The council has organised informal workshops to train staff to respond to “difficult conversations” and signpost to local health and wellbeing services that are available to all who live and work in Shropshire.
Shropshire Council has been working with local businesses to help staff such as hairdressers, personal trainers and hospitality workers support their customers.
In partnership with the Samaritans, the council has organised free, two-hour, informal workshops to train staff to respond to “difficult conversations” and signpost to local health and wellbeing services that are available to all who live and work in Shropshire.
‘Our invisible frontline’
Public Health Development Officer, Alice Cruttwell, said a series of off-duty encounters led her to come up with the concept of creating a network of mental health champions in the business community.
“I was having my hair cut and my hairdresser was telling me how emotionally drained she was listening to everyone’s troubles, saying some days she felt more like a counsellor than a hairdresser. The following day, in the gym, I overheard a young personal trainer responding to his client who had recently been bereaved, at the same time as instructing on squats.
“A few days later my daughter returned from visiting her friend in hospital following their second suicide attempt. She talked about getting her first tattoo. She explained the emotional and mental language of tattoos in marking relationships, milestones, life events and transitions.
“It struck me that these professionals are listening, supporting and responding to emotional and mental health issues day-in and day-out without recognition or support. The mental health aspect of their work needed to be acknowledged and the potential for them to signpost to local services needed to be explored.
“Those in the hair and beauty, gym and hospitality sectors are good communicators - they are skilled at listening and responding to mood and emotions. It may appear to be ‘small talk’, but people really open up.
As such these professionals are a huge, untapped public health resource. They are the invisible frontline, supporting mental health and wellbeing in their local communities, including rural areas and hard-to-reach groups.
How the initiative is being rolled out
The initiative started with hairdressers who were offered the workshops over the summer. One hairdresser, Sarah Morris, was also a Samaritan. She played a vital role,” said Ms Cruttwell. “Initially we sent emails out – she turned around and said, ‘with the greatest respect, hairdressers are not going to respond to that’. She was quite right, so we started using Instagram and Facebook and got much better engagement.”
A total of 43 hairdressers have attended the workshop, which covered listening skills, looking after yourself and signposting to local wellbeing services available to those who live and work in Shropshire.
Ms Morris said she was delighted to be involved. “In our profession we make people feel good as well as look good. Our emotional work with clients is an essential part of what we do. As a volunteer with Samaritans, the importance of active listening cannot be overestimated, it is so powerful.
Sharing this skill with my professional colleagues has helped them look after our own wellbeing and puts us all in a better position to respond and signpost our clients to local services.
Rich Dunnill, Partnership Lead for the Samaritans of Shrewsbury, added:
Listening is such a powerful tool. Compassionate and skilled listening is what the Samaritans provide, often when people are in their darkest moment. This project helps people to avoid reaching crisis point or feeling overwhelmed. All of us have the capacity to listen in a way that enables people to reach out and find support.
Since the training was run with hairdressers, Shropshire has been identifying other groups that could take part. Ms Cruttwell said: “People who work in gyms often do long, sometimes unsociable hours. They can be on zero hour contracts. We have got a group that is interested in taking part, and are working on a range of flexible delivery options
“We are working with the hospitality sector too. Starting in Shrewsbury three sessions are arranged, all hosted in a pub, and we have a group of body artists identified. As with the hairdressers we are identifying a peer champion in each group to advise us. We provide individual certificates and are consulting on developing a business certificate for them to display along the lines of ‘mental health aware business’. This work has lots of potential to scale up and roll out.”
‘There’s a wealth of goodwill out there’
James Hitchin, publican at the Albion, which is supporting the work, agrees, pointing out pubs play an important role in people’s lives. “They are there at the best and worst of times and every day in between. For birthdays, engagement, marriage, divorce, and funerals, drowning sorrows and toasting celebrations.”
The training is also being offered to the council’s own staff. The Library, Museum and Outdoor Partnership team has agreed to take part, while nine animal welfare and food safety officers have already completed it.
Ms Cruttwell said:
We are a large rural county. We know the agriculture sector and, in particular, older men can suffer poor mental health and are at increased risk of suicide. Welfare and food officers are aware of how isolation, loneliness and financial pressures can impact and compromise someone’s ability to adhere to regulatory standards.
“They are ideally placed to reach out and engage and because of attending the workshop officers are now working collaboratively with health professionals on introducing a health check service to include physical and mental health at cattle markets across the county.”
Rachel Robinson, Shropshire’s Director for Public Health, added: “The pandemic has shown is that there is a wealth of goodwill out there. People have shown they want to offer practical help, whether it was delivering food and medicines during the first lockdown or helping out with the vaccine rollout.
This approach is an excellent and innovative extension of this - it contributes to the council’s strategy to support and develop resilient communities in an ongoing and sustainable way.
Public Health Development Officer