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Creating a meaningful mental health strategy

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Nayia Solea, occupational health & wellbeing specialist at Siemens Mobility, talks about master plans and misunderstandings

There is no doubt that mental health is a hugely important subject to address, but it is also one around which there is a good deal of ignorance and confusion. 

So, to ensure that any programmes that are introduced have a positive effect on a business and its people, it’s an area that must be addressed appropriately and responsibly.  

At the moment, there are many companies operating in the rail industry that have either introduced or are actively pursuing the introduction of mental health first aiders (MHFAs). However, most haven’t first identified what the real underlying issue is that they are attempting to address – or the problems they are trying to solve. Therefore, it might end up as a tick in a box, but it doesn’t necessarily help anyone.

As with many things, an MHFA programme needs to start with data. By taking an evidence-based approach and properly understanding the areas that need to be addressed, it’s possible to develop a strategy that is tailored to each businesses’ individual needs and to develop appropriate and quantifiable performance measures. At its most effective, an MHFA programme will focus on prevention and early intervention as part of a broad strategy. 

Three-year strategy

Within Siemens Mobility in the UK, a full mental health and wellbeing programme was developed in 2016 – with a three-year strategy designed to minimise and prevent the impact of ill health and improve the wellbeing of everyone within the company and its partners. 

The programme was carefully designed using behavioural principles, to enhance understanding of mental illness, as well as to promote and strengthen mental health. It is being delivered in three distinct phases which enable the business to effectively promote a sustainable culture change:

Phase one – Promotion

The first part of the process is designed to raise awareness and increase the understanding of mental health – essentially challenge people’s preconception that it is either related to stress or mental illness. 

A key part of the messaging around the programme is that mental health is definitely not the same as mental illness – and that stress in itself is not mental illness, but it manifests itself in behaviour that could alert the individual or those around them to take action.

Siemens Mobility identified that communicating with and training office workers required a different approach to track-side teams. Even looking at that segmentation it was clear that millennials responded to different training approaches in a different way to older workers. 

As a result, a range of training approaches was introduced, with online and classroom options to suit different people’s style of learning. In certain areas the company even used mental health-trained comedians to help deliver its messages – challenging convention to deliver important messages and raise overall awareness.

Mental Health Awareness Week was also used as an appropriate vehicle for communications within the business, helping again to raise awareness and to show the difference between MHFAs and other forms of aid – as well as to recruit volunteers to join the programme.  

This awareness campaign is also used to promote some of the tools and support mechanisms that are already available. At Siemens Mobility this includes an unrestricted Employee Assistance Programme, as well as various guidance packs, programmes and materials.

Phase two – Prevention

Years two and three of the mental health strategy are then designed to enable people to identify their own and others’ mental health issues, raising self-awareness in general and focusing on specific areas. The programme focuses on preventing mental illness and strengthening mental resilience by raising self-awareness. The programme makes available resilience training as well as other tools and techniques for people to use. In line with all Siemens Mobility’s mental health and wellbeing programmes, many of these tools and techniques are designed to help both work and non-work-related issues.  

Phase three – Intervention

This phase is about having in place the right programmes, processes and trained people to support and deliver the strategy, making mental health and wellbeing as intrinsic a part of the business as safety. 

Unfortunately, the majority of companies jump straight to this phase, rather than investing in the research, analysis and strategy development, which is absolutely vital in defining how to shape, scope and resource the intervention.  

The role of the mental health first aider

At the heart of the delivery of the strategy is a network of MHFAs, who become the first line of support for staff and the key contact point for anyone with a mental health query or issue. This ensures that mental health issues are identified at the earliest possible stage and that appropriate referrals can be made. Contrast this with a business that has not invested in mental health awareness and support, where the mere mention of a mental health issue can leave people who are ill-equipped to talk about it uncomfortable. 

It’s important to note that MHFAs aren’t there to diagnose and counsel people; they aren’t experts in mental health. Their role is rather to be a visible and approachable point of contact, able to direct and refer people to receive the most appropriate treatment or advice from the most appropriate source.

In its guidance, RSSB makes the point that the recruitment of MHFAs is one of the most critical elements of the whole programme. Quite simply, if the people aren’t right, the whole programme will fail.

Many companies simply look for volunteers to take on the MHFA roles, however in line with the RSSB guidance, Siemens Mobility adopted a more rigorous process. Even though the roles are filled by volunteers, selection is akin to the recruitment of any position within the company.

To succeed as an MHFA, individuals need to be good communicators (with the ability to listen) and to be approachable and empathetic – some may even have experienced mental health issues either personally or perhaps with a family member, friend or colleague.

Once an initial screening has taken place, then a behavioural reference is sought from a candidate’s line manager; essentially this is to check that they are trustworthy, discreet, approachable and have demonstrated the key skills required of them. If they pass this stage, then they embark on a tailored training programme, covering their role and their day-to-day responsibilities.

Ongoing management

As with any process, the mental health and wellbeing programme must be managed effectively and measured appropriately – something which many businesses simply don’t have the ability to do.

As the Siemens Mobility team of MHFAs is drawn from every level, function and region of the business, it is difficult to bring everyone together on a regular basis. However, it is an extremely close-knit group and quarterly conference calls provide an opportunity to discuss trends and more complex cases, as well as providing an opportunity to debrief and for best practice to be shared.

They can also be a forum for ‘guest speakers’ most recently a recovering alcoholic joined the meeting to talk about their own personal experiences. 

On an individual basis, the MHFA logs each case (anonymised), with a brief description of what has happened and what advice has been given. The programme manager then reviews the case to ensure the MHFA handled the case within the limits of their roles. Cases can be work related (for example workload, relationships or time issues), personal, or a combination of both. Alternatively, the MHFA can be providing support to a line manager who is dealing with an individual with mental health issues directly. 

Positive results

Although it is widely accepted that programmes such as these do not generally demonstrate significant change until a significant time of operation has lapsed, the results so far are extremely encouraging.

After two years of operation, the team of MHFAs at Siemens Mobility had grown from  38 to over 60 members, with more than 80 individuals having received support. In the same period, the programme delivered a six per cent reduction in absenteeism (with no increase in presenteeism) and there had been a 961 per cent increase in the utilisation of the Employee Assistance Programme. 

Following its successful introduction, in 2018 the Siemens Mobility team embarked on a benchmarking pilot project with RSSB, covering mental health and wellbeing; this in time will feed the organisation’s guidance and best practice advice across a range of areas.