness about mental health to reduce stigma. They also aim to signpost members to mental health support services and offer programs to teach stress management and coping skills.

Luke said they have also been using their negotiation skills as reps to push for flexible work options to balance work and personal life and offer support for members facing financial stress.

Luke said, “These ideas would make members feel supported, knowing that the union cares about their mental health and overall well-being.”

Suz Muna is one of the team of Unite Education tutors who have been delivering the MHA training to reps and is a Lecturer at City of Bristol College mainly teaching on the Unite programme. Suz is an elected rep at the College and one of the South West representatives on the Unite Executive Council.

Suz says that the course recruits a lot of reps from the building industry. “There are always reps from the construction sector on the MHA courses we run and they face a combination of challenges. Many work away from home and are away from their support networks of family and friends, and from the comforts of home.”

As construction workers all know, the work is physical and often outdoors in extreme weather with long hours, but long-term projects such as HPC have additional stresses, as Suz explained,

“Reps tell us that loneliness and isolation can be a big factor in declining mental health. Some seek solace in addictive behaviours such as gambling, drinking or drugs, which in turn has a negative impact on their self-esteem, physical, and mental health.

“The consequences can be extreme, for example there have been suicides on construction sites.”

Working with the Unite reps on courses is a good way to share good practise and ideas – and not just from the construction sector. Reps in the sessions have talked of a big focus on mental wellbeing.

Suz highlights some of the workplaces initiatives that have been discussed, such as reps: “…getting their companies to train up and publicise Mental Health First Aiders, creating gardens and quiet spaces to de-pressure, negotiating with management to support those who are being treated for mental health conditions rather than penalise them, training union mental health buddies, and helping members speak openly and without shame about mental health problems.”

Unite’s MHA course helps reps develop skills to support colleagues by sharing ideas, understanding the symptoms of mental ill health. As well as practical tools like mental health audits, mental health risk assessment, negotiating and campaigning skills.

Suz summed up saying that, “The mental health awareness courses are good add-ons for workplace, health and safety, and equalities reps as they overlap with all three roles and I’d strongly recommend coming along to the training.”

This is a view that Luke agrees with, saying: “The mental health awareness course was enjoyable as it helps people learn and connect with colleagues. The skills learnt help create a more supportive and caring workplace.”

He added, “A big thank you to the lecturers for their hard work in teaching us how to support each other in mental health matters. Your efforts make our workplaces better.”

By Keith Hatch

Unite runs Mental Health Awareness training in all its regions – to find out more go to the Unite Education website.

*Please note you must be an accredited Unite rep to sign up to the courses.