Creating a culture of care at Thames Water – Mental Health At Work
Case study

Creating a culture of care at Thames Water

Karl Simons
Karl Simons

Chief Health, Safety & Security Officer,
Thames Water

5 minutes

Thames Water is the largest water and wastewater company in the UK, serving 15 million people across London and the Thames Valley. With 7,000 sites across their catchment area, its staff breaks ground 10,000 times a month. In summary, it’s a large and complex organisation.

When Karl Simons arrived in 2012 with a responsibility for health and safety, injuries and other safety incidents were an ongoing problem. But, importantly, the vast majority of these could be attributed to distraction or lapses in judgment. “If you think about that, it’s all coming from what they’re concentrating on.”

This observation pointed the way to a solution. “There wasn’t really a health strategy that was supporting our people. We needed to begin a process with a very different approach.” Ultimately, they introduced a model that doesn’t seek to separate staff’s physical and psychological wellbeing; they’re two sides of the same coin. Karl gives a striking example: if a 2% drop in hydration leads to a 20% drop in concentration, “give them all water bottles, and you’ll boost concentration and reduce incidents.”

The idea is to drop the stigma. Mental health isn’t a dirty word.

Thames Water’s strategy involves a few different strands, all simply described in their leaflet for staff​Time to talk: Our mental health strategy PDF 1 0 Thames Water has published its employee mental health strategy in a brief, colourful booklet accessible to all staff. It outlines why mental health is important, the measures they're putting in place and what staff can do.Free By: Thames Water View resource. Making this available to everyone is all part of lowering the stigma around mental health—making it clear that this is an environment where it’s OK to talk. “The idea is to drop the stigma. Mental health isn’t a dirty word—we all have mental health as well as physical health. We should be drip-feeding: constantly communicating about mental health awareness.” They’ve created a series of internal videos, from a Thames Water version of the Time To Change Be In Your Mate’s Corner video​Be in your colleague’s corner: Thames Water version Video 0 0 Thames Water produced this film featuring their staff, based on the Time to Change 'Be In Your Mate's Corner' campaign video. It's all about encouraging employees to look out for each other and offer a listening ear.Free By: Thames Water View resource, to a not-entirely-sensible behind-the-scenes look​Open Thoughts: Thames Water video Video 0 0 Thames Water produced this short video that does two things. Firstly, introduce employees to Open Thoughts, their initiative to make it clear that it's OK for staff to speak openly about anything that's bothering them. And secondly, make people laugh.Free By: Thames Water View resource at the branding experts working on their mental health initiative.

Three colleagues stand near a flipchart making strange gestures and facial expressions

Linked to this, they have trained staff across the organisation in mental health first aid​Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England two day workplace training Web page 5 0 Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England offers a variety of training for employers across the UK. This two day workplace course will qualify you as a Mental Health First Aider.Paid forRequires pre-booking By: Mental Health First Aid England View resource, produced leaflets​Mental health first aid: leaflet example PDF 0 0 This leaflet tells Thames Water employees that there are qualified mental health first aiders available, and lists other sources of support too. It's an example of how you can encourage staff to seek help when they need it.Free By: Thames Water View resource and posters​Talk to me: poster examples PDF 0 0 Thames Water has produced these posters to encourage their staff to talk to their colleagues who are qualified mental health first aiders. They're an example of how any organisation might raise awareness that help is available.Free By: Thames Water View resource so staff know who they can talk to, and created guidance for line managers in talking about mental health​SPOT, Talk, Help: A manager’s guide PDF 0 0 Thames Water has produced a guide to help line managers in the organisation support people in their teams who are experiencing mental health difficulties. It's brief, colourful and filled with specific tips and signposts to further information.Free By: Thames Water View resource. It’s all about embedding a certain kind of atmosphere: “Creating a culture of care is one of the best things any company can do.”

The cultural aspects apply at all levels: from what people say at senior management level, to the way all employees interact with one another, to the physical surroundings: “The environment we’re putting people into–does it look nice? Does it feel nice?” Thames Water staff are in all sorts of environments, from corporate offices to street corners to subterranean tunnels—but, for Karl, focusing on those differences misses the point. “Whether it’s onsite or in the office is irrelevant. It should be a healthy working environment. The perception is that the Operations teams are in a much riskier environment; but it’s only riskier if we don’t control it properly. And the risks only manifest when we put human beings into the activity. So if you really understand the way people work, you can have an impact really quickly.”

It costs £50 to MOT your vehicle. It costs the same £50 to MOT your people.

There are more formalised support systems too. Employees have an annual health check, picking up early signs of physical health problems and looking at their mental wellbeing at the same time. “It costs £50 to MOT your vehicle; it costs the same £50 to MOT your people.” And, just as you can’t separate the physical from the mental, you can’t separate the home from the work. “We can’t expect people to be robots and say ‘leave your home life at home.'” So, the majority of issues that their Occupational Health team and help with tend to be home or personal issues, but that’s fine: “The working environment can help. My view is they should be healthier when they leave work than when they arrive.”

A smiling woman saying

An example of how Thames Water signposts staff to mental health information on their internal system, Bluebytes

So, how has this all been received—and how well has it worked? “The videos work well,” and there are more in the pipeline. (Unfortunate water-based pun entirely accidental.) They’ve seen a 75% reduction in time lost due to injuries, and an 80% reduction in time lost due to illness. But, more than that, Thames Water conducts a regular ‘cultural survey’ to see what staff are thinking and feeling. “The impact, not only on KPIs but culturally, on how people feel about the organisation, has been remarkable.”

For others who might be just starting out, what would Karl recommend? A great first step is just to make it clear to staff what support is already available​Mental health first aid: leaflet example PDF 0 0 This leaflet tells Thames Water employees that there are qualified mental health first aiders available, and lists other sources of support too. It's an example of how you can encourage staff to seek help when they need it.Free By: Thames Water View resource. “While you’re off trying new initiatives you should never lose sight of what you’re already doing.”” From there, don’t be afraid to get other organisations in to help. “We work very closely with Time to Change​Time to Change Employer Pledge Web page 7 0 The Time to Change Employer Pledge is a great way to show that you are committed to changing attitudes to mental health in the workplace.Free By: Time to Change View resource. Time To Change is like laying the carpet before you put the furniture in. It helps you to decide what to put in place.”

80% of everything I do is cost-neutral. It's just about deciding to do it.

Another clear lesson is that it needn’t be about grand transformation from the outset. “You’ve got to start somewhere. Small introductions of things that don’t cost a lot of money but can have a big impact. 80% of everything I do is cost-neutral. It’s just about deciding to do it.” From a strategic perspective, Karl suggests avoiding five- to ten-year strategies. “Your CEO will change and then it’ll be different again.” They simply get together every February or March and decide what they’d like to do that year.

You've got to look after your people.

Not everyone works at an organisation the size of Thames Water. But there’s a role for larger companies in encouraging their smaller suppliers and clients to look after their staff. “We have an essential standard that’s a contractual obligation across our supply chain about how we expect health and wellbeing to be addressed.”

In the end, whatever an organisation’s size, Karl’s thoughts are the same. “Industry has a responsibility to support the people within its charge. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a major safety-critical organisation or an SME employing a handful of people. You’ve got to look after your people.”


Karl Simons

Karl Simons
Chief Health, Safety & Security Officer, 

Thames Water

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