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Mike Thompson

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The difficult times we face mean that HR professionals working in early careers will have to grapple with many challenges as we come to terms with the new world that we live in. Perhaps the greatest of these challenges will be maintaining the health and wellbeing of apprentices as they themselves have to live with a potentially prolonged period of uncertainty and change. Some will adapt easily and quickly but others will struggle and there will be a risk to their mental health.

Even before the arrival of the current pandemic we have seen a steady upward trend in the number of apprentices and graduates suffering some form of mental health issue. When I left Barclays and set up Gen Healthy Minds I began to investigate this further and with the help of the Open University commissioned a piece of research with employers to delve deeper to try and understand the problem better and what could be done to fix it.

The statistics that came back were alarming. Over one third of the 700 employers questioned reported a rise in mental health issues amongst their apprentice and graduate populations. These were employers from both private and public sector and large and small employers. The factors driving this rise were varied including increased pressure of work, financial or personal issues and increased pressure of exams/study.

This rise is impacting employers in several ways with many citing rising sickness levels, lower engagement and lower productivity. For apprentices and graduates the impact was equally negative with many dropping out of their programmes or having to leave their employment.

Armed with this insight I looked at what best practice models were in place to look after and develop the wellbeing of apprentices. Whilst I found many good firm wide activities that supported people when they fall unwell, I found very little proactive activity aimed at people in early careers so I set about looking at how to develop a support framework that employers could use to complement their existing graduate and apprentice development programmes.

Working with several experts in wellbeing and positive psychology and a number of progressive employers we designed a model that would help apprentices, graduates and their line managers to understand the behaviours that are likely to lead to a happier healthier life.

We developed programmes that would educate and inform apprentices about what behaviours would support their mental health and equipped them with tools they could use every day. So, for example, some apprentices really find mindfulness a helpful stress management tool whereas others might prefer to focus on developing their resilience or following our tips for better nutrition and sleep.

This development must be accompanied by education of line managers and other support networks such as mentors if it is to really have an impact. If the culture, working practices and management styles that apprentices experience aren’t supportive of their wellbeing then no amount of personal development can make a difference

My advice to companies wrestling with this problem is to think about how much time and effort they put into developing a support framework for their new joiners. If it is purely an occupational health framework they rely on this is unlikely to have much impact as by the time it is needed it is too late as the individual is already unwell. Think about what can be put in place to support new joiners to adapt to the stresses of the workplace and build their resilience. This could be training, support apps or a mentor network. Also consider how their line managers can support them and create an environment where the individual can thrive.

Mike Thompson – MD Gen Healthy Minds Ltd

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