This is the first of a series of blogs we’re publishing with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England which look in more depth at mental health and the social enterprise sector

In the social sector, we are often compelled by social justice. It’s what inspires us, drives us to go that extra mile, and gives our work real purpose and value – often because we have experienced trauma or injustice ourselves.

Being aligned to the mission of your organisation can be a huge positive for your mental health and wellbeing. Over the course of the last year, the vital work that social enterprises across the country will have played in supporting communities through the pandemic will have been empowering and rewarding for many in the sector.

What we have found, however, is that going this extra mile over an extended period of time can affect our wellbeing negatively. In a Third Sector survey in December 2020 91% of respondents said that a commitment to their organisation’s mission led them to work longer hours or take on more work.

When I surveyed over 100 social enterprises across the country, the picture was much the same. 86% of respondents said that workload overwhelm and burnout was challenging for their mental health during the pandemic. 39% also said that a lack of time or capacity made it difficult for them to focus on wellbeing.

Combine this with the often-difficult issues we are working with, decreases in business or funding, increases in demand, having to work from home, and personal issues such as social isolation, and health anxieties for ourselves and loved ones – it’s no surprise that most of us have struggled at some point.

One of the key principles of the role of the Mental Health First Aider is that you cannot pour from an empty cup. You should always prioritise your own wellbeing before offering support to others and doing so should not be considered a selfish act. By protecting your own mental health, you are putting yourself in a better position to provide effective support in the future.

But for social enterprises with a mission to support their communities, particularly those working with vulnerable groups, it can be difficult to do in practice. The sense of duty, which will have been keenly felt by all of those on what we have broadly called the ‘front line’, leads too many of us to burnout.

Self-care can be a vital tool for people to help protect their mental health and prevent issues such as burnout from getting worse. Taking time just to pause and check in with your own wellbeing is a good start – our My Whole Self MOT has a host of tips and resources which can help you check in on your mental health, address your stress levels, and begin to work elements of self-care into your working day.

Many of us will have been working from home, for instance. Where it may have been tempting to fill our commuting time with more work, this could alternatively be used for exercise, meditation, or simply ensuring we get enough sleep. Having a regular lunchtime where we step away from our desk, and pack away our work ‘space’ at the end of the day can help us switch off, recharge and disconnect. Check out our guide on supporting your mental health while working from home for some more ideas.

Teams should also aspire to a culture where establishing and maintaining boundaries is shared and mutually encouraged. As flexible working is set to become the norm, a simple note in your email signature, which makes clear your own working hours, and that you do not expect your colleagues to reply outside of their own working hours, can make all the difference. Leaders should be role-modelling this behaviour from the top too.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation are encouraging us to #ConnectWithNature. Lots of us will have felt the benefit and been grateful for the green spaces we have around us in the last year. At MHFA England, rather than host a full team meeting, we will be spending an hour in the great outdoors, sharing the sights, sounds and smells we notice, as an act of communal self-care.

It’s important to also make clear that self-care alone is sometimes not enough. Employers themselves are responsible for supporting the wellbeing of their staff too – whether this is through providing occupational health services such an Employee Assistance Programme, or simply knowing to signpost their people to GPs, Samaritans, Shout 85258 and other mental health services when they need further support.

As a Mental Health First Aider and proud advocate of the incredible work that goes on in our sector, I urge you to take some time this week to do something to take care of yourself. Our dedication to supporting others is what makes us brilliant, but not if it is at the expense of supporting ourselves.

For more advice on self-care and how support employees with their mental health and wellbeing, visit: https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/resources/