First steps in supporting wellbeing

For many companies, efforts to understand and influence employees’ mental wellbeing are only just beginning. At the This Can Happen conference, a day-long event aimed at empowering companies on this mission, speaker after speaker talked of initiatives launched as recently as a year ago.

That does not lessen their effectiveness or ambition, of course, but it does mean that companies are often feeling their way in the dark on this topic. More than one executive at the conference made the point that there is no “roadmap” that businesses can follow, or which guarantees success.

Nonetheless, a panel of representatives from varied companies outlined ways in which businesses can kick-start their own work to promote mental health and support the wellbeing of their employees.

Chaired by EG’s editor-in-chief, Damian Wild, the panel looked at the policies and values that companies can put in place as they begin their journey.

Early steps can have a big effect. At restaurant chain Nando’s, learning and development manager Alison Thorogood said the company made mental health a priority about 18 months ago. “We were hearing loud and clear from our managers in restaurants that more and more [staff] were coming to them and talking to them about the challenges they had faced,” she said.

Nando’s committed that every manager would attend workshops that would help them to support staff who were experiencing difficulties. Some 350 managers have now gone through the programme.

“In terms of seeing change, I saw it on the day we did the first trial sessions,” Thorogood said. “The biggest thing I saw and heard from restaurant managers was: ‘I feel like there’s been a weight lifted off my shoulders, because I’ve been trying to help [staff] diagnose and decide what they should do about it, when all I needed to do was have a genuine, caring conversation and then signpost them so they can get some help.’”

Champions in the business

At the Walt Disney Company, human resources manager for projects and wellbeing Daisy Dupree agreed that training individuals within the company to help colleagues is an important step as a company launches a drive to improve mental wellbeing. Her company now has more than 200 trained mental health first aiders.

That is crucial, Dupree added, given that some people who are struggling with their mental health might be wary of discussing it directly with an HR professional.

“We recognised that we needed to have champions in the business, people outside the HR team, who people could feel they could talk to confidentially,” she said.

Momentum can build up quickly once initiatives are under way, panellists said. Heather Edwards, customer insights executive at Money­supermarket Group, spoke of mental health events that had just 20 people attending when the company launched them, but which now bring in more than 100. At the Crown Estate, HSE and wellbeing manager Henrietta Frater said colleagues who once wondered aloud why the company was prioritising mental wellbeing have changed their tune entirely having seen just how many people have been helped.

Buy-in from the bosses

Buy-in from the top of the business is all-important, said Alex Hyde, finance director at interim management specialist BIE Executive, who shared with the audience his own experiences of struggling with mental ill health.

Encouraging senior managers to lead the charge can mean a change to the conversation, Hyde said, emphasising how the business will benefit by focusing on this issue.

“The most important thing around mental health is to stop talking about ‘one in four’ [people having mental health challenges] and start talking about everyone,” Hyde said.

“Change the conversation from being about someone in the corner crying because they’re going through crisis to: what do we get if we create an environment for our people that’s really focused on performance? What do we get if we create a culture that enables people to come in and be who they are – make the most of the reasons we’ve hired them? By changing the conversation to a focus on that, what senior leader wouldn’t buy in to that? And if they don’t buy into it, is that really somewhere you want to work?”

As approaches to supporting employees’ mental health become more established, it will be easier for businesses to know what to expect as they start their own initiatives. But as they begin, Disney’s Dupree said, they should not be dispirited if success seems hard to measure.

“To start, things are going to look worse,” she said, explaining: “If you create the environment we’ve all been talking about, where people can be honest, open, authentic, and feel there are support platforms there for them to be able to talk, then hopefully there is going to be an increase in the number of people talking about mental health and mental illness. So before you get success, the picture’s going to look bleaker – but I think that’s what you need, to be able to understand what your organisation wants and needs in terms of support.”


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Help and support

If you need help with any issues raised in this article, you can get support from organisations including:

  • Mind, the mental health charity 0300 123 3393 – provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem
  • The Samaritans 116 123 – confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, or suicidal thoughts
  • LionHeart  0800 009 2960 or 0121 289 3300 – charity for RICS professionals and real estate professionals