Engineering a better way for mental health

As Edwin James Group celebrates the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) World Mental Health Day  on 10th October 2021, Rollo Wood, Health and Safety Director for the group, shares this thoughts on why this is such an important topic for our people.

World Mental Health Day is a chance for individuals and businesses to prioritise and shine a spotlight on their own mental health practices; recognising the importance of helping teams recognise, deal with and prevent mental health issues and acknowledge that more needs to be done to change the narrative around the topic.

I’m now three months into my role as the Health and Safety Director at the Edwin James Group and I’m incredibly proud of the initiatives we have in place and the strides we’re making to provide year-round mental health and wellness support to our teams. In light of World Mental Health Day, I wanted to add to the momentum, and thought it would be useful to share some of the initiatives and steps we’re taking to provide relevant and meaningful actions and strategies for our people. I strongly believe that mental health should not only be part of any leadership agenda, but also something that colleagues can feel comfortable talking about openly.

There are currently three significant initiatives in play across the Edwin James Group, all of which I believe are having a positive impact on our teams’ wellness and mental health:

The first is our team of brilliant Mental Health First Aider Volunteers. Across the Group, we now have 16 trained mental health first aiders, all of whom are qualified to listen, support and signpost their colleagues to places which will be able to give them further specialist advice. These individuals are caring and compassionate, and we make sure everyone across our company knows who they can turn to if they need an ear.

Second up are our wellbeing courses, run for free for anyone who want to take them through our dedicated EJ Academy. Education and awareness are vital when it comes to mental health, and the courses cover helping people support themselves and others; communication and listening skills, how to respond in a crisis and how to design personal wellbeing strategies. We’re always adding to the list of courses available, and soon there will be even more under the wider ‘wellness’ banner.

Finally, The Group has recently introduced a new healthcare benefit for all employees, offering them access to BUPA’s Anytime Health Line, which provides trusted support and advice 24/7 365 days a year. Giving people who might otherwise struggle to speak out access to this sort of professional advice is so much more than a box ticking exercise – it’s a lifeline.

Engineering, Men, and Mental Health

Perhaps this is a good point to speak a little about my own experience with mental health and wellbeing.

Over the years I’ve worked in some challenging jobs and, at times, found it difficult to switch off when away from work. As I’m sure most people have experienced at some point, I would find myself constantly worrying about stuff that I had no control over. On occasions, my family would comment that, “I wasn’t happy unless I was worrying about something”!

However, on these occasions I was lucky enough to be part of a team that recognised the importance of mental health and wellbeing. I worked in an environment where it was ok to talk openly about our challenges, discuss problems and share ways to tackle any issues.

From these discussions I was able to develop my own ‘coping mechanisms’.

I took more time for friendships and activities out of work, started volunteering and also becoming a season ticket holder with my son at Macclesfield Town.

I focused on becoming more physically fit. I try to get out on my bike for at least 30 minutes a day and I play squash twice a week. Believe me when I say that it’s impossible to worry about work when I’m trying to figure how to beat my squash partners who are arguably two of the most competitive people I know!

And, I switched my attitude towards work and now treat it as an opportunity for learning and experiencing something new every day. I am really grateful to the Edwin James Group for the opportunity to experience life in a different sector and for helping me work towards one of my long-held ambitions to become a chartered member of IOSH and IEMA.

I share my story because of the value of working in an environment where it’s ok to talk. Because, (I generalise here), the consensus is that men are far more likely to bottle up their feelings and avoid talking about their mental health and therefore we need to help them open up. Whether we like it or not, the engineering industry remains a predominantly male industry and this fact makes creating robust strategies for mental health even more important.

There are two key challenges to creating mental health strategies in engineering:

  • We don’t have the visibility of mental health. Engineers and engineering companies have laser-sharp focus on physical injuries – every practice and policy dots every i and crosses every t to ensure people are safe from physical harm. We monitor the data constantly across projects and we pride ourselves on excellent track records for safety. But we haven’t got the same for mental health issues, which makes it more difficult to create the sense of urgency around addressing the problem.
  • We still need to overcome the stigma around mental health. The only way we can truly tackle mental health is first to normalise it, and we all need to be responsible for creating an environment whereby people feel safe and confident to share their experiences and express coping strategies.

Traditionally there has been a lack of support in the engineering sector, but the good news is this is changing.

Leadership and mental health

Leadership has probably THE most critical role when opening up the conversation around mental health. Leaders set the expectations, and what they say and do is noticed by everyone. In my mind there are three things good leaders do to support better mental health in their teams:

  • Create the right environment – provide an open dialogue and actively encourage conversations around wellness
  • Recognise the signs – Great leaders not only recognise the signs of mental health issues, they are also able to take the right actions to help. Often people, especially in the engineering sector struggle for weeks, months, years in silence, a good leader will spot these signs much faster.
  • Leaders should know how to respond when approached by someone about mental health

In short, great leaders are approachable and show care for their employees.

The future – a two-way dialogue to create meaningful actions 

Off the back of our soon-to-be-published Edwin James Group ESG report, there is a commitment to create a new group-wide employee wellbeing taskforce, which will continue our work to build a healthier working environment for all employees, whether they are office or site based. The great thing about the wellbeing taskforce is that it will create a two-way dialogue with our people about mental health. And to make sure we’re taking the right actions that are relevant and meaningful to our people. Rather than taking a top-down approach, we’re seeking the two-way dialogue that will show us what is most effective for our diverse and sometimes disparate teams.

The workforce will be made up of people from a diverse range of roles across the whole Group – from those working in the offices, to those on site and in the workshops. By doing that, we’re going to enrich the conversation about mental health awareness. These people will already have the enthusiasm to bring ideas for how we can tackle mental health at Edwin James, and we cannot wait to hear what they come up with.

The focus on mental health is so important because it’s shifting the narrative around mental health in its entirety – I’m seeing that employers are starting to talk more about mental health and seeking resources to better help their employees. It’s so important we keep this momentum going.

Last year (2020), according to the Health and Safety Executive, the UK lost almost 18 million working days to work related stress, depression and anxiety. And that’s increasing.

Mental health is simply too important to ignore.

#WorldMentalHealthDay   ‘Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality’