Derek McKenzie MRTPI is a Chief Planning Officer in local government and the current Chair of RTPI Yorkshire. He also sits on the RTPI's Membership and Ethics Committee.
We all know about the important contribution that our profession makes to creating strong, inclusive communities and securing a good quality of life for people.
This has been particularly evident during lockdown – basic things like private amenity space to sit outside and enjoy some fresh air have been a lifeline to many people, along with good access to services and facilities, especially public parks and recreation areas that are safely accessible by walking and cycling.
However, here is the question – while planners are busy doing their bit for society, who is looking after the mental health and wellbeing of planners themselves?
We all have a duty of care to ourselves, but sometimes our focus in this area can be distracted by the many events that can impact on us in life. Sometimes we just might want some help, advice and support from someone else when all that is in our brain is a fog that inhibits our rational thought processes.
Our profession covers a diverse area with public, private and third sector organisations and businesses of varying size and complexity. In my experience, members who work in the public sector or for large private businesses generally have more access to mental health support when feeling under pressure, while smaller private sector business, sole traders, retired members and some students generally have access to none or very little.
As someone with a background in supporting people in emotional distress, I believe that the RTPI as an organisation should look more closely to see if there are ways it can better support its members.
Online support sessions
With the support of Regional Coordinator Sarah Richardson and Head of English Regions Sarah Woodford, RTPI Yorkshire recently held a well-attended online mental health and wellbeing support session. The feedback was excellent and it was clear that for those who attended, the opportunity to talk about how Covid has impacted on them was all that was needed to help them off-load and let them know that we care.
Soon after, we ran a second event, which was just as successful, only this time it gave us more insight into some of the particular challenges some of our members faced:
- members in the public sector acknowledged they had access to mental health support, but were reluctant to use it for fear of it being seen as failure within their organisation and it later being held against them
- retired members felt extremely isolated with little opportunity to talk
- student members faced real challenges of not being able to complete coursework
- members with young children struggled to homeschool their children while coming to terms with new ways of working and an ever-increasing workload
- some members were really struggling with the effects of long Covid and the inability of their employers to help them back into the workplace.
This feedback for me reinforced the importance of holding these online peer support sessions, and I am pleased to say that two more hour-long sessions have now been scheduled for 3 November and 8 December at 12.30pm. The focus of these two sessions will be to explore members’ views on returning to the office and the different approaches taken in the workplace. Places can be reserved by emailing [email protected].
Perhaps this approach could be rolled out across all of the RTPI’s regions?
Low staff morale
In my own capacity as a Chief Planning Officer (CPO) in the public sector, I am all too aware of the significant and sustained increases in the number of planning applications that have been submitted, along with severe budget constraints, that have combined to either adversely affect performance, and/or create significant pressures on staff, with incidents of staff sickness through stress and depression on the rise, all of which just leads to more pressure and low staff morale.
This issue was discussed within the regional joint CPO working group that my authority forms part of, and it was agreed by all six CPOs that the situation was reaching a critical stage and that more needed to be done to help address the problem. While it was recognised that the staffing and resourcing issues in the public sector had very little to do with the RTPI, there was a consensus view that it could do more to guide and support its members. The Chair of that group has formally written to the RTPI for help and advice.
Role of the RTPI
It is important to stress that this is in no way a veiled criticism of the RTPI, far from it. Like many other professional organisations, the RTPI is only now coming to terms with the effects of Covid on its members, and it is having to think about what its role should be in such matters.
I’m delighted that the RTPI has launched today a Mental Health and Wellbeing Hub for members, highlighting the work the Institute is doing on this important issue. However, I believe there is more that could be done including signposting members to sources of professional counselling as well as exploring volunteer-led initiatives - such as mental health first aiders - which have proved very successful among other organisations.
It is important to have these conversations. General wellbeing cannot be taken for granted and if there is anything the RTPI can do as an organisation to help members, I believe it should be explored.
The one thing I know about the RTPI is that it is one of the most resilient and responsive professional bodies out there with fantastic leadership, gifted officers and brilliantly talented members. I'm certain it will find a way forward that is in everyone's best interest.
>> If you’re a having a difficult time or you’re worried about someone else, call Samaritans for free on 116 123 or e-mail [email protected]