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29th Oct 2018

Mental health in the workplace needs to change. Here are some employers that are leading the way

Rich Cooper

Brought to you by Time to Change

We spend most of our lives at work

Eight hours a day, five days a week. Even more in some cases. We expect our working environments to be safe and protect our physical wellbeing, but it’s only in recent years that protecting workers’ mental health has been put on the agenda.

The numbers tell us that it should be front and centre.

One in four British workers are affected by mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. There is evidence to suggest that nearly 13% of all sick days taken in the UK are down to mental health conditions.

And it’s not just a problem for individuals; it’s a business issue. Working days lost due to mental health issues are estimated to cost businesses an average of £1,035 per employee per year.

A number of companies are leading the way on tackling mental health at work through innovative schemes and practical solutions.

This is Me

In late 2013, a group of Barclays employees decided to share their experiences of mental health conditions and other disabilities with their colleagues. The project was called This is Me, “a colleague-led initiative based on the power of storytelling,” which initially saw nine employees sharing their stories.

“The principle of This is Me is that it’s about the whole person,” says Paulette Cohen, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays. “It isn’t just a focus on what’s wrong, it’s a focus on how a particular condition may be a part of the whole person and who they are.”

Being an employee-led initiative gave This is Me an authenticity that helped colleagues feel they could add their stories, and the project was a tremendous success. The number of employees that sharing their stories has grown from nine to over 200. In 2014, Barclays followed the campaign by signing the Time to Change pledge to change how employers think and act about mental health in the workplace.

“One of our colleagues told her story in January this year,” says Paulette. “Within 24 hours, she had 500 emails from colleagues saying ‘That’s how I feel’ or ‘You’ve really inspired me’ or ‘I have a family member who’s experienced something similar’. The power of colleague-led story telling is really important.”

Ambassadors of Hope

Being able to be open about your mental health is important, but not everyone feels that they can. At Everton Football Club, who have also signed the Time to Change pledge, staff are being trained to be able to spot people – colleagues, fans, others from outside the business – who may be struggling with mental health issues and offer to help.

Everyone at Everton, from admin staff up to club manager Marco Silva, has undertaken the Ambassadors of Hope programme, run by Liverpool-based charity Chasing the Stigma. The programme consists of 20 minutes of training that teaches staff how to approach mental health in the workplace.

“For some members of our staff who see our supporters or see our colleagues, it helps them understand that it’s okay to go up to somebody and ask how they are,” says Kim Healey, Everton’s People Director.

“It equips you with the information to be able to signpost them to the relevant places. It’s pitched at all levels, so no matter what your understanding is, you would be able to pick this up straightaway in 20 minutes.

“What it doesn’t do is make you an expert in mental health. It’s not there for you to open up people and put them in a vulnerable position. It’s there for you to just listen, support and signpost.”

Giving training to everyone at the club, rather than a handful of individuals, helps create an environment of understanding: everyone has done the training, so everyone knows the score.

“We class ourselves as the Everton family,” Kim adds. “We’re the people’s club. It’s always important to ask ourselves if someone’s away from the business or isn’t acting the same as they would do normally, do they have the support they need?”

All Safe Minds

A supportive environment is necessary for fostering good mental health, but that kind of culture isn’t present in every workplace. Construction workers face long, hard hours, often working away from home, in an industry that is not famous for its sensitivity.

Research commissioned by Public Health England has found that men working in the construction industry are more at risk of killing themselves than any other profession. The report found that these men are 3.7 times more likely to take their own life than the average male.

“There is that stigma,” says Mark French, Head of Health, Safety and Environment at Willmott Dixon, one of the biggest construction companies in the UK. “They don’t want [mental health issues] to be seen as a sign of weakness.

“People are always driving for the next level of success, whether it be another project or a promotion, and it could often be seen as a sign of weakness that if you do struggle with a sort of anxiety or depression, that you can’t handle the job.”

Willmott Dixon are tackling the issue on their own sites through the company’s All Safe Minds campaign, which aims to “make sure that whenever you need help, you know exactly where to find it.”

As part of the campaign, Willmott Dixon has signed up to the Mental Health First Aiders initiative.

The two-day training scheme gives First Aiders the skills to spot people who may be struggling, listen to employees and workers who need help and signpost them to the appropriate support services.

The problem is not unique to one construction firm, however; it’s an industry-wide problem. To try and change the culture across the industry, Mark regularly sits down with representatives from several major construction firms to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to mental health.

“We’ve agreed on a set presentation,” says Mark. “We’ve all agreed that we will only deliver that programme on all of our projects.

“Many years ago, every construction company said that their [training] was better than anybody else’s, and you all had to go away and spend a day on a particular course. We don’t want to do that. This shouldn’t be hard work for these people.”

Due to the transitive nature of the construction industry, contracted workers are often moving from one firm to another. “Most of us share 60% of the same supply chain,” Mark adds. “So 60% of the people who are on that project are all moving from the main Tier 1 contractors around their sites.”

Having the same set of procedures, standards and attitudes on every construction site would help change the conversation around mental health on an industry-wide scale.

From talking to supporting

Talking about mental health is the first step, but companies need to have practical systems in place to support staff. Alongside training to recognise and understand mental health conditions, all staff at Everton have access to a psychologist.

“Staff have his number, and they can call him up any time and make an appointment,” says Kim Healey. “They don’t have to tell their line manager. The club does not have to know at all. And we pay for staff to be able to access that facility.”

Barclays has an initiative called the Workplace Adjustments Passport. When a member of staff is granted a change in their working circumstances, it’s logged in their Workplace Adjustments Passport, so that if they move elsewhere in the business, they don’t have to constantly explain and renegotiate their needs.

“If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, for example, you may be seeing a counsellor or support worker,” says Paulette Cohen.

“It’s really important that those times are recognised and respected. They can be logged in the passport, and wherever you move in the organisation in your career, it means that conversation is much easier to have.”

Physical complaints are commonplace in construction environments. Willmott Dixon’s Employee Assistance Programme helps employees get back to work when forced to take time off due to ill health; the service also includes a confidential helpline where staff can turn to for assistance with mental health complaints.

As well as this, Willmott Dixon runs a number of wellbeing programmes, looking at health, fitness, diet, and involving staff in local community projects.

Keeping the momentum

The common thread between all of these approaches to mental health – Barclays, Everton and Willmott Dixon – is the need to keep the momentum going.

“For us, this isn’t a one-off,” says Barclays’ Paulette Cohen. “It isn’t a ‘Right, let’s move on to the next thing.’ It’s maintaining that continuity and maintaining the momentum that promotes the resources that we’ve got right across the business.”

Everton has partnered with Edge Hill University, which has a specific department dedicated to mental health research.

The club uses the university’s findings to provide better mental health services. “We’re constantly developing the programme that we offer both as a charity and to our staff members,” says Everton’s Kim Healey. “We’re always trying to be on the front foot with it.”

And for Willmott Dixon, leaders in an industry that have weighty statistics around the suicide of people who work in the business, the hard numbers matter.

“What we can’t do is allow it to go by the wayside and identify something else that needs to take its place as a main point of focus,” says Mark French.

“It will be many, many years from now before the statistics are gathered to see how successful [the mental health campaign] has been. Hopefully, in 10 years time, we’ll be able to say that there’s been a significant drop in the suicide rate in young men.”

For more information about mental health campaign Time to Change, visit their website.