Heritage - mental health and wellbeing

06 October 2021

In a sector generally associated with being good for the nation’s health and wellbeing, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated staff and volunteer mental health and wellbeing concerns by 65%.

Vector illustration of a woman in an orange dress with long dark, curly hair holding a theatre mask. She has a smiling theatre mask to her right and a grimacing one to her left.


Traditionally the issue of mental health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers within the heritage sector has not been high on the list of concerns. In fact, heritage organisations are more used to being associated with being good for the nation’s health and wellbeing. Staff and volunteers are passionate about the sector and the sector has a number of highly-engaged volunteers who give up their free time to support the sector and the organisations they love.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the sector as a result of the prolonged lockdowns and closures in terms of lost income, a backlog of maintenance and restoration work and finding new ways to survive and adapt to a different world. All with an uncertainty of what the future will bring –which we can see from our research has had a significant impact on staff and volunteers mental health and wellbeing. In our recent survey at the end of March, we asked 500 heritage organisations how they felt. 65% said that Covid had exacerbated mental health issues in the sector.

Since the first lockdown in 2020

  • 60% have seen an increase in staff/volunteer mental health concerns
  • 58% have seen an increase in staff/volunteer anxiety
  • Over half (55%) are feeling anxious about returning in person when their organisation reopens.

Digging deeper the biggest challenges organisations are facing are:

  • Impact of job losses on staff mental health – 27%
  • Increased workloads – 26%
  • Staff stress and anxiety – 25%
  • Increased pressure on remaining staff when others are furloughed – 24%
  • Loss of volunteers – 23%

Our corporate partner, The Heritage Alliance, has recognised the appetite for support in their membership and beyond. Lizzie Glithero-West, CEO told us “The Heritage Alliance’s free Rebuilding Heritage Programme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has responded to the identified need during this challenging period for tools and tips to support wellbeing within organisations. Our wellbeing activities have been our most watched resources and, with this in mind, more have been planned to meet the need. Likewise, whilst the future can cause anxiety, planning for change can help us to harness opportunity. Upcoming sessions on topics such as hybrid working will support the sector to innovate and find better ways of working in the future.”

Anxious staff and volunteers

With so many staff and volunteers saying they feel anxious, it is crucial that organisations make sure that they have good health and safety and risk management processes in place to help recognise these concerns and reassure their workforce that they are protected. Avoiding these concerns could lead to further stress and anxiety and could even lead to claims against them.

Prevention is better than cure - Managing the practical risks

Our research showed the top 5 concerns are:

  • Visitor behaviour – 38%
  • The risk of catching Covid – 37%
  • Visitors not wearing masks – 31%
  • Visitors not adhering to social distancing – 31%
  • Volunteers not adhering to social distancing – 31%

With this insight into the concerns you can see that the most important ones are. It is worth an organisation engaging with their own staff to see what resonates for them to help them address the areas that really matter. Helping to make people feel safe in the current environment is more important than ever and simple steps could really make a difference.

Some organisations have already been through the process of reopening under restrictions, but this will be a new experience for some. Even those that have there is still a need to check and review their risk assessments and make sure there are clear guidelines in place for both staff and visitors matching the latest government guidelines. Marking out clear one way systems, signs about wearing masks and perhaps even some security to help address any potentially challenging visitor behaviour are just some of the things that may be considered.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have resources available to help people work safely.

The review of Covid related risk assessments should be very regular at the moment as we work through the roadmap out of lockdown and the detail what changes at each stage, often with only a couple of weeks’ notice to adapt to the new situation.

An Enterprise Risk Management framework may help to apply a proactive and more holistic approach, allowing for consideration of risks across the entire organisation at both a strategic and operational level.

Managing wellbeing

The heritage sector has really adapted in the current climate and a huge 91% of those responding to the survey say that their organisation is providing additional wellbeing support in response to Covid.

Top 5 wellbeing support offered:

  • Counselling services – 34%
  • Third party/professional helplines – 34%
  • Additional training on managing mental health issues – 33%
  • Introduced mindfulness techniques – 33%
  • Mental health first aiders – 39%

But still, despite all this, 70% say more needs to be done. With a figure this high there is undoubtedly a mammoth task for any organisation to manage this. But it is a key task. Making sure that there are appropriate responses and reactions to staff stress can help to reduce the impact of it turning into a bigger issue like poor performance, long term sick leave or even a claim against the organisation. The effects of these could range from poor reputation if there are insufficient staff to keep the visitor experience alive, through to costly court cases – and many more in between.

Helping managers identify mental health issues, even temporary ones and having clear guidelines in place as to how to handle these effectively is key.

Vikki Woodfine, a specialist regulatory lawyer at DWF Law LLP, says “Over recent years, we have seen that the HSE has started to acknowledge mental health as well as physical health when considering an employer's duties to protect employees...the increasing recognition in society of the importance of looking after mental health has resulted in the HSE becoming more interested in the topic.”

The HSE have published guidelines to follow and supporting resources including the Talking Toolkit: Preventing work-related stress.

Sadly, there is no escaping the devastating economic impact of Covid. With many organisations facing varying levels of reduction in income once the furlough cover provided by the Government ceases, then difficult decisions about staffing are going to need to be made. This is again a stress-inducing situation for all involved. Organisations may not have HR departments and so experience here may be limited and help may need to be sourced from elsewhere.

What help is available?

We have a number of tools and guidance included in our Heritage insurance policy that may be able to assist :

  • Counselling helpline – a confidential service for all staff (including any member of their family who permanently lives with them).
  • HR consultancy.
  • Access to online legal resources and employment manual.
  • Public relations (PR) crisis and media assistance helpline.

Mental Health at work, the website curated by MIND, also provides guidance and toolkits about dealing with these concerns.

What next?

The future is still unclear despite having a roadmap in place. The success of the vaccination programme, variants of the virus and what staff, volunteers and the public do are all unknown. What is certain is that organisations need to make sure that they consider making mental health and wellbeing a priority. There are still many challenges ahead and having a strong, healthy team will give the best chance of navigating these successfully.

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