Learning from mistakes: reflective learning in social work

No one likes to talk about their own mistakes. They are an inevitable part of the human condition, highlight our flaws, inabilities and limitations and can place a spotlight on what happens when resources and people are stretched too thinly.

In certain professions, including frontline social work, mistakes – however innocent or unintentional – can have potentially life-changing effects for service users. Keeping them to a minimum is of paramount importance. And it’s important that if mistakes have been made that they are not only rectified but also analysed to consider what went wrong, and what can be done to avoid the same thing happening again. For social workers the stakes could not be much higher – people’s lives are in the balance. So how can social workers not only recognise, reduce and rectify mistakes, but also use them as learning opportunities to improve performance and decision making in the future?

Making the most of our mistakes

It is important that practitioners and their managers know which strategies are most effective for them and their team when it comes to extracting valuable insight from mistakes. This only comes from having a strong and secure working relationship, where people feel able to talk openly and reveal insecurities and inadequacies, as well as recognising the positives within their practice.

Working out the correct strategies for each occasion and for each team member will take time. However, some tools and strategies include:

  • learning how to generate effective questions to explore not only how a mistake happened, but why and what steps can be taken to prevent it from happening in the future
  • adopting a strengths-based approach, rather than a deficit-based approach to staff and any mistakes they made
  • reflective frameworks that can be formally incorporated into everyday practice
  • encouraging staff to find a “critical friend” to offer an external perspective and extend personal reflective capacity
  • encouraging staff to take up reflective writing (in everyday life, not just at work) including journals and diary entries
  • training staff on creative models of reflection and on how to give and receive constructive feedback
  • finding ways to feed back to an entire organisation regarding the lessons learned from mistakes and how they can shape practice in the future.

The reflective cycle

One of the traditional models of reflection for social workers is Gibbs’ cycle of reflection (1988).

Among social workers, reflective practice is often promoted. Personal experience and participation should be seen as a positive and an opportunity to develop new skills, learning or approaches. Reflection should be focused on professional errors, asking questions like “why”; “what went wrong”; and “what did I do wrong.”

Reflection can happen at three levels:

  • personal
  • one-to-one with another person (a supervisor, colleague or family member)
  • in groups (at organisational level)

It can be useful to reflect at all levels, where possible, in order to get the most out of the experience and have the biggest impact with regard to what can be learnt from mistakes and how this can be passed to others to avoid them making the same ones.

Taking and giving constructive feedback

Although it may be uncomfortable at the time, social workers and people from other professions should welcome feedback from colleagues and service users as they can be powerful sources to drive professional growth. However, it is important to distinguish constructive feedback from blame. Highlighting helpful advice and using it in a constructive way is not the same as finger pointing and fault picking, and managers must develop the ability to distinguish between the two.

Final thoughts

Mistakes happen, and although we don’t like to talk about them, they can sometimes provide some of the most useful insight for learning and improvement within an organisation. Beyond the organisational level, personal reflection on practice and taking time to consider how you approach certain situations is a vital aspect of the self-aware, continual improvement that social workers must strive towards, even if they don’t always meet the exacting standards all of the time.


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Zero suicide cities: learning from Detroit in the UK

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Yet people still experience stigma when seeking help for mental illness, despite high-profile discussions of mental health issues such as those by members of the royal family and sportspeople. And a report into the Government’s suicide prevention strategy in March 2017, suggested that although 95% of local authorities now have a suicide prevention plan, there is little or no information about the quality of those plans, or whether adequate funding is available to implement them.

The lack of progress made on improving suicide and general mental health provision has led to a growing frustration among professionals and resulted in attempts to create new approaches to tackle mental health issues, and in particular to improve access to support for people in crisis or at risk of suicide.

The idea of a “zero suicide city” was first adopted in Detroit in the late 2000’s, with others following its lead in subsequent years. With reports finding that around 14 Londoners a week took their own life in 2015 (735 in total), an increase of a third from the 2014 statistics, a report in February 2017 by the London Assembly Health Committee suggested that London too should take this approach.

So what can London, and other areas of the UK, learn from Detroit’s approach? And how can services act to reduce the number of people taking their own lives?

Zero-suicide cities

Poverty and high unemployment in Detroit are contributing factors to high levels of depression among city residents. As a result of these high rates of depression and very high suicide statistics, Detroit-based mental health professionals adopted a new approach to tackle the stigma around mental illness and use identifiers to highlight cases of crisis, or potential crisis. The focus is on preventative care, encouraging professionals to act upon signs of mental illness before a suicide or attempted suicide takes place.

Patients attending health clinics for other illnesses, including diabetes or heart failure, are also now screened for depression and other mental health issues before they are released. This allows people deemed to be ‘at risk’ to be identified as soon as they come into contact with medical professionals, who can then refer the patient to a mental health specialist if needed, rather than reacting to mental illness once it reaches crisis point.

In order to support this approach, a centralised IT system was created which means results are traceable, and surveys and information are standardised so they can be used and accessed across clinics throughout Detroit. Coordination with non-medical practitioners, including social workers, employers and family members, has also been key in identifying people at risk and signposting them to help at every possible opportunity. There has also been additional training for staff to improve recognition of identifying factors. Patients can email their clinicians or liaising staff directly and attend regular drop-in appointments. Up to 12,000 patients using mental health facilities are tracked each year in the city and some statistics suggest that the clinics reduced suicides by over 80%.

There have been some criticisms of the system however, despite the reduction in the number of suicides in the city. Critics highlight the fact that many of the poorest and most severely in need of help are not reached as they do not have health insurance and so do not attend those clinics involved in the scheme.

Ultimately, however, the scheme seeks to provide better preventative, coordinated and targeted care to those who are at risk or show some signs of mental health crisis. And some in the UK have suggested there are lessons that could be learned from this approach.

Whole system approach to suicide prevention in the East of England

Four local areas in the East of England (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Essex and Hertfordshire) were selected in 2013 as pathfinder sites to develop new approaches to suicide prevention based in part on the Detroit model.

Since then, Mersey Care, Cambridge and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group and Teesside councils have also become aligned with the programme and are continuing with their approach towards improved suicide prevention. The Centre for Mental Health evaluated the work of some of the sites during 2015.

The evaluation found there were a range of activities that had taken suicide prevention activities out into local communities. They included:

  • training key public service staff such as GPs, police officers, teachers and housing officers
  • training others who may encounter someone at risk of taking their own life, such as pub landlords, coroners, private security staff, faith groups and gym workers
  • creating ‘community champions’ to put local people in control of activities relating to promoting positive mental health and signposting to help services
  • putting in place practical suicide prevention measures in ‘hot spots’ such as bridges and railways
  • working with local newspapers, radio and social media to raise awareness in the wider community
  • supporting safety planning for people at risk of suicide, involving families and carers throughout the process
  • linking with local crisis services to ensure people get speedy access to evidence-based treatments.

However, subsequent research also highlighted some of the challenges. The marketing of the pilots was seen to be damaging and misleading with regards to creating “zero suicide areas”, rather than suicide prevention areas. It has also been suggested that although the campaigns serve to raise publicity and awareness, there is little evidence that the schemes actually reduce the number of suicides in an area any more than “traditional campaigns” to better signpost people to available support.

In addition, many of the projects struggled past the initial implementation stage to have long-term impact, as the buy-in from local GPs and other service professionals was not as high as was expected.

Final thoughts

Widening and improving access to support and services for people at risk of mental ill health or suicide is a big challenge for health and social care professionals. Identifying those people at risk is one of the key barriers and taking inspiration from schemes like those trialled in Detroit is one way for professionals in the UK to adapt their approaches in order to overcome these barriers.

Providing more opportunities for people to get help, and better training for professionals who may come into contact with people with mental illness are some of the ways that current schemes are trying to address mental health and suicide in particular.

However, as many of the evaluative studies from test sites in the UK have found, going beyond that to take mental health into the community, in order to create whole system pathways of care across multiple settings and professions, remains a challenge.

As the London Assembly report pointed out, another key aspect is creating an open environment for people to talk about how they are feeling. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week 2017 and the theme is ‘surviving to thriving’ – and emphasising that good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem. Whether in the workplace or in the home; with friends, family or colleagues; it’s important that everyone feels that they have a space where they can talk, and to cultivate resilience and good mental health.


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“Business is an act of citizenship”: using BIDs to promote inclusive economic growth in communities

The key to inclusive place based economic growth?

The principle of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) is pretty straightforward, and the legislation in Scotland is flexible enough to ensure that pretty much anyone can create and act on a BID-based idea. There are currently over 30 live BID projects in Scotland, with BIDs Scotland stating in their latest annual report that they believe this number could almost double to 65 by the end of 2017 if upcoming and scheduled BIDs are also taken into account. The report found that, despite continuing tough economic conditions, there appears to be little evidence of a decline in interest in the BID model. If anything, more people are turning to BIDs as a way of improving local high streets using limited local funds, private investment from local businesses, and other local assets.

BIDs themselves can be seen as a cross section – a mix of the entire economic ecosystem of a place. They can encompass economic, business, local, political and social elements and bring them together in a strategic way to build revenue to support the different aspects of the BID area, including aesthetics, security and commerce. They are locally developed, locally managed, locally financed and locally delivered, giving a sense of authenticity which is becoming increasingly popular among consumers. This popularity is evidenced by the successful renewal of all of the BIDs in Scotland who have gone to reballot to date, with many actually increasing their majority in favour of the BID model.

Collaboration and embedding BIDS within their local communities

As BIDs have been developed, and new models, partnerships and ways of co- operating have been established, BID coordinators and councils in particular are thinking about how to ensure the legacy of the BID within their locality and, more importantly, how to ensure that the economic benefits of the BID are felt across the BID area, not just within the businesses.

This area-wide benefit can be created by for example, re-investing money in security, street lighting, Christmas lights, and flower baskets to improve the feel and aesthetics of a place – actions which are commonplace in BID areas. However, there are some who feel that BIDs could and should go even further in increasing their social value within a community, while not losing sight of the interests of levy payers. This balance, which requires recognition of the wider roles and responsibilities of BIDs, is something which will have to be carefully managed by BID managers in order to ensure that BIDs do not try to do too much, but at the same time act in a way which makes them a key part of their local community and economy. It is an interesting and, at times, difficult place for progressive BIDs to be.

In many areas, BIDs have provided an opportunity for increased community development, and it has been suggested that there could be a formal role for BIDs to play in the wider community development partnerships within localities. BIDs are now being developed to sit alongside existing community anchor bodies, helping to create strong local partnerships and independent communities.

Through collaboration and co-ordination, BIDs are working alongside other services and organisations to help develop sustained community empowerment, helping communities to lobby, providing work experience placements to local young people and acting positively in the form of events to promote increased community cohesion and empowerment, as well as continuing with “normal practice”- increasing footfall in their local area to benefit businesses.

Not all about the money

While generating additional income for the local economy is one of the biggest drivers of support for BIDs in communities, in some instances one of the biggest assets they bring to a community (especially once they are firmly established) is their leverage and collective bargaining power. They have the power to campaign and support other groups in the community on issues that are important to them, as well as offering greater bargaining power with local authorities or other businesses.

As well as commitment to the levy payers’ interest and to improving the local area for people living nearby, another of the potential roles of BIDs is not to act as direct income generators, but as catalysts or facilitators, to encourage new investment and wider growth beyond the BID area – to engage strategically with other partners to encourage investment.

 

Where next for BIDs

As we have already seen, the flexibility of the BID model in Scotland (there are some legislative differences in England) is such that groups may only be limited by their own ambition. Currently Scotland has what is thought to be the world first food and drinks BID and the first tourism BID this side of the Atlantic. Another innovation is the Borders Railway BID, which seeks to maximise the collective benefit to businesses that are located along the railway route.

It has been suggested that the BID model could be used in a more flexible way to generate income for other public service projects, including the suggestion of a BID for health and a BID for schools. Although the intricacies of how these would work in practice are still being considered, there is much that can be taken from how the existing models use community empowerment, and engagement between the public, third and private sectors to create sustainable and inclusive local economic growth in an area.

As well as their commercial enterprising side, BIDs are also realising their potential as agents of community development and improvement beyond that of economic input. The future currently looks bright for BIDs, which will hopefully mean that it also looks brighter for our local communities.


Business Improvement Districts Scotland is the national organisation for BIDs in Scotland, providing support, advice and encouragement to business groups, communities and local authorities considering and developing a business improvement district.

BIDs Scotland held its Annual Gathering on 28th March 2017 at Perth Concert Hall  with the theme of People – Place – Business: Business Improvement Districts – the key to economic growth.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in our other article on BIDs.

Information Service members can also access a research briefing on BIDs here (login required).

World Social Work Day: promoting community and environmental sustainability

Tomorrow is World Social Work Day (WSWD), and this year the focus is on community sustainability. The theme is inspired by the third pillar of the Global Agenda for Social Work, which was created in 2010 to integrate the aims and aspirations of social workers across the world. It stresses the important role of social workers in prompting sustainable communities and environmentally sensitive development.

This includes:

  • working closely with other partner agencies – including those beyond social work – to create communities of practice, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability;
  • promoting community capacity building, through environmentally friendly and sustainable projects, where possible; and
  • responding to environmental challenges, including helping communities to be resilient to and recover from environmental and natural disasters, as well as in relation to “human disasters” which includes refugee families fleeing persecution or war.

But how does this play out in everyday practice?

Supporting integration

Across the world, social workers are being asked to address ‘human disasters’ as they seek to support and integrate refugee families fleeing persecution and war in conflict zones. Some of the biggest challenges for social workers today relate to refugee and displaced communities. As well as dealing with the effects of trauma, they also help integrate refugees successfully into existing communities and build bridges with others to promote cohesion, reduce tensions and help them make positive contributions to society. Social workers also have a responsibility to encourage all members of the community to help with this support and integration process.

However, in a UK context, supporting people to make positive contributions to their community is not limited to refugee families. It also relates to intergenerational work, valuing the experience of older people, developing the skills of vulnerable adults, or encouraging children to feel connected to a place and community so that they might better take care of it as they grow up.

Supporting sustainability

The role of social workers in supporting the sustainability agenda may not be so obvious. The ability of social workers to adapt and respond to the needs of communities which are experiencing environmental sustainability issues is of growing importance in developing countries. However, social workers in the UK can still contribute to this element of the global social work agenda.

This includes behaving in a way that recognises the need to protect and enhance the natural environment. In practice, this may mean social work departments having policies on going paperless where possible, recycling in offices, and reducing the use of cars, or car sharing (for frontline social workers, however, this is often impractical).

Social work practice can also consider how it supports sustainable social development outcomes within a community, and maintaining personal CPD, education and training levels to reflect this. There should also, as always, be an attempt to share best practice and learn from others.

Final thoughts

This World Social Work Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the positive contributions that social work professionals are making to their communities as well as to the lives of individuals. It’s also a chance to consider what the future might hold for the profession and how it can continue to promote and support the growth and development of sustainable communities.


If you would like to follow the events going on to mark World Social Work Day or, share any of your own stories you can do so on twitter using the hashtag #WSWD17.

We regularly write on social work topics. Check out some of our previous articles:

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#BeBoldForChange and the changing world of work: International Women’s day 2017

As women across the world mark the 106th International Women’s Day (IWD17) they are being encouraged to think about their place in the “changing world of work.” Perhaps by coincidence, only a few days earlier toy giant Lego announced plans for it’s latest toy set based on “real life female scientists, engineers and astronauts”. The design was the winner of the latest “Lego ideas” competition and will feature prominent female scientists including Katherine Johnson, a mathematician and space scientist who worked with NASA and was recently featured in the Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures.

Despite attempts to raise the profiles of successful and prominent women in employment, research consistently highlights the persistence of the gender pay gap, albeit more prominent in some professions than others. The “motherhood penalty” still stagnates, or even cripples the careers of many women, and women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Figures show that globally, women’s education, health and violence towards women is still worse than that of men, and that these factors affect their ability to participate fully in employment.

The scale of gender inequalities

A report published by the charity Engender ahead of IWD17 found that of the 3029 top leadership positions across business, politics, public sector, media, culture and sport in Scotland, only 27% of positions are held by women. The report found that, although women make up 52% of the population, they represent only:

  • 35% of Members of the Scottish Parliament
  • 7% of senior police officers
  • 20% of museum and gallery directors
  • 25% of local councillors
  • 16% of local authority leaders
  • 28% of public body chief executives
  • 26% of university principals

Previous research by Engender also found that women still do the majority of “invisible” work including housework, raising children and caring for vulnerable relatives. According to the 2011 census data, 62% of unpaid carers are women and the UK household satellite accounts found that the value of informal childcare in 2010 was £343 billion – equivalent to 23% of GDP. A report published by the Fawcett Society highlighted that inequalities also exists between women. The report found that the gender pay gap was even more exaggerated in black and ethnic minority (BAME) women than in other groups.

Women in Employment

The most recent employment figures for the UK showed that unemployment stood at 4.8%, the lowest level since 2005, and the proportion of women in work reached a record high of 70%. The latest PwC Women in Work Index measures levels of female economic empowerment across 33 OECD countries, based on five indicators. It reported that the UK had rapidly improved since 2000. However it also said that at the current rate of progress it will still take until 2041 to close the gender pay gap in the UK.

In short the picture is improving, but what exactly is being done to help women enter and remain in employment?

Supporting women into work

Supporting women into work was highlighted as a key policy objective for both the coalition and Conservative governments. A number of strategies have been considered to help different groups of women into employment:

  • Supporting women from disadvantaged backgrounds into employment – this includes women who have little to no formal education, victims of domestic violence, disabled women, and female offenders.
  • Supporting young women into traditionally “non female” roles – this includes encouraging young women and girls to take subjects at school and continue these onto university. It also means making apprenticeships open and inclusive, and marketable to everyone.
  • Supporting women to start up their own businesses – recent research highlighted that the annual revenue of women-led companies in the UK is growing at 28 per cent with an average turnover of £3.7 million. Potential support includes making women aware of specific funding they are entitled to, and helping them with the initial start up process. We’ve blogged before about female entrepreneurs if you want to know more.
  • Incentives and increased flexibility for women with children – For many women, the cost of childcare for young children means that working does not make financial sense for them. Employers have been taking steps to make working hours and conditions more flexible, some even providing crèche facilities or credits for childcare to staff to ease the pressure of childcare on working families. Changes to maternity and paternity leave also allow fathers to take a greater caring responsibility for new babies, and can help make the transition back to work easier for some families.
  • Supporting older women – this group has been identified as having been somewhat neglected by back-to- or entry-to-work schemes. Age related conditions, increasing caring responsibilities for elderly parents or grandchildren, and decisions to retrain or change careers can all impact significantly on the professional careers of older women.
  • Supporting women to progress – Women typically still make up the majority of the low-skilled, low pay work force, with many working part time in order to meet childcare needs. However, research has shown that this impacts significant on their ability to progress. While progression is an issue across the board for women in employment, it is particularly noticeable for this group. Research from NPI showed that there were around 5.1 million low paid employees in 2015. 62%, or 3.2 million of them were women and options for progression were significantly lower than for men, which keeps many women in a cycle of low-skilled, low paid, often insecure work.

Supporting women back to work

Many women take career breaks during their professional lives, most commonly to start or look after family. However, when they decide to return they face a number of barriers. These barriers mean that many returners end up in lower skilled jobs, either because their old job does not accommodate new flexible working needs or because extended time away from work is associated with a loss of skill. The UK government have launched a number of strategies and consultations aimed at encouraging and supporting women back to work after a career break. Individual organisations have also developed their own schemes, including the Back to Business scheme developed by PwC and Relaunch your career from MasterCard.

Many schemes include coaching and mentoring, phased returns to work, flexible working options and job shares, where appropriate. Increasingly, organisations now offer childcare options. Employers are also now allowing more staff to work from home, with the increased use of videoconferencing and online document sharing.

Earlier this week, Vodafone announced that it is launching the one of the world’s largest supported return to work programmes, ReConnect to recruit women who have taken a career break, as well as committing to increasing the proportion of women in management and leadership roles.

Final thoughts

Fully unlocking women’s economic empowerment – one of the cornerstones of true gender equality – is reliant upon unlocking the full potential of women in the workplace. As people across the world celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women, as well as a growing awareness of their collective power to agitate for change, International Women’s Day also provides the opportunity to reflect on the position of women within society, and the steps that can be taken to improve this in the future.

#BeBoldForChange is the official hashtag for this years #IWD17 celebrations. You can submit your #BeBoldForChange action via the IWD website.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other articles on women in employment and women in technology.

Eating or heating: tackling fuel poverty in the UK

nastural gas flame

It is a complete scandal that people die because they can’t afford to heat their homes. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the tragic circumstances and daily dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ faced by many thousands of people in Britain today.”

Those were the words of I, Daniel Blake lead actor Dave Johns as he backed a report published in November 2016 by the charity National Energy Action. The report, which looked at the health problems related to fuel poverty, claimed that a child born today may never see fuel poverty eradicated from the UK unless more assistance is given struggling families.

Identifying the “fuel poor”

In England, according to the most recent official government statistics, more than 2.3 million (10%) households are living in fuel poverty. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cornwall are among the places worst affected. At risk groups include single parent households with dependent children, rural households, and those living in the private rented sector. Research also highlights that those customers who use prepay meters, which include a large proportion of the most vulnerable customers, are more likely to be “fuel poor” as they do not have the flexible tariff options and reduced rate deals which are offered to customers who pay via direct debit.

The picture is not much better elsewhere in the UK. A report produced by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group estimated that there are currently over 800,000 households (35%) living in fuel poverty, with levels as high as 50% in rural areas. Meanwhile, in Wales the latest estimates suggest that 23% of households are currently living in fuel poverty.

heater gauge

Tackling the causes of fuel poverty

Not being able to afford to heat your home, or having to choose between eating or heating is the stark choice many families in the UK are being forced to make, however it is clear that fuel poverty stems from a number of different factors, including the cost of fuel, the price of energy, and rising energy consumption habits.

The latest Scottish Government strategy on tackling fuel poverty suggests that four drivers of fuel poverty need to be tackled before fuel poverty can be eradicated. These are:

  • Raising incomes  8 out of 10 households (in Scotland) in income poverty are also fuel poor.
  • Making energy costs affordable  in many cases the cost of fuel is rising faster than household incomes.
  • Improving energy performance in housing  people living in a home with low energy performance are 3.5 times as likely to be suffering from fuel poverty as those in a home with high energy performance.
  • Changing habits of energy use  adopting energy-saving behaviours can make a significant difference to fuel bills by reducing overall demand. There is also a need to better understand and increase use of “green energy”.

But what about energy suppliers?

In December 2016, a report from Turn2Us suggested  that two million households suffer from fuel poverty. Subsequently, the “big six” energy suppliers met at Westminster to discuss what they could do to help tackle fuel poverty. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for energy companies to take action to reduce fuel poverty. However, they are coming under increasing pressure to help tackle fuel poverty, by reflecting some of their profit margins in the rates they give to customers. The idea of automatically putting vulnerable or “at risk” customers onto the lowest fuel tariff was discussed. However the bulk of the discussion, according to reports, concentrated on how to increase awareness of existing options, including the government-led Warm Home Discount, individual support grants, the Cold Weather Payment, and practical support from suppliers themselves.warm fire

Practical strategies to tackle fuel poverty

A number of schemes have been developed to try to help tackle fuel poverty, with national roll outs being supplemented by more localised programmes often funded by local authorities or charities.

In November 2016 the Scottish Government pledged an extra £10m to be spent on tackling fuel poverty. £9m was allocated for councils and housing associations to make it easier for tenants to heat their homes. A further £1m is to be made available to provide interest free loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

Other schemes have also been introduced by local authorities to try and tackle fuel poverty, including Ready to Switch? Launched in November 2012, Peterborough City Council’s collective switching scheme uses the combined buying power of residents and businesses within the community to negotiate cheaper prices with energy companies. According to figures from Peterborough Council, to date, hundreds of households have switched to save on gas and electricity, with some reducing annual bills by nearly £150.

Boilers on prescription (BoP) is a new funding stream which is being tested in a number of local authority areas, including Sunderland. The fund is managed through NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and householders at risk of cold related illnesses are referred for heating upgrades via health professionals. One of the main ideas behind BoP is to reduce a resident’s need for NHS interventions by improving their thermal comfort at home. It is hoped that a warmer, healthier home could reduce the number of GP appointments or emergency admissions.

Energie

 

Altering the design of new homes and subsidising the retrofitting of older ones is also a key policy strategy for tackling fuel poverty. Providing homes which are designed or adapted to be energy efficient through improved insulation, the installation of solar panels or using appropriate lighting or heating systems will allow the government not only to reduce fuel poverty in the present, but should also reduce the likelihood of more people falling into fuel poverty in the future. Reducing the demand for energy by creating homes which use less of it may also help to drive down the cost of energy, resulting in even bigger savings. However, it is not just the responsibility of individual homeowners to carry out these improvements. Local authorities, housing associations and private landlords also need to (and have in many instances) recognise the vital role they play, particularly in relation to more vulnerable customers who are at increased risk of falling into fuel poverty. Retrofitting has been increasingly popular in other parts of Europe, as these case study examples show.

The issue of fuel poverty in the UK does not appear to be going anywhere fast. Despite the attempts of governments across the UK to reduce the figure, in many areas the number of people falling into fuel poverty continues to rise. While there are individual areas of good practice aiming to help some of the UK’s most vulnerable families to heat their homes, it is clear that a wider commitment to combat the underlying causes of fuel poverty is needed, along with a recognition that there is a responsibility across the board to provide help and information to families suffering as a result of fuel poverty.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our blog on the Dutch Energiesprong model and our research briefing on retrofitting (member access only).

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Talking to children about poverty: why education needs to get in on the act

boy with bear

1 in 5 children in poverty

Scotland has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. The latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that 1 in 5 children in Scotland live in poverty, with the figure rising to 1 in 3 in the urban centre of Glasgow. With more and more families falling into relative poverty and the numbers of working poor rising, the newly branded “JAMs” (just about managing) are, in some cases not managing, having to decide between heating their house or feeding their families.

People are affected by poverty in many different ways. For adults it can lower self-esteem, increase levels of stress, and can have consequences for mental and physical health. However, it’s sometimes forgotten that many children can feel these same effects from growing up in a family living in poverty.

In the same way as adults, many children suffer from low self-esteem and feel the invisible burden of the stigma that the label of “poverty” places on them. In addition, children affected by poverty:

  • are more likely to be victims of bullying;
  • tend to have lower attainment at school;
  • have fewer social networks or groups of friends;
  • suffer from poorer physical and mental health;
  • have less chance of leaving school with a full set of qualifications and going on to further or higher education (despite the best efforts of various governments to change this); and
  • are more likely than “affluent children” to spend their adulthood in poverty too.

How children understand poverty

Many children have an understanding of poverty as meaning “poor” or lacking in money. Concepts such as heating a home, building personal debt or not being able to afford to travel to work are not things they yet associate as being part of the cost of living, despite many of them seeing their own parents face these struggles on a weekly basis.

They associate poverty with foreign, particularly third world nations, as well as with homelessness, loneliness, a lack of familial support and a reliance on donations. Many children, even from the poorest backgrounds do not recognise themselves as being in poverty. This is something highlighted in research conducted by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII), which looked at child perceptions of poverty, and expressing these through alternate methods such as art.

In the study, children from schools in less affluent areas of Glasgow and Aberdeen were surveyed and many regarded notions of poverty as a distant, “third world” concept. However, when they were engaged in more creative methods, such as drama, or art, expressions of their experiences of poverty became more acute.

School children raising hands. View from behind.

Engaging education professionals in the poverty discourse

In Scotland, the overarching framework of Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is designed to bring services and professionals with whom children come into contact closer together to create a complete model of care for a child. It is interesting that in the latest commitment to tackling child poverty in Scotland there is no commitment to including teachers or education in general, in the same way as health professionals or social workers.

We know that poverty can have an adverse impact on wellbeing and on learning, and that children who live in poverty are more likely to be absent from school. However, education professionals are largely excluded from the discussions which child welfare officers, social workers, doctors and third sector colleagues are already having around the health and wellbeing of children who are living in poverty.

In a practical sense schools do, to a degree, already engage in reducing the impact of child poverty by providing financial and practical help. This could include subsidies for school meals or trips, the donation of free uniforms, breakfast clubs and tutoring after school classes. There have even been cases of individual teachers giving children clean clothes, meals or allowing them to sleep in the staff room at break and lunchtimes to allow them to catch up on sleep lost because of a disruptive lifestyle at home. However, talking about poverty with children is often neglected. This is something that academics are keen to see schools do more of – use their position to engage children in talking about poverty in order to help identify children at risk, but also to help raise the issue with other children who may not have experienced it or know what it is.

Using creative methods in schools to talk about poverty

Many academics argue that statistics on attainment can be misleading – while poverty has a significant impact, it does not correlate directly to cognitive ability. As one researcher at a seminar suggested, “just because you were born poor does not mean you were born without the ability to learn”. While there is evidence to suggest the slower development of children who live in poverty is acute in the early years, there is also evidence that the attainment gap is closing – what children in poverty miss out on is opportunity, variation and experience, and a chance to develop, rather than having lower overall cognitive function. This is one of the reasons, academics argue, it is so vital to engage teachers in wider discussions on child poverty.

For example, the vocabulary of children in poverty is often smaller in range than that of their more affluent peers. But, rather than this being the result of reduced cognitive function, researchers have found that this is primarily because they have not had the need to learn new words. Unlike children from more affluent backgrounds, they tend to remain within their community unit, using more colloquial language and a more limited number of words; they also often have less access to books or exposure to cultural experiences. That is not to say that they could not learn or have learnt all of the words that a child from a more affluent area knows; it’s just that they have not had the need or the opportunity to learn them yet. With this in mind, alternative methods of communication such as art, dance and storytelling could prove useful in explaining poverty to children, and helping them to discuss their experiences and understanding of what it means to be in poverty.

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Using creative ways of communicating and engaging with children has already been found useful in helping them to talk about other issues personal to them, such as trauma or abuse. Researchers from the Scottish University Insight Institute-funded research team employed similar methods, using art, drama and play to help children express their feelings on poverty, and how it could be tackled in their communities. Children acted out scenarios, wrote poems, and created a number of pieces of tactile artwork, including sculptures and drawings. It was thought that these same methods could be used by teachers as a way to allow children to communicate their feelings about poverty and express issues relating to their own personal experiences without feeling stigmatised or singled out by other members of the class.

It is clear that the education profession has an important role, not only in helping to alleviate the effects of poverty on children through schemes like breakfast clubs, but also in a teaching and learning role. Many teachers and schools are averse to raise issues of money or poverty with children for fear of placing unnecessary distress onto children. However, sensitive and context-aware teaching on the issues around poverty should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden to teachers.

Effective discussion could go a long way to helping children to open up about experiences of poverty and also help them to be more understanding of other children who are living in poverty, reducing stigma and encouraging positive action within their local communities.


This blog reflects on research from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute and seminar participation at the Centre for Child Well-being and Protection at the University of Stirling.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other article on arts based practice with children.

Community planning in the devolved UK

Community planning is all about how public bodies and other partners work with local communities to design and deliver services that suitably reflect the needs and priorities or a local area. Effective community planning incorporates strong partnership working and a shared vision which has been created especially to fit a set of local circumstances.

Providing effective and efficient services, promoting community engagement and enterprise and engaging the third sector are all things that could now be considered part of “community planning”. It is founded on the idea that communities know best; they know what they need, they know how it can be delivered and how they will use services in the most effective way to get the most value from them. With an increase in political devolution we have seen different approaches to delivering community planning emerge in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some nations embraced it from a very early stage, others less so. However, it has become an increasingly popular model over recent years, with all four administrations now using some form of community planning model.

England

In England, the focus has largely been on housing and land use and the relationship between community plans (which consider services and public engagement) and local development plans (which focus more on the physical aspects of planning in the community, such as land use). Neighbourhood plans give communities the opportunity to develop a shared vision for and shape the development and growth of their local area. Neighbourhood plans are not a legal requirement, but a right which communities can evoke if they wish to. They are designed to fit alongside local authority produced “local plans” and provide an opportunity for communities to set out a long term vision for their area in terms of development, and “may encourage them to consider ways to improve their neighbourhood other than through the development and use of land.”

Scotland

The introduction of the 2015 Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act is a clear indication of the stance of the Scottish Government with regards to community planning. As well as statutory rights being strengthened with regards to consultation and community consultation, the legislation also places statutory requirements on public bodies with regards to supporting local community based service delivery, and actively engaging local people in decision making processes. As a result of the legislation 32 Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) now exist in Scotland and they are responsible for developing and delivering community plans. These can take two forms:

  • a larger plan, which takes account of the whole CPP area (Local Outcomes Improvement Plan)
  • a smaller plan, which focuses on a smaller geographic area which has been identified as being in need of improvement (locality plan)

There is no limit to the number of plans CPP’s can create in a year, but the views of local communities are particularly important in creating these as that is the way to best reflect local needs and priorities.

In Scotland a consultation is also currently underway to consider ways to align community and spatial planning more closely, as it was recognised that planning for services should also be mapped along with physical development.

Wales

In a Welsh context the use of community planning focuses on resource allocation and the direction of resource to where it is needed. Promoting community cohesion and well-being through community planning is also something which can be seen in both Wales and Scotland. Increasingly, plans have attempted to incorporate a “place-centred”, “service focused”, “partnership led” approach, with the emphasis on individual need. It is hoped that by bringing service providers and other partners back in touch with the people who use their services that their views can be taken on in future planning projects. As in all community planning projects, partnerships are key; however in Wales one of the biggest challenges has been forming these partnerships and getting buy-in from local businesses. A similar challenge has also been seen with national level bodies.

This challenge of engaging national bodies in community planning has also been seen in Scotland. National bodies are expected to engage with rural and urban CPP’s in ways which reflect individual community need, something they had not been used to doing previously. As a result, promoting flexibility and adaptability and encouraging participation from a range of stakeholders in order to support the creation and delivery of community plans has been high on the agenda across the UK.

Northern Ireland

The situation in Northern Ireland is, to a large extent, still evolving. Executives at Stormont, as well as planners and developers, see engaging local people as important but they are also trying to find a model which works best for a Northern Irish context. Potential options for integrating community based models have included adopting models from England or Scotland respectively; creating their own model which takes elements from a number of different models; or making attempts to align the Northern Irish model closer to that of the Republic of Ireland.

Currently the legislative basis for community planning in Northern Ireland is set out in the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. The Act makes a statutory link between community plans and local land use development plans, and makes the link between community planning for a district and well-being more explicit.

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Engaging difficult to reach communities in community planning

The views of local communities are particularly important when creating community plans, as their fundamental principle is to reflect service and resource need more effectively in order to benefit communities. As a result community planners across the UK face the unilateral challenge of getting people to engage. Different groups within a community may have different capacity and ability to engage. ‘Hard to reach’ groups are particularly important to the consultation process as it is often they who make the most use of services or have the greatest need for specific service provision. People in this group may include young people, older people, ethnic minorities or other socially excluded groups, and small businesses. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘seldom heard’ groups.

Methods to improve communication and consultation with hard to reach groups vary, but some potential barriers and solutions to engagement include:

  • Jargon and technical language – Policy and planning documents can be very long, and very dense, with lots of planning specific technical jargon, create an easy access version so that everyone can be engaged in discussions and not feel intimidated by “high level” documents.
  • Digital illiteracy – Increasingly consultation documents, some forums and copies of the plans themselves are held online, and improving access to these would help to encourage more people to participate.
  • Awareness and accessibility – Promoting consultations or community planning events, and holding them at a variety of times and in a variety of settings to allow people from different groups to attend. In addition providing them in multiple languages, using language that is more accessible for young people, or in a larger type size may also help to encourage people to participate.
  • Showing impact – Create follow up documents so that people can see how their input has made a difference. Even if the plan won’t be implemented for a number of months, let people know how what they said influenced or changed the decisions that were made.

It is clear that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are at different stages in their community planning journey. However, they have all, in one way or another recognised the importance of engaging communities to identify needs and attempt to allocate resources accordingly. In many instances, these community agendas have not just been linked to spatial, or even service planning, but also to wider issues around inequality and well-being and how resources and planning across all areas can best be directed to tackle this. It may be that we see this reflected further in future legislation.


This blog reflects on a recent paper by Deborah Peel and Simon Pemberton “Exploring New Models of Community based Planning in the Devolved UK” a study funded by the Planning Exchange Foundation.

Idox Information Service members can access our research briefing on engaging communities in planning.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Moving into the 21st century … the challenges and opportunities of digital culture

art gallery, kelvingrove glasgowBack in December, I attended the International Symposium on Evaluating Digital Cultural Resources at the newly refurbished Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

The day provided an opportunity for researchers and professionals with an interest in culture and heritage in Scotland to come together to consider how digital technologies are transforming the sector. Key questions addressed included what digital culture means in practice, and how to demonstrate the benefits for both professionals and the public who experience culture and heritage in galleries, libraries, museums and other cultural spaces.

Whose ‘culture’ is it anyway?

A number of the studies presented during the day argued that making a collection ‘digital’ does not necessarily make it accessible. In some instances “preserving” collections by digitising them can actually make sources less accessible to members of the general public than if they had been kept in “hard copy” – raising the question of who exactly the material is being preserved for.

Is it for the benefit of researchers and archivists of the future? Or is the aim to present heritage and culture in a new way, preserving it, but in a way which makes it more engaging to the general public?

Questions were raised about public access, digital copyright, online availability, online cataloguing and digital databases – sometimes collections can remain as hidden as they had been before they were digitised, due to paywalls or complicated and over-elaborate online archives.

And it was clear throughout the day that delegates and speakers were wrestling with the notion of “ownership of digital cultural resources”. One example highlighted was that of Scotland’s Sounds, an audio archive of recordings which is held in the National Library of Scotland. These are resources captured in communities, donated by people and groups who want their local heritage to be preserved.

However, when it is held in a collection within a national institution, decisions about these resources are centralised with curators. They decide which elements of the collection should be exhibited and when. And they design the layout of the collection and the edited versions of recordings. Is the power of creation taken away from the original creators in this process? And does “going digital” actually make the resources, while preserving them, more inaccessible to local people who could be daunted by the prospect of visiting a national institution or may not be able to travel.

Researchers from the online archive database project ENUMERATE found that only 3-4% of digitised cultural heritage collections are available through Wikipedia (which is the world’s 7th most viewed website). What is the point, they asked, of investing in digitising if collections are as inaccessible as they were before?

This also ties in with the question of who the intended audience is. Publicly funded museums and galleries are increasingly asked about their “audience reach”. Digitising colections and making resources findable by anyone in the world may increase website visits and page hits but does this have the same value as engaging with targeted or local communities? It depends on the mission of the heritage organisation and what they view success to be.

Justifying spend and showing value

Project managers at the conference reported that they were facing a constant struggle to fund online developments. And in many cases, in the period of time from commissioning to implementation the technology and expectations moves on again.

Demonstrating value and impact are central to securing and reporting on how funds are spent in relation to digital collection projects. Funding bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund have a set of deliverable requirements which should be included in funding bids in order to exemplify good and sustainable use of funding, particularly in relation to digital projects. This includes creating resources which have a long life span (the favoured format is online PDF uploads, although they are trying inhouse to diversify their content); creating projects that will preserve heritage and benefit communities; and creating projects which have ambition and are easy to use, while also contributing to the organisation’s wider digital infrastructure and outcomes plan (which may also include interactive exhibitions and the provision of public Wi-Fi).

A unique opportunity to bring history and culture to life for new learners

When bidding for funding, cultural heritage organisations will often claim the project will support learning within their communities. However, many write this in their “digital strategy” without really knowing what it could or should mean in practice. How schools and other learners can engage with digital cultural projects is important not only to showing their value but to developing the collections in the future, making them representative or the interests and desires of their local communities.

Technology-enhanced learning was something which many delegates raised as one of the major potential benefits of digitising collections. In addition to the benefits for planners (particularly erosion and building management specialists) and the tourism industry (through virtual reality city tours which show what an area looked like hundreds of years ago) delegates stressed that one of the primary aims of digital collections was to make it easier for material to be used as a tool for learning. An example given at the conference was the REVISIT project which was run in Glasgow and focused on the British Empire Exhibition of 1938 which took place in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. The project created a 3D visualisation of over 100 buildings from the exhibition. The modellers worked from dozens of small-scale drawings, hundreds of photographs and many maps to recreate the 3D virtual Empire Exhibition as well as mapping roads, pathways and other transport systems in the area. These were then uploaded to an online repository, with accompanying text, where they could be viewed and “explored” using navigation tools.

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Image of the 3D recreation of the 1938 British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow

The aim of the project was to create a permanent resource for the exploration, research and public exhibition of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 in the context of Scottish and UK social and architectural history. Researchers used a variety of archived material, newspaper articles, photos and interviews with people who attended the exhibition to create the interactive map. They then invited local school children to use the resources to inform their learning on the topic through a series of guided workshop sessions and interactive group activities. The 3D maps were a learning resource but also a tool to generate discussion and questioning about the period and the exhibition itself.

Measuring the “impact of digital” in cultural spaces

One of the most interesting sessions of the day involved input from the V&A in London. It highlighted how mapping and analytics, as well as a more functional understanding of users and visitors to the museum, can be used to help during digital planning. The way that consumer research around digital cultural resources is done can help refine digital programmes in an efficient and cost effective way.

va-online-user-groups

Kati Price from the V&A led a discussion on the creation of new digital platforms and how important understanding user preference can be in design and functionality of digital resources in a museum setting. She highlighted their use of agile methods to test the usability and effectiveness of some of the new digital content produced by the V&A, including new audio guides. In terms of measuring outcomes in digital strategies, she stressed the importance of being flexible with your evaluation methods but also to consider what are you measuring, when in the process are you measuring it, and why and to what end are you measuring it.

Summing up

The day provided useful insight into the challenges and opportunities of digital for cultural and heritage organisations.

It highlighted the adaptability of cultural spaces to digital environments, and the value and benefit to collections of “going digital”. It also identified some potential directions for the future, such as 3D printing to create replicas and Virtual Reality platforms to create more immersive and interactive learning spaces.

It is clear, however, that if the cultural heritage sector is to make the most of what could potentially be game-changing technology, museums, libraries and other organisations need to work closely with communities to make sure they remain connected to their heritage and do not get left behind by this digital revolution.

Cultural spaces need to be mindful of potential exclusion and work to promote digital engagement, skills and education to allow people to access and contribute to the future growth of digital collections in Scotland and the UK.


Reading Room (an Idox company) is one of the UK’s leading digital agencies and has extensive experience working with museums and libraries on award-winning digital projects. Clients include the British Library, Arts Council England, The National Archives, and Durham Council (Durham at War archive). If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help your organisation with developing your digital strategy, contact info.uk@readingroom.com

Beating the back to work blues

Moving Crowds 4

The first journey into work after the Christmas break has to be one of the most painful journeys of the year. Overfed, possibly hungover, still angry at that sly comment your distant relative made across the dinner table a week ago, you and many others return to work at the start of January with the glow of the next set of bank holidays seeming very far in the distance (FYI the next bank holiday is Good Friday on 14th April – yes, APRIL *sobs*).

It’s no surprise then, that January is the time of the year that sees the highest rates of divorce. This is the month heralding some of the highest stress rates of the year, and is the lowest point in the calendar for many people who face daily battles with mental health. A researcher at Cardiff University, Dr Cliff Arnall has even created a formula to work out that 24th January is the “most depressing day of the year”.

Mental health takes centre stage at work

It’s therefore apt that as many of us spend much of our time at work, there has been an increasing recognition of the role of employers in supporting mental health.

In October 2016, Business in the Community published its 2016 Mental Health at Work report, which included a toolkit for employers. The report highlights the damage that concealing their condition can do to people with mental health problems, as well as the level of support that should be made available to employees to help promote positive mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Recommendations made in the report include:

  • Talk – Organisations and employers should break the culture of silence that surrounds mental health, particularly in the workplace by talking the Time to change employers pledge
  • Train – Organisations and employers should invest in training to ensure basic mental health literacy for all employees in all areas of the business
  • Take action – Organisations and employers should “close the gap” by asking all staff about their experiences of their own mental health at work and how any issues have been dealt with. Understanding the perceptions that staff have of how the company supports mental health generally across the organisation, can help identify steps to improve/ change practice if necessary.

Employers role in removing stigma

Ensuring good mental health in the workplace affects all levels of staff, from senior management to the newest members of staff who are still training or serving a probationary period. Multiple reports, including those by ACAS, CIPD, MIND and The Work Foundation, have stressed the importance of employers setting an example to their staff. That includes senior staff recognising when they need to take time to support their mental wellbeing too.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Absence Management Report for 2013, showed that stress is one of the biggest causes of long-term absence in the workplace. The report also showed that it impacts staff at all levels:

  • 40% of respondents said that stress-related absence increased over the past year for the workforce as a whole
  • 20% said it increased for managers
  • 1 in 8 reported a rise for senior managers
  • Only 44% would feel confident enough to disclose unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager.

The report suggested that if senior managers acknowledged their own mental health issues, it would remove some of the stigma associated with asking for help with mental health in the workplace. However, doing this requires a significant culture shift in how many organisations are run – which could take years. The Work Foundation, commenting on the 2016 version of the CIPD report, found that:

“Effective management of mental health in the workplace can save around 30% of costs felt by employers.  Line managers have a really important role to play in creating an environment where employees feel safe to disclose with the knowledge that the organisation will do something to help them.  Managers need to have a positive employment relationship where open and honest conversations can be had to discuss any required adjustments and provide that supportive environment.”

Using “blue Monday” to initiate conversations on mental health

This year “Blue Monday” falls on the 16th January. It may be called the worst Monday of the year, but employers are being encouraged to use the publicity around it to create opportunities for employees to discuss mental health in the workplace.

Questions to ask could be: what makes them stressed, what makes them anxious, how can the office environment be changed to improve the wellbeing of employees? There are also ideas for activities to help staff “beat the blues”, including lunchtime exercise, healthy eating and talking to colleagues about things other than work.

Specific sectors have also begun to initiate schemes to try to improve mental health and well being. Mates in Mind is a programme to be launched in early 2017 by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council. Modelled on an Australian programme, it is a sector-wide programme intended to help improve and promote positive mental health across the construction industry in the UK.

In social work, too, informal peer mentoring schemes have sprung up organically in many offices, with co-workers giving each other support when they need it, often in an informal capacity. More formal schemes have been set up to help social workers monitor and feel safe when talking about their mental health to colleagues and superiors. Feedback indicates that the low rate of retention of social workers is, in part, due to stress caused by secondary trauma or excessive caseloads.

 

So, as we trudge back to our desks for the first working days after Christmas, it is perhaps worth keeping some of these ideas in mind. Employers are keen to talk about mental health, but they also need the input of staff in order for them to work.

Putting some of these ideas into practice, may also go some way to improving the situation of many with hidden mental health conditions in the workplace who don’t feel confident enough to speak openly about it. We needn’t wait for the next bank holiday to improve our mood, small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing in the workplace!


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other workplace mental health articles: 

Managing mental ill health in the workplace

Ending the stigma around anxiety