I often get asked, does safeguarding apply to us though, we don’t work with children or adults that have health or care needs? I ask, do you work with people though? Then the answer is still yes! We all live in a society and must all be aware of public safety. Children, young people, and adults can all face a variety of risks within different environments at different points in their life. There are so many different organisations that work with a variety of people that require robust safeguarding arrangements to ensure their safety.
Safeguarding is the prevention of significant harm coming to a person or group. All organisations and businesses have a duty of care towards their staff and customers whether this is fully recognised in a statutory manner like with schools, health care, apprentices etc., or not. Employers have a duty of care for their employee’s wellbeing, health and physical safety, and safeguarding is about implementing and embedding a culture of vigilance that promotes safer environments for all people to thrive in.
We know that poor mental health costs UK Employers up to £45 billion a year and we have seen an enormous rise in the appointment of Mental Health First Aiders or Wellbeing Champions. Most organisations however do not have appropriate safeguarding reporting arrangements in place. The following questions apply:
What would they do in a crisis such as a disclosure of domestic abuse, stalking, sexual abuse, or even a risk of suicide?
Is there a person within that organisation leading that is effectively trained in safeguarding?
Are the staff championing mental health fit for or appropriate for the role?
Would all staff members know what to do if a safeguarding or crisis incident occurred?
Do staff have an awareness of the different types of abuse and different safeguarding issues that can affect people?
Do the Board understand how safeguarding can apply to the workplace and what their obligations are?
These are just some of the questions I ask when working with organisations that have the very best intentions to implement some form of Mental Health First Aid Style Initiative. The implementation of policies, procedures and training is the best way to initially ensure that people understand.
So why the workplace? I mean, we all spend an enormous amount of time in our workplaces but also since the pandemic a lot of us have worked from home. Risks may change but we must adapt and understand how we can support people at work throughout any issues they face.
Now I want to tell a story of a woman… a story of a colleague, a leader who presents as well educated, successful, confident, has lots of friends and always seems to be happy and positive. She is good at her job and her colleagues think highly of her. She is a supportive leader that looks after staff at every opportunity. Her career is going well, and she has many aspirations and goals for her future.
So, let’s now consider her background, she was born in a deprived area of the UK but was never affected directly by poverty. Her parents always worked, and she had links to close family members and always had a lot of friends and peers. She was always a sociable child and enjoyed taking part in hobbies and was considered to be talented in many things. Her abusive father drank a lot and her mother worked hard to keep the relationship in harmony but could not prevent the severe domestic abuse, emotional harm, and could not protect her daughter from it. As a teen, the woman was always resilient, did well academically but never reached her full potential because she was always pulled back into a world of chaos, violence, emotional and physical harm, and stress. Her adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) shaped the way she responded to certain situations and how she allowed men to treat her in any future relationships. She had no self-worth.
Years later when she became a woman, she experienced severe psychological trauma and abuse in a relationship, and as a result her work began to suffer, her relationships with friends and family deteriorated, she isolated herself and she became constantly fatigued, extremely confused and depressed. Her colleagues noticed this as she was not her inquisitive, bubbly, or well-polished self. She tried to explain her situation to a Senior colleague and her manager, but her concerns were not fully heard because nobody knew what to do and appeared to not believe her story. She tried to keep going, she wanted to remain professional and wanted to show everyone that she was competent, she was passionate and cared about her job and all the people she worked alongside.
The workload then became too much, she started to hide away, she became ill often and she could not stand the pressure anymore. Everything felt too much, small tasks felt way too big, she felt herself worrying more often that people would know she was not up to it and might make a mistake. Her relationship became worse, she felt at risk. She tried to contact her GP and access private counselling however she then lost her job and could therefore not financially support herself or secure any steps towards her future.
One evening she wrote a note to her family and left her home for the final time, she was battling something that she couldn’t describe, she felt like she was not believed and that she had failed. Her family and friends and colleagues mourned her, and they all asked the question, why didn’t she tell someone? She did… many times she talked to people about what she was experiencing but nobody acted because she was an adult making her own informed decisions, or so they thought.
This is an extremely sorrowful example of how an adult can be affected and requires some form of safeguarding intervention and support. The Employer had a duty of care to this woman, but no safeguarding procedures were followed. This is where a culture of vigilance can really help a human being. Having curiosity as a colleague and simply asking if someone needs help. Often, I have asked myself, where would some people be without having a duty of care in place? It is often a term used only in child protection, or adult protection for those with physical or mental health care needs, however why shouldn’t we be implementing safeguarding across the board through any industry for any person as we can all become a person at risk at any time in our life just like the woman? Health and Safety is something that we all take so seriously and fully understand our obligations, so then why would we not look after the safety and mental health of our employees?
Let’s revisit the story of the woman and discuss some of the things that could have been done. The Employer could have spoken to the woman to understand her full situation, contacted appropriate support services, offered free counselling via the Employee Assistance Programme, assessed whether the woman was at risk in her relationship and acted, supported her in remaining in employment, and ensuring above all else that she was safe!
Mental health and abuse are no longer hidden. We cannot continue to not do something because we aren’t officially told or don’t fully understand what we should or could do anymore. People can come to significant harm, and we are in a prime position to intervene as Employers. We all want staff that enjoy their job, work hard and effectively make a business a success, people can thrive when they are safeguarded and when all forms of workplace safety are implemented in a meaningful and impactful way. We are obligated, we must seek to understand the meaning of safeguarding, the steps we need to do our best to protect a person in a crisis or in any dangerous situation, and then how we can learn from this in the future and use that learning to improve. The best way we can really do this is by building a culture of openness and vigilance. If you are worried about yourself or someone else, don’t ignore it, speak to them or to someone that can help. This is always the first step to a problem being shared or a person being saved.
Having an improved knowledge and awareness on safeguarding and mental health, developing a policy and robust reporting procedures, ensuring the whole business is bought into the concept and ensuring staff feel confident in accessing support really is the least we can do! Safeguarding saves lives. A culture of vigilance calls for a relentless pursuit of the prevention of harm but also to provide an open and safe environment for people to express themselves and speak up if they are not ok with fear, stigma, or consequence.
I will end this article on the statement that I say at least 10 times every single day, safeguarding really is everyone’s responsibility!
Rachael Bishop, Safeguarding Consultant