Sometimes, it’s a shocking event that makes people realise they need to do more to support their colleagues’ mental health. For Alison Garbutt, it was when a friend and colleague at WHSmith took their own life. As she learned, that’s not an uncommon reason for people to want to take action.
Rolling out change across WHSmith
Head of Strategic Projects,
You can't fix the past, but you're determined to do something about the future.
“I was shocked at my own ignorance, and that of others.” Alison realised that she and those around her just weren’t equipped to have potentially difficult conversations about mental health. The more she looked into it, the more the lack of parity between mental and physical health, in terms of both understanding and the support that was available, became clear.
Alison decided to look into what could be done to move the workplace culture forward and approached Human Resources and WHSmith’s Group Risk Director for their agreement to put together a plan. “It’s really useful to have both HR and non-HR colleagues involved.” Getting them on board really helped putting forward the moral case and the business case for changing things—after all, according to the, 43% of all days lost due to ill health are categorised as stress.
Alison is keen to emphasise that she comes from a completely non-mental-health background. As Head of Strategic Projects, her role is to implement whatever might be a strategic priority for the business at a given time.
I used to say that mental health was completely outside of my remit—but now we realise it's strategically important to the business.
They agreed to focus on two approaches: raising awareness generally, and training key staff in mental health support. From her experience in I.T. project management, Alison knew that implementing an off-the-shelf solution that’s been tried, tested and developed is nearly always the most effective way, so they approachedand Mental Health First Aid England.
Almost immediately, WHSmith employees started seeing Time To Change materials—from postcards, to tea bags, to posters—all aimed at making it clear that it’s OK to talk about mental health. They’ve never stopped running regular events, often connected with dates like World Mental Health Day or Time To Talk Day. One innovation of theirs was a giant dot-to-dot on the wall: every time someone had a conversation about mental wellbeing, another line would be filled in. And a great highlight was the day WHSmith signed the Time To Change Employer Pledge, complete with a “depressed” cake competition.
At the same time, Mental Health First Aid England worked with Alison to plan how to useto get the biggest impact from their time and financial investment. The key element was in-depth training of in-house staff to become Mental Health First Aid trainers. It was then a matter of rolling the knowledge out across the company. “We realised that training managers and store managers would be the best way to cover the largest number of people.” And it’s been a great success: following training, people reported their confidence increasing by an average of 137% and their knowledge and understanding around mental health by 189%.
As managers across WHSmith have developed their knowledge around mental health, there have been lots of free resources they’ve found helpful too. “We use Mind’sregularly, and Mental Health First Aid England’s free is critical to us. I use it both with managers and with people who are managed – it’s a really clear guide to say ‘How might things work for me in relation to my mental health?'” And as for the future, there’s much more planned: training is still being rolled out, along with more awareness-raising activities, from a campaign to increase knowledge of their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) helpline to a blog site featuring people across all levels and functions sharing their experience of mental health.
Not everyone will be a supporter, but there is an unbelievable amount of support out there when you scratch the surface.
What are some of the key things Alison has learned about making a success of this? For one thing, getting buy-in at all levels made a real difference. “I found a chance to talk to the CEO, and he said yes!” It’s also really important to make sure your plans are tailored to suit different working environments: WHSmith’s offices, stores and distribution centres all had different needs and possibilities. And finally, consider the practicalities involved. A key way to get people to come from their stores for training was to pay for someone to backfill their job for the day. “It doesn’t always solve the problem, but it helps. And the training being just a half-day helps.” It’s also worth factoring in travel expenses as well as training costs. In the end, “Training in-house instructors takes time, commitment, energy and support.” But it’s possible—and it can have great effects.