OH&W Awards – ‘We are very focused on ensuring mental health is not swept under the carpet’

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By taking a holistic approach to wellbeing, one combining healthy eating, physical activity, mental wellbeing, changing habits and leadership, the British Heart Foundation has improved not only the health and wellbeing of its employees but also engagement, transparency around mental health and sickness absence. In the process, it made the charity a worthy winner of the ‘OH team of the year (public sector)’ category in last year’s Occupational Health & Wellbeing Awards. 

“Over the last few years – and I don’t think this is unique to us – we have seen the tide shifting when it comes to absence, with musculo-skeletal being surpassed by stress and mental health. It’s not necessarily work-related stress, it’s stress and pressure in its broadest sense; often in fact there is no clear divide between work and personal life.”

So explains Sarah Danes, head of wellbeing, safety and resilience at the British Heart Foundation, around some of the thinking behind the charity’s focus on improving wellbeing and mental health that led to it winning the “OH team of the year (public sector)” category in last year’s Occupational Health & Wellbeing Awards.

BHF developed its strategic approach nearly five years ago, after an employee engagement survey found there was room for significant improvement in its measure of if staff felt the BHF cared about them, with many retail staff feeling unable to take a break. The result was a wellbeing programme called “Live well. Work well.” that aims to inspire and support BHF staff to live a healthy and happy life, at home and at work. See the panel at the end for more on the programme.

Mental health has been a key area of focus for the programme. “The wellbeing programme and the survey we run each year have shown an increase in requests to be able to talk about mental health more openly, to understand it better and, particularly for our managers, to know how to lead and to open conversations around it,” says Sarah.

“We are very focused on ensuring mental health is not swept under the carpet, because we know that the key to unlocking stigma is to talk about the issue, to make the workplace somewhere where it is acceptable to talk about mental health,” she adds.

Giving people control over their health and wellbeing

Beyond the work around wellbeing and mental health, day-to-day occupational health support at BHF is delivered through an external, contracted service managed through the HR function. “It is used more for where there are individual, one-to-one needs for assessment or specialist input and support,” explains Sarah.

“Occupational health support forms part of our strategy to support our colleagues, and it provides us with the background and knowledge to create and craft messaging around particular wellbeing campaigns and topics. However the overall management of our wellbeing approach is done internally,” she adds.

Whatever the intervention, however, whether occupational health or wellbeing, the key is always ensuring people have some control over influencing and driving it, advises Sarah.

“It goes without saying that you need senior-level engagement, that’s a given. You need your senior leadership to champion it, to role model it That is absolutely essential. But, for me, what is fundamental in turning something like this into sustainable change is getting your people involved.

“We have consciously at every step of our work and wellbeing programme, sought to engage our people to help craft and shape it. For example, when we started to focus on mental health two years ago we pulled together a working group that was representative of the workforce across the business at all levels, not just management,” says Sarah.

“In fact, there were very few senior managers, if any, in this forum. We had about 20 individuals who we invited to come and invest a bit of their time. We met about 3-4 times, a couple of hours each in duration. And we used that space to get a sense of what does good mental health look like? What would they want the BHF as an organisation to be doing to best support them?

“The output was a very clear written vision for mental health; what we were aspiring to be. And then around that it enabled us to develop a framework of the pillars, the elements, that we felt we would need to establish and maintain to enable that vision to come to life.

“It is about personal ownership, but recognising it was underpinned by commitment from the business through resource, capacity, leadership – whatever it might need to make this happen,” Sarah adds.

Finally, when it comes to the value of entering awards, the ability to reflect on what you’re doing and the learning you can potentially gain from other winners or entrants is a big motivation, Sarah argues.

“For us, we haven’t entered any award just for the kudos. It’s not just about a badge on a wall or a certificate in a frame, although that is certainly nice of course. It is about us being in a position to share what we have learnt. And some of that can be about having the opportunity to reflect on what we have not done so well as well as what has been successful,” Sarah says.

“To be able to give that shared learning, and to help others along the way; to take what some of our pitfalls have been, what worked really well, and to hopefully make it easier for others. Because, after all, it is for the benefit of everybody,” she adds.

The British Heart Foundation OH team in a nutshell

  • In-house functions split between health and safety and wellbeing, led by head of wellbeing, safety and resilience Sarah Danes, including a newly appointed wellbeing engagement manager.
  • The internal team supports reasonable adjustments and support where possible, and where specialist support is required, an external contract/provider provides advice and makes recommendations.
  • Staff have access to an Employee Asssistance Programme provided by Livewell Optum and Retail Trust, more than 40 wellbeing “leaders” and more than 115 mental health “ambassadors”, who have undertaken the two-day course developed by Mental Health First Aid England. Both the wellbeing leaders and mental health ambassadors are provided with ongoing continued professional development to support them to undertake their roles.
  • As a health charity, the BHF works to ensure its employees “know their numbers” around blood pressure, so they can assess their own health risks. Currently, employees are also offered blood pressure testing training and there are forthcoming pilots of employee health checks.
  • Line managers are mandated to undergo a one-day training course on mental health and all staff can access an e-learning mental health awareness module.
  • The team serves 4,500 employees, of which approximately 3,200 are employed in the retail network.

How the British Heart Foundation was an OH&W winner

It was the turnaround story, as well as its demonstrable impact, that was at the heart of the British Heart Foundation’s wellbeing team winning the “OH team of the year (public sector)” category in last year’s Occupational Health & Wellbeing Awards.

After a staff engagement survey in 2015 found that a significant proportion workforce felt unable to agree with the statement that the charity “cared about them” and many retail staff felt unable to take a break at work, the BHF recognised it needed to be prioritising staff mental health and wellbeing.

It developed a wellbeing programme – called “Live well. Work well.” – around five pillars: healthy eating, physical activity, mental wellbeing, changing habits and leadership.

Wellbeing “leaders” were selected to influence the programme, which was supported by its senior managers. Team walks and healthy eating challenges were offered, while retail staff were encouraged to take a break during their working day – something that many said they did not have time for previously. The BHF made significant investment into responding to issues raised, including a back of house revamp programme to ensure that all staff and volunteers had somewhere to sit and take a break.

On top of this, blood pressure testing was introduced, with 27 employees trained to deliver this and further staff due to be trained this spring. Mental health first aid training (MHFA) was also rolled out to those wishing to be mental health “ambassadors” to support their peers. An interactive map was introduced to help staff find their nearest ambassador. Both wellbeing leaders and ambassadors receive continued professional development to assist them in undertaking their roles.

On “Time to Talk Day” in February 2018, BHF director of people and organisational development Kerry Smith sent round a personalised email to all 4,000 staff asking: “How are you?”.

This, said the BHF in its entry, helped open up an organisation-wide conversation about mental health. Leaders and line managers also receive mandatory mental health training.

A “Take a break” campaign was launched to encourage retail staff to take some time away from their roles, while resilience was improved through mindfulness sessions and financial management courses.

All this activity led to tangible results. Some 67% of staff said they now felt comfortable disclosing a mental health issue to their manager, more than 350 managers had been trained in mental health awareness and absenteeism was down from 7.3 to 5.4 days. The proportion of people reporting that the BHF cared about its people increased significantly, absenteeism reduced from 7.3 to 5.4 days and there was a decrease in the organisations’ average body mass index from 27.8 to 26.8 in one year.

Our judges praised the BHF’s programme of activity as “impressive”, describing it as showing “well-documented measurement of clear impact.”

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