Boosting mental health support during COVID-19

As World Mental Health Day approaches, we ask SMS about what it is doing to boost the mental well being of its employees who have been on the frontline during COVID.

A smiling woman working at a laptop and drinking a coffee


As World Mental Health Day approaches this weekend, there has been a big focus on well being. A poll out today of 10,000 UK employees and employers, conducted by Hays, highlighted the impact of stigma around mental health in the workplace. It found 24 per cent of staff with mental health problems claimed they were being blocked from progressing in their careers, while 12 per cent said this lowered their chances of being selected for a job.

Yet progressive companies are increasingly looking at ways to boost mental health, with the events of 2020 surrounding COVID-19 intensifying that process for many.

That’s certainly the experience of energy services firm SMS. The company, which provides energy solutions such as connections, metering, energy efficiency and decarbonisation projects, began rolling out mental health support to its employees last year. With the challenges presented by the global pandemic in terms of employee wellbeing, SMS swiftly decided to  ramp up investment in this area to offer its people the extra support they needed.

Margaret Mary Kerr, Head of Learning & Development at SMS, explained: “Following feedback from our management teams across the Group last year, many of them requested mental health training. We worked with mental health charity ‘Mind’ to deliver that support across our sites in Glasgow, Doncaster, Cardiff and Newmarket.

“Going into 2020, we planned to deliver further training and make it available to all employees. Because of the pandemic we brought forward this work, using an external provider to train 20 people across the business to confidently become  accredited Mental Health First Aiders, in addition to 100 employees that had already been involved in training through Mind.”

Margaret Mary added: “We made sure those first aiders came from all parts of the business. When a large part of our workforce is male engineers working in the field, we didn’t want all of the first aiders to be female or office-based. They had to be relatable, particularly because men are more reluctant to reach out and ask for help.”

A creative approach

With so many office-based employees suddenly having to work from home, or field engineers having to adapt to new strict procedures to enter customers’ homes and business premises, SMS had to be creative and proactive. A dedicated wellbeing page was added to the company’s intranet making it easier to access help and support while working remotely or in the field. One interesting feature offered through the wellbeing page was links to video footage providing interesting or stimulating content, including footage from zoos (after it was shown that watching animals could prove relaxing and support home schooling). Another wellbeing feature provided through SMS’s dedicated intranet resource was exclusive mindfulness and exercise classes to support employees with both their mental and physical health.

Whilst these digital tools have been vital in helping SMS support its people during times of COVID, so often the human touch has also been fundamental. For instance, line managers check in on their teams regularly, and with the dedicated help of the HR function, have handled any concerns relating to safety and wellbeing. As a COVID-19 secure employer, thanks to its Return to Work policy developed in accordance with Government guidelines, SMS has been able to provide essential reassurance to its employees and customers about its commitment to the highest of health and safety standards.

A cultural shift

SMS’ wellbeing support to its people during the pandemic has also included financial backing. When its sizeable engineering workforce were stood down as lockdown commenced in March 2020, they were paid 100% of their wage during their period of furlough, providing financial reassurance that would have been valuable for maintaining a healthy state of mind. Most of the workforce was quickly brought back from furlough as it became clear their services were still going to be needed for emergency works around the UK.

Looking after employees’ mental health is just part of a wide-ranging programme that SMS has embraced as it seeks to become an ‘employer of choice’. The firm has boosted wellbeing by rolling out a cycle scheme and an enhanced maternity and adopting scheme with up to 16 weeks on full pay and annual leave has been increased to 25 days plus eight statutory. The Glasgow-based company has also signed up to the NHS ‘Mindful Employer’ charter and achieved a bronze award under NHS Scotland’s Healthy Working Lives scheme.

Margaret Mary says: “If you’ve got happy employees you’re more likely to have happy customers. It’s important to take mental health seriously as a company. We’ve made good progress but there’s no band aid, we have to keep repeating the messages and supporting our employees to truly see a cultural shift.”

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