Just the other day, as I was jumping into the car between meetings, I caught the last snippet of a piece on the radio. To my astonishment it seemed to suggest that talking about wellbeing and particularly mental wellbeing was the latest trendy thing to do.
Having spent the last six months deeply involved in our own wellbeing initiatives at Anglian Water I couldn’t work out if I was pleased that we were ahead of the curve, glad that the matter was getting coverage on the radio or annoyed that this incredibly important subject was already being trivialised and pigeon holed as a fad.
I settled very firmly on the side of annoyed. As someone who has suffered from anxiety and panic attacks myself in the past, but more importantly as someone who has supported their wife through terrible post natal depression, I know just how important managing wellbeing is. I know first-hand that without the support and understanding of my own company, and in particular my boss at the time, successfully helping my wife deal with over 6 months of post-natal depression would have been so much harder. That is why it has been great to see the approach to tackling Health and Safety evolve through to include positively managing mental wellbeing take place in my own working environment over the last few years.
As a water company we have a large operational and construction bias. So naturally we have had a real focus on creating a positive, open culture around behaving safely. Over the last five years this has seen our accident frequency rate drop from 0.37in 2009/10 to 0.11 today. A big part of this was getting down to the level of understanding behavioural drivers that deliver a safety culture and then empowering our staff to do the right thing irrespective of whatever their level in the company hierarchy.
Seeing the successes that came from this approach encouraged us to expand from safety into the wider aspects of health or what you might consider wellbeing. This took the form of understanding the impact of diet, but not just on health but on concentration and productivity too. It was also the recognition that a more sedentary lifestyle was becoming the working norm and having business impacts e.g. muscular-skeletal problems ; whether behind a desk or behind the wheel of a car, van or tanker. As you can imagine our interventions manifested themselves as new healthy options in our canteens, weight loss campaigns and a “Get Active” programme including promoting walking meetings. Again much of this work was based on understanding the underlying behaviours and the successful interventions have contributed to our sickness rates dropping to an average of 4 days/per/employee/year from 10 in 2009/10.
With the positive management of safety and physical wellbeing becoming embedded in the company the final piece of the jigsaw came with shining a light on mental wellbeing. Mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK and is on the increase. 15.2 million days of sickness absence in 2013 were caused by everyday conditions such as stress anxiety or depression – a dramatic increase from 11.8 million days in 2010.
It is still a subject that people don’t always understand and so find it hard to discuss. Many still fear what others in the workplace might think of them if they do talk openly about their experiences. That is why we signed up to the “Time to Change” campaign; it naturally aligned with our wish to create an open culture and a resilient workforce. Getting employees from every level of the business to share their stories really helped to get people talking. We know that there is a long way to go but my own experience of sharing through becoming the “face of” alcohol awareness, Dry January and then “Time to Talk” and writing weekly blogs lead to flurries of emails, texts and face to face conversations from people across our company who wanted to share their own stories too.
Our CEO, Peter Simpson, truly believes that shifting from a reactive to a proactive position on wellbeing has shown a significant return on investment; a positive impact on medical insurance premiums, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and engagement. He now chairs the Business in the Community Wellbeing at Work leadership team (and I sit on that team too) and in May they launched a new Mental Health Toolkit, developed in partnership with Public Health England. It’s designed to help employers kick start their wellbeing journey. We have worked with some of the SMEs in our supply chain to road test it, as it’s useful for any size of business, and you can find their case studies in the toolkit online.
But even more important than the toolkit is the launch of The National Employee Mental Wellbeing Survey which is open now and through until 29th July.
The survey will take place annually over three years, and it aims to raise public and employer awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing; including the crucial role of the line manager. But perhaps more important is to iidentify how equipped line managers and employees are in spotting the early warning signs of poor mental health, how confident they feel about having a conversation around mental health, and to signpost colleagues to appropriate support.
They want to hear from all UK employees – line managers, senior leaders, direct reports – in order to give a complete picture of workers’ mental wellbeing now, what employers are doing about it, and what needs to change.
Every opinion counts.
I have taken the survey, it only takes 15 minutes and it might just make you think. So as an interested and enlightened member of the Crowd I wanted to ask you to take part and send a clear and united signal that now is the time to finally remove the stigma around mental health in UK workplaces.
So, back to the radio.
Talking about mental wellbeing can’t be a passing trend, a fad, a fashion, it has to become the acceptable norm. It’s up to all of us to create a culture at work and in general society where we can talk about this openly. If we can do this then it will be better for society, better for us as employees and it will be better for us as employers.
So please take a moment to take the survey and start talking, it might help you or someone you love one day.