Promoting mental health at work


In January, Theresa May announced a new partnership with employers to improve mental health support in the workplace, including practical help such as best practice examples and employer tools that can promote employee well-being and mental health.

Employers have already been considering what they can do to tackle mental health in the workplace, given that mental health is now the most common cause of days off sick in the UK after minor illnesses.

This week organisations in the City have joined forces in a campaign seeking to reduce the stigma around mental health in the workplace and dispel myths about mental health problems. This is Me – in the City, a City-wide mental health campaign, led by the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, aims to encourage employees who have experienced unmanageable stress and/or a mental health problem to share their story with colleagues via a video message or other medium.

In addition to sharing stories, employers are looking at other proactive ways to tackle the issue. One employer who is making inroads in this area is WH Smith which is celebrating its 225th birthday this year.

It has recently launched a mental health initiative after a member of the HR team with a particular interest in mental health approached CEO Steve Clarke to argue that the book retailer could do more to address it. Clarke, whose husband and mother suffer from mental health problems, was very positive and the company has set aside £250,000 to train staff at Head Office and in its stores to be mental health first aiders.

The two-day programme trains them to observe and notice colleagues who might need support, for instance, people who are struggling with a high workload and people hiding poor mental health.

WH Smith plans to train 70 mental health first aiders across the business, from Head Office to its stores and distribution centres and has already started training volunteers.

To do so it has partnered with Mental Health First Aid, which it says mirrors its values. Maureen Gardner, HR project manager for mental health, says a lot of mental health charities focus more on the caring professions. “We wanted to find an organisation that understood the retail sector,” she says.

Line manager training

As part of the mental health initiative, WH Smith line managers will also have to take part in a mandatory half-day training programme which will help them be able to spot the signs of mental ill health, train them in how to open conversations with members of staff, signpost them to professionals who can help or to the company’s employee assistance programme and reduce associated stigma. The company has already trained five line managers and aims to train over 1,000.

“We want to raise mental health to the same level as physical health,” says Jo Lakin, Employee Relations Manager.  It makes business sense too, given the absence rates associated with mental health problems. “People can be off sick for anything from a couple of days to years if they don’t have the right interventions,” adds Jo.

In addition to these two initiatives, WH Smith is also signing up to the Time to Change campaign against discrimination which was pulled together by a number of mental health charities and aims to challenge the stigma around mental health.

To support the work the retailer is doing, there is a steering group which meets weekly and monthly first aider meetings. This gives first aiders a forum to share their experiences and skills without going into individual details. First aiders are also encouraged to get involved in wider awareness raising campaigns in their local community. In addition, Maureen says she is looking at joining a business networking group on mental health.

The initiative, which is being promoted in regular briefings to staff and on the intranet, comes as the company is preparing lots of fundraising activity for charities including Mind as part of its anniversary celebrations. Staff selected Mind, Cancer Research and the National Literacy Trust as the charities they wanted to support this year. Events will take place in stores around the country and there are many other activities planned, including a three peak challenge event. Stores will also be full of historical memorabilia, such as carrier bags and biscuit tins, to celebrate the anniversary.

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