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Giving mind to the work place

We catch up with one of our Mental Health First Aiders for her perspective on wellbeing at the office.

It’s been more than a year since we started our Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) pilot. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to Heather, principal engineer, about her experience as one of these first aiders. Read on to see how our programme is helping us embrace the subject of mental wellbeing and offering valuable support.

What does a MHFA actually do?

We’re there to listen non-judgementally and show people how to access help. I spend alot of time ‘listening between the lines.’ Often, “I’m fine” really means, “I’m not great but I don’t know how to say it—or don’t know if I should.”

How do you train to be a mental health first aider?

You can do an intensive two-day training course. It is hard-hitting as you learn about a large number of mental health conditions. It really challenges any preconceived ideas you might have about mental health, and highlights how prevalent and how varied it can be. All of the company’s courses are delivered through MIND.

The theme for Mental Health Awareness week 2018 is ‘stress: are we coping?’ What is the significance of this for us at Atkins?

During the past year we were acquired by SNC-Lavalin and it doesn’t matter what a company does or doesn’t do, change is always stressful. As we approach the end of our first year as Atkins SNC-Lavalin we continue to experience change. Mental Health Awareness Week along with SNC-Lavalin’s Health Safety Environment Week is the perfect opportunity for all of us to take stock of the stress in our lives. And when things are tough, to have the confidence to talk about it with the people we work with. The proverb is true, a worry shared is a worry halved.

What do you do personally to support your own workplace wellbeing?

I love to take a quick lunch time walk to enjoy some fresh air, nature and a chat- I prefer to walk with a friend if possible. When my diary is full and I’m not able to get out, I try to walk a couple of flights of stairs instead of using the lift, just having five minutes away from my desk helps. I have a little ‘how are you doing’ icon on the back of my phone. Sometimes just acknowledging that, for whatever reason, things are not quite right can be enough to stop a not-brilliant day turning into a bad one. (A secret stash of chocolate and lollipops helps too!)

What does Atkins, UK & Europe, do differently to other workplaces?

We’ve started the conversation and are allowing time for discussion. What started as a pilot of 20 trained MHFAs with a plan to get to 40 by the end of the year, has snowballed to 49 in the first year AND a plan to increase trained MHFAs to 100 by the end of the summer! We haven’t had any ‘tangible results’ except for recorded numbers of conversations between staff and MHFAs. But what stands out, is how we have seen the possible benefits, and instead of waiting, we’re going forward fully committed. We aren't just paying lip service to a passing trend, we’re creating a lasting legacy.
 
What steps can individuals take to look after their own mental health in the workplace?

Be aware and open when you’re suffering. It might be difficult to start the conversation but you’ll start to feel better when you do. The sooner you reach out, the quicker you’ll recover and possibly avoid a full mental health breakdown. If you know that you will be hitting a stressful period of deliveries, then plan in some small things to make your day a little brighter. A quick coffee with a friend, a walk, a treat or evening activities to balance out the work stress.

What three tips would you give to organisations looking to improve their approaches to workplace wellbeing and help their employees thrive?

GO for it, this is not something which can be easily tangibly measured. You have to have the faith that you’re doing the right thing. Show you care, but make it permanent not just a phase. We need to keep the dialogue fresh and engaging. It’s not a passing wonder but something which is moving towards business as usual—employees who are empowered to seek help from a MHFA in the same way that they’d go to a physical first aider.

What is the most common thing you hear from people who live with mental health conditions?

“Because it is not visible like a broken leg, people don’t see it, from the outside I look normal but on the inside I’m anything but normal.”

Why do you think there is such a stigma associated with mental health conditions?

Memory has not forgotten the asylums of the past. Mental health has been seen as a weakness from which you can never recover. Whenever there is a tragic crime, the press will play on the perpetrator being mentally unstable. This misperception becomes attached to everyone who lives day-in and day-out with mental health conditions even though they would never be a danger to themselves or others.

How can we start to destigmatise this in our culture?

Mental Health needs to become normalised in the same way that cancer is. Not many years ago cancer was seen as a death sentence, now it’s something that many people recover from, going on to enjoy long, healthy lives. Mental health is the same, just because you have had an episode it does not mean that you are going to relapse.

What would you want people with mental health conditions to know?

That you are not the only one going through this, and help is available in many forms.

The hardest step is asking for support. The journey won’t be quick or easy but once you’ve made that first step you will gradually get well again. The earlier you reach out the faster your recovery time. Be brave today and talk to someone. If you can’t gain immediate access to Mental Health support through your GP, then see if your company has an Employee Advantage Programme that offers counselling sessions. You can call the Samaritans on 116123. They will listen confidentially and without judgement. They can’t and don’t store your telephone number, so won’t be able to call you back. Their lines are open 24/7, 365 days a year, and staffed by volunteers who want to listen and help.

How can we support the colleagues we work with who have mental health conditions?

Do not accept “I’m fine” as a response to “how are you?” Stop and listen to the full answer. Be non-judgemental, it’s really difficult for people to admit that they have an issue, and unlike a physical illness it is invisible. Listen kindly and provide support as appropriate.

What is your top message to employers and HR professionals following Mental Health Awareness week?

Listen to the people you work with and get the conversation started. Be an example, be empowered to say, ‘actually I’m having a bad day/lots of bad days/I need help.' Do not try to be a counsellor, point people to professional help. If you’re on the fence, just jump in and train MHFAs for each of your offices and, or workplaces you may just be surprised at the response you receive. This is not something for a single week, or just a year but something that can add real benefit to your organisation for the long term.