Emma Saccomani - Bags of mental health goodies and advice!

Emma Saccomani is a MHFA and i-act instructor and Mental wellbeing speaker and have provided a great blog around helping manage mental health - lots of great links to experts too. Bags of mental health goodies to help your workplace thrive!

Sowing the seeds and building the foundations

Have you been burying your head in the sand, don't know where to start or too scared to contemplate opening the can of worms? The thing, the can is already open, and your workplace is fully exposed through your sickness absence, staff turnover and presenteeism figures.

If it's the top team that don't think there's a problem, accept the reality of a mismatch between how board members feel their organisation is doing and what is happening on the ground: According to the BITC mental health at work report 3 in 5 board members feel their organisation does ‘very well’ supporting employees with mental health issues but only 11% of the employees surveyed felt able to disclose their mental health issues specifically with a line manager. Arm yourselves with the business case which is well established, and have your own figures ready to share. Speaking their language will help them understand that addressing the issues will build your organisation’s resilience and be good for the bottom line.

Use a framework to help you build a step-by-step approach The BITC mental health toolkit and How to implement thriving at work report will give you a wealth of ideas, but don't get overwhelmed by the task in hand, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Introduce some quick wins, it takes minutes to sign up to Able Futures, the free Access to Work Mental Health Support Service. You'll to get promotional materials to advertise the service to employees, a toolkit and advice on supporting a worker with a mental health condition. Here's how it works:

  • Employees or apprentices over 16, in Britain, with mental health difficulties that impact their work, are likely to be eligible.
  • They don't even have to tell their workplace but can involve them if they feel that would help.
  • Once signed-up, they will get a call within one working day and a qualified health care professionals with experience of helping people with mental health difficulties will work online and face-face and to provide a 6 month support plan, with ongoing support for a further three months should they feel they need it. 
  • They can self-refer, regardless of whether their workplace is enrolled, so get signposting to Able Futures now!

Build a team and engage with all areas of the business, not just HR and Health and Safety, so it doesn’t feel like imposition from above, and reflects the broader culture and experiences from the front line. Leadership input is essential and if a leader can share their personal journey with mental health challenges, it's a particularly powerful message that this really is about reducing stigma and creating sustainable change. Sometimes a bottom-up approach is the only way to gain momentum, but it's important dedicated individuals remember self-care.

Take a commitment - The Time to Change employer pledge is a manageable, free way for your organisation to demonstrate its duty of care and create an environment where it feels safe to start to be open about mental health. It builds in accountability with seven action steps and obligates leadership involvement through the signing by a senior sponsor. It's so important to get mental health out of the HR box so Time to Change advise getting a sponsor from another area of the business to be the leader that signs the pledge.

Be honest in your communications about the challenges with developing your approach and don’t sugar coat the message which can feel patronising. It’s tempting to ‘over-showcase’ in our social media age. I've known business leader’s keener on using Time to Change pledges to chase diversity awards than getting the basics right on the ground.

Get a plan in place to review and embed mental health into existing policies ACAS - Promoting Positive Mental Health in the Workplace and MIND and CIPD guide have plenty of practical tips. Sense check the wording of policy generated letters, for example in relation to sickness absence or termination of employment due to a disability. Imagine the impact of language that is more appropriate to a disciplinary process and build in a helpful tone that feels human and enables the individual to retain their dignity, whilst explaining processes in a practical user-friendly way. In other words would it win a Plain English award or at least not offend them (and of course the equivalent for Welsh/Cymraeg clir )?

There's training and then there's training, but never magic solutions!

Training is a key recommendation in any approach, but there's no one size fits all and don't rush for shiny quick fixes. Mental Health First Aid (see below) has its place and I'm a Mental Health First Aid instructor, but I'll never automatically offer this as I'll want to discuss a preventative model through training, not just a first response approach, and every training intervention must include context, a discussion of roles and responsibilities and next steps. Don't forget, the hard work always begins outside of the classroom. Here's some food for thought from my journey supporting workplaces and extensive volunteer work:

Introductory awareness sessions for all - it can work well to start with a light touch, flexible and accessible Lunch and Learn type session that aims to get the conversation started, breaks down stigma, includes spotting the signs, the value of non-judgemental listening, signposting, safety and self-care awareness. It can also be a way of enlisting an employee from around the business interested in helping you build your workplace strategy. It's not a solution in its own right but I know I've made a difference even at large scale Health & Safety events when individuals come up after and tell me that they'd never heard, for example, of the specialist charity BEAT and it's given them hope after years of being at a loss with supporting a family member, or they have Bipolar Disorder and didn't know about the workplace assistance that Bipolar UK provide.

Specialist Manager training is the big priority to equip them with the tools to have safe conversations around mental health and wellbeing with their teams, and confidently support a team member with mental health issues, including time off sick and return to work. Importantly help them promote positive wellbeing in the workplace and help build their own and their team's resilience. Dedicated manager training is less widely available and advertised compared to MHFA options and it's always felt like the missing link. I started developing my own programme but when I came across "i-act Managing and Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing" an accredited programme with CPD points and a user-friendly manual packed full of resources, it made sense to upskill as an instructor. I'm much happier about promoting this model because it combines prevention as well as early intervention, and my priority is always about sharing practical tools. I've been doing my bit to spread the word as I think MHFA instructors would benefit from at least attending the course as a participant in order to build their own skills. It's vital training solutions specifically address their manager role because generic training sells us all short and, in the words, of IOSH:

A good line manager will foster the kind of working environment that makes employees feel valued, respected and supported, and will act as a ‘gatekeeper’ protecting them from any working conditions that present risks to their mental wellbeing. Conversely, a bad line manager can aggravate and, in some cases, even be the cause of stress, anxiety and depression.” IOSH line manager report.

Dedicated employee training to promote positive mental health and wellbeing is well worth considering too, rather than just an introductory session, as previously mentioned. We don't want to just catch employees when they fall, where possible we want to prevent problems from occurring in the first place and how much more valued will they feel if you give them comprehensive and practical tools for managing stress, anxiety and low mood. Many organisations choose to sign up their teams to the employee version of i-act, after the managers promote the benefits of their team members experiencing positive prevention messages and tools first-hand.

Mental Health First Aid Training may be appropriate, depending on the size and specific needs of your organisation, for example you might want to appoint dedicated Mental Health First Aiders/champions, but you must ensure this role is defined and supported too. IOSH has a comprehensive report Mental Health First Aiders Workplace Considerations and MHFA England now sends all participants of the two day MHFA course Health First Aid workplace guidance. Equally an organisation might want to explore more complex mental health issues such as psychosis, and bi-polar disorder and cover suicide in depth, so I may recommend the two-day MHFA for this or customise my other workshops.

Measure the impact of any workplace initiatives. 

Use guidance in the toolkits and online publications such as MIND’s How to take stock of mental health in the workplace and Time To Change even has a simple mini-health check survey.

Build in accountability by joining MIND's own Wellbeing INDEX, or free initiatives like the Britain’s Healthiest Workplace or Workplace Wellbeing Charter suitable for businesses, whatever the size. 

Define what support is available at your workplace and signpost!

It's common for workplaces to offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) with a range of face-to-face and online support options, but equally common for employees not to know about it! Promote these at induction stage and regularly throughout the year, taking opportunities to link them with any communication themes. Make sure managers are aware too, and information is easily available for anyone not in the know by testing if a new starter could find it. For more information on EAPs visit the UK Voice of Employee Assistance.

Treat everyone as an individual and seek advice for specific challenges.

When the going gets tough, develop a curious mind and ensure your managers and HR specialists do too. Practising compassion and putting yourself in other’s shoes will help you to become solution focused. Don't take short cuts by making assumptions, or avoiding problems, take the time to resolve matters properly and ultimately make you and your team's lives easier.