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Putting mental health first
Andrew Safo Poku, HR director at facilities management specialist Samsic UK, examines how the company's innovative approach to mental health is delivering significant benefits across the business:
"Mental health has become a major talking point, not just in business but in many other walks of life. So often invisible until it is too late, poor mental health can take many forms - and its effects can be significant and long-term.
All companies have a duty of care to their employees and Samsic is no different. Happy staff are engaged staff and will do the best job they can for the company, colleagues and clients. But mental health issues may emanate from many sources apart from work, and it is not simply enough to reduce work-related stress if mental health challenges are to be effectively addressed within a business. Meanwhile, the stigma around mental health issues means that many individuals may feel unable to speak up.
For us, the situation was particularly challenging as many of our colleagues work alone and have little contact with colleagues. Some also come from cultures where mental health issues are not recognised or taken as seriously as they have become in the UK, and so may feel even more wary about speaking up.
While we have always taken employee welfare seriously, we wanted - and needed - to do more. The requirement for a more strategic and structured approach was thrown into even sharper focus by the pandemic, with colleagues either furloughed or suddenly forced to work from home and so missing out on the rewarding interactions and support network that the office environment can bring.
Assessing our needs...
In early 2021, when the pandemic was at its height, we decided to issue a detailed questionnaire to all our colleagues to assess their mental health and wellbeing. The findings were significant and highlighted many areas where it was clear that we as a business could do more.
As providers of frontline services, some of our people were risking their own health daily in order to ensure the safety of others. Apart from those who were furloughed or working from home, others were shielding. Our research enabled us to identify a range of support needs.
Our first action was to appoint a dedicated 'mental health champion', whose first task was to research the help available to our employees. While some support was on offer, it was aimed primarily at those experiencing milder forms of stress. It also wasn't available in every location and language, and even where it was on offer, there were long waiting lists.
These gaps in support highlighted the requirement for a company-wide mental health strategy able to transcend the limitations of publicly available services. The strategy would need to support everyone with a potential need, signposting them to the most appropriate specialist support agencies.
A nationwide, people-focused approach
Clearly it wouldn't be possible for our mental health champion to do this alone, so we decided to recruit a team of volunteer mental health first aiders (MHFAs). The first tranche of MHFAs took part in an expert-led training programme, with ongoing support. This ensures their own mental health needs are met before they attend to the requirements of colleagues. The programme equips them to identify, engage with, signpost and support a range of issues and needs.
We now have a team of 12 MHFAs across the UK, tasked with supporting colleagues who are facing mental health issues of any kind. Their role is to identify an individual's needs before referring them to specialist agencies that can offer practical help, while being a supportive guide throughout their journey. The work of this team ensures a rapid first response to mental suffering, paired with ongoing support for as long as it is needed. Referrals are made in a variety of ways, which are communicated clearly for employees to see.
To ensure continued learning and optimisation of the support being provided, the team also meets monthly to present to each other a new mental health topic. This is followed by a discussion on how they can understand and respond to it in the real world. This approach brings the topic to life and provides guidance, understanding and practical examples of how to manage it.
The team also regularly evaluates the nature of support required across the business. During the pandemic, there has been a greater need for support around bereavement. More recently, the emphasis has understandably shifted to financial pressures.
Practical as well as emotional support
This ongoing assessment is key in shaping the support we provide, which goes beyond that offered directly by the MHFA team into practical areas of support aimed at minimising the risk of mental health issues occurring in the first place.
The practical elements include Wagestream, included in our Samsic One app, which provides colleagues with early access to a proportion of their salary, helping them to manage cashflow across the month rather than having to wait until the monthly pay-day. Through the app, they can also access live finance coaching and set up achievable savings plans. Wagestream is proving central to the financial wellbeing and mental health of our employees, especially as the cost of living continues to grow.
My Samsic Rewards is a voucher scheme which helps Samsic colleagues reduce everyday expenses via discounts with major retailers. It also provides meaningful support through tailored benefits, financial advice, wellbeing solutions and more. It truly is an all-round solution for staff incentives, providing resources to boost their overall happiness, engagement and resilience.
Meanwhile, our Learning Management System comprises an online employee training portal containing a broad range of mental health and wellbeing resources including podcasts, webinars presented by our mental health champion, as well as advice on how to build resilience and make better decisions.
These initiatives are complemented by regularly published articles and social media posts on the subject of mental health, while we have also hosted webinars to ensure colleagues remain engaged and cut the risk of feelings of isolation.
And overall, all of our policies and processes are being regularly reviewed and rewritten as needed, to ensure we provide the right support to all of our colleagues, whatever their background and the role, location and socio-economic factors affecting them.
The results in practice
The impact of our new approach - and the need for it - is exemplified by the fact that in her first year as our company mental health champion alone, Leisa Curry supported no fewer than 64 employees with various needs. In particular she was concerned by the dearth of support available in the public space for those whose first language is not English. Samsic's workforce is very diverse but not all staff have someone they can turn to when times are tough. Some live alone or come from cultures where mental health issues are not taken seriously. Others are shift workers who get limited time with family or friends and so do not enjoy the support network that some colleagues may have access to.
What we have learned is that there is rarely a quick fix, but what Leisa and the MHFA team can do is offer a listening ear for anyone experiencing mental health issues whether mild or serious, and then identify the right source of help for that person. This can involve liaising with mental health teams and other health professionals who are supporting colleagues, but more usually takes the form of working through thoughts and emotions an individual is experiencing, and then offering an objective, compassionate perspective on how to move forward.
Our MHFAs, available to our people across the country, give time and commitment to their role because they are passionate about helping people and are eager to learn as much as possible to deliver the best support to their colleagues. Some of them are currently supporting terminally ill or newly bereaved employees, and that support extends outside the traditional '9 to 5' working pattern. Among them are individuals who have themselves experienced mental health challenges, giving them a greater insight into how colleagues may be feeling.
The impact of their work and the difference they are making is perhaps best summed up by the comments received from some of our MHFAs:
'I think it is great that a company like Samsic is providing someone who could perhaps be the first point of contact for people suffering with any problems, not only mental health. We may be the first point of contact our staff would like to open up to, especially if they don't have any support from their friends or family.'
'Mental health and wellbeing is such a huge part of every individual's life and I believe that at least at one point in every person's life, there will be a time where they need support. Being a MHFA gives that person a friendly face to approach. If it helps one person then it's a success.'
Our approach is already delivering a marked improvement in overall work days lost and the number of employees taking time off due to mental health issues - but even more importantly, it is fostering an environment where colleagues feel free to speak up and any mental health challenges they are facing can be addressed as early as possible. We plan to monitor this and analyse the data to evaluate the success of our approach and further improve the support we offer to our staff."
Samsic UK is a subsidiary of the Samsic Group, one Europe's largest providers of business and facilities services with revenues exceeding €2.7 billion, operating in over 25 countries with 93,000 staff and 30,000 corporate and institutional customers.
24th November 2022