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Mental health awareness in large companies

Getting the message across that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’ comes with its own set of challenges, especially in larger organisations

According to mental health campaign group Time to Change mental health is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK: costing businesses around £1,000 per employee per year. But 95% of employees calling in sick with stress give a different reason for their absence.

The impact of stress-related mental health issues on productivity and workplace morale is therefore huge, so addressing this problem has to be a key priority for HR teams. Getting an entire company on side – from the boardroom to the factory floor – requires a complex and thoughtful communication strategy. We certainly found this while formulating and implementing our own mental health awareness campaign.

Communisis has more than 2,100 employees across 17 countries. More than 850 of our colleagues work in our manufacturing plants and don’t have, or need, access to a computer for their role. From the offset we recognised that a company-wide email wasn’t going to cut it.

We wanted to show that wellbeing is a priority for our business. With this in mind we launched an awareness campaign with the focal point being a public commitment to the Time To Change pledge and donating 500 working hours a year to raising awareness of mental health issues.

Alongside this, we have an internal programme to improve understanding of mental health and to help employees who might be suffering to seek help. Since the implementation we’ve seen a genuine change in attitude within the business, and this has taught us lessons around how to effectively initiate a framework for future HR programmes.

First and foremost, top-down doesn’t work. You can’t just tell people to be more aware. You need to encourage a groundswell of support and incorporate take-aways and key messages into the campaign that are valuable to a variety of stakeholders.

With this in mind, getting line managers and team leaders on board is key. It’s an obvious point to make, but when an employee is unsure about something their first port of call is likely to be their boss. Bringing line managers into the know ahead of time, and equipping them with the tools to support their teams, gives them the opportunity to understand what we are trying to achieve.

What’s also important to remember is that influence doesn’t necessarily line up with seniority. Large companies are effectively a community in their own right; where social structures are just as important as corporate ones.

That’s why, in our campaign, we invited colleagues from across the company to volunteer to be our mental health ambassadors. They now help to promote the key messages of the programme and act as the frontline of our support network.

Importantly, our ambassadors are not just managers: they are technicians, marketers, engineers – a range of people who have really embraced what we’re trying to achieve.

The next lesson was the importance of a multi-channel approach. Many businesses strive for it when engaging customers, yet surprisingly few venture beyond the basic email blast when communicating to their employees. But we’ve found that a one-size-fits-all approach to communications rarely works – whether you’re talking to customers or colleagues.

For example, colleagues on the manufacturing side of the business might benefit more from posters or noticeboards in the canteen. Equally, team members who spend most of the day sitting at a screen might get more out of face-to-face drop in sessions. One tactic that we find particularly effective is to attach information to payslips.

The last step is to ensure that what is communicated results in change. Getting employees to engage is much harder if they don’t feel the business has bought in first, so showcasing results and outcomes is key.

The campaign has now evolved beyond a wellbeing programme to something that is an integral part of how we plan and run our business. For instance, we would consult our mental health ambassadors when looking at new office layouts or reviewing group policy to make sure it is sympathetic to mental health impacts.

Ultimately a successful HR initiative is one that generates benefits for both employees and the business. Our mental health awareness campaign taught us that it’s vital not to take a tick-box approach, and instead set out intending to make lasting changes.

Andrew Neal is group HR director at Communisis Group