One of the things we do alongside the work we do for MHCLG is small, bespoke pieces of review work for councils. We are asked to provide an impartial and external review – sometimes it ends up being a full peer challenge and other times a narrow and quite specific part of the planning department. One week it is with a big London Borough, the next in a little rural district.
Because we are sometimes dealing with quite sensitive issues, and we are often making friendly and constructive criticisms, we don’t tend to talk about it very much. It is fascinating and valuable and very good personal development so I do some too- especially if there is a sense there might be more going at the council than meets the eye.
Occasionally there are broad themes that emerge from the review work that are worth saying something about. It might be about problem solving, or innovation. This post is about mental health in planning departments – and how we might need to up our collective game.
The way we run a review is very simple. We sit the staff in a room, sometimes in groups and sometimes individually and we listen to them. Very occasionally we might ask a simple question, but really the art is listening carefully and then finding a way to reflect back in a structured way what we’ve heard to the organisation. It often feels like group therapy. Almost always at least one person breaks down in tears. Usually this seems cathartic.
On a recent review the team met someone who caused a bit more concern. No tears, but a conversation that revealed a mind under enormous stress. We are not really therapists, so we can’t do much more than set “the work” to one side and have a frank conversation about mental health with this person. We offered an early warning, and tried to explain how sometimes stressed minds get to a point where “more thinking” is not going to work. During this conversation the team learned about each other that we had both had serious episodes of stress in the past.
Working away from home and staying in a hotel delivering a piece of support means you have space and time to review what happened each day. That evening the team compared notes – in the course of most reviews it is apparent that there are people (often senior people) under too much stress. It is obvious why – the process of Development Management is relentless, the forces at play are enormous and the political component means you are never sure when something is going to blow up in your face.
Acknowledging the inate stress in DM leads natually to the question – “what are we all doing about it ?”. What is our equivalent of the Samaritans phone workers helping each other decompress after a shift ? The answer seems to be nothing beyond trying to fix people after things have got too much. This is not good enough.
Given that the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the general population on development is so far from being won, and the way some anti-development groups are using social media to harrass people in planning the potential for stress is going to increase. This is something that requires an organisational response, and most of the answer is probably no more complicated than recognising it as a real thing, hanging together as a team and supporting each other.
I am confident that you will have noticed someone around the office who appears to be under great stress. Perhaps you have thought about saying something at some point. My unscientific straw poll suggests it is most likely a planning enforcement officer. I can tell you that these conversations are easier than you think.
Like me you probably have a poster about mental health in the office kitchen. They go some way to helping normalise it, and they certainly made me more confident about explicitly bringing the topic into our work on planning reviews. But if I am right DM is almost uniquely tough and a generic council poster is not enough. What does (should ?) your organisation do to look after you ?