Supporting positive mental health and wellbeing – a Q&A with Pete Harkness
The increasingly high-profile Mental Health Awareness Week will take place between 9-15 May and this year will explore wellbeing and loneliness in our communities.
Here at Sigma Connected, we have a multi-level strategy for not only promoting mental health awareness, but also to truly support our employees – which includes our successful Mental Health First Aiders programme.
We caught up with Peter Harkness, our Head of Health, Safety and Facilities, to talk about our strategy, what it means and importantly, what we have achieved to support our staff in our quest to make a difference.
Q. Hi Peter, it’s great to have you here as the latest member of the team to appear on our online Q&A. It is perfect timing for this subject so perhaps you start by telling us more about how our Mental Health strategy and policy started?
I am delighted to be here and to have the time to talk about how we do things here at Sigma around such an important subject, mental health.
I think as a business, and since it was launched way back in 2011 by Gary Gilburd, our Chief Executive Officer and Mike Harfield, our Chief Operating Officer, the wellbeing of employees has always been of massive importance. However, since 2020 one of the biggest impacts we’ve made in this space is the introduction of our Mental Health policy, procedures and associated risk assessments. It’s launch, however, was only the first step and we knew we had to go further and faster to provide true support to our employees. A huge part of that was engaging with Mental Health England to provide Mental Health First Aider training to a number of Sigma Connected employees.
Q. Our Mental Health First Aiders initiative has rightly seen lots of attention within Sigma Connected and in the industry. How exactly does it work?
The Mental Health England course trains the selected employees as Mental Health First Aiders. It gives them six key tools / resources:
- An in-depth understanding around mental health and the key factors that can affect someone’s wellbeing
- Practical skills to spot the triggers and signs of a range of mental health issues
- Confidence to step in, reassure and support a person in distress
- Enhanced interpersonal skills such as non-judgemental listening
- Knowledge to help someone start to recover by guiding them to further support – whether that’s through self-help resources, internal support such as our Employee Assistance Programme, or external sources such as CBT or speaking with their GP
- An understanding of how to keep themselves safe while performing their duties
We are very proud that since 2020 we have trained over 20 employees. These are strategically located across the group to ensure any employee can access any one of them at any time.
Q. Why do you think the programme has been so successful? What else has made it work?
One of the key factors has been, and continues to be, total confidentiality.
Every conversation with a Mental Health First Aider isn’t recorded and no notes taken. It is not discussed with any third party, unless under prior agreement with the employee. This ensures our employees have faith and trust in the service offered and I think that’s so important. Our Mental Health First Aiders are just one corner of the programme though.
We, of course, recognise that they are not qualified counsellors. At the same time when we released our Mental Health Strategy, our HR Department also launched our first ever Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which is provided by Spectrum Life. This Programme allows any of our employees, who may need further support and assistance, the opportunity to speak to a trained counsellor, again in a confidential manner. The EAP has made a huge difference during what has been a difficult two years due to the Covid pandemic – especially with staff working remotely and often feeling isolated.
Being innovative and ensuring we reach our employees during this period has also been vital with one of our most popular strands of the strategy being our Mental Health Podcast. This is accessible to all Sigma employees and encourages conversations around mental health.
Our first podcast involved three of our Mental Health First Aiders talking about their experiences and how they support colleagues in the workplace. In our second podcast we were very fortunate to have an employee speak openly about their personal mental health journey, and how they have coped with their diagnosis and symptoms over the years. Our third and fourth podcast episodes are due for release this summer, involving Mike Harfield talking about Workplace Stress.
With all of this in mind, it was a proud moment for us all in 2021 when we became a gold member of the Metal Health Charter as it showed we were travelling in the right direction.
The Mental Health Charter is borne out of an industry volunteer group created with contributions from clients, managers, trade associations, unions, regulators and training bodies. They’re a not-for-profit Community Interest Company with a purpose to provide a flexible charter to enable all businesses in the UK to access mental health support, provide awareness and training and put in place a structure and systems to support people in the workplace.
Q. And finally, what is next for our Mental Health Strategy?
First and foremost we recognise that the Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of many of our employees, especially now that our business model has changed, where most of our employees work from home or through a hybrid approach.
We hope to continue to develop our strategy to ensure that any employees, whether working from home or in the office, can access support for their mental wellbeing as and when they need to. We will also look for new ways to encourage conversations and how our employees can seek help.
Our strategy and approach will always be about support and increasing everyone’s awareness of mental health. We want our employees to talk more openly, where they feel confident to do so, about mental health, so it becomes less of a taboo subject. By encouraging positive discussions, we hope to reduce the stigma around mental health and increase everyone’s awareness on how they can support themselves and each other.
You can find more out about Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK by visiting www.mentalhealth.org.uk.
Readers can also connect with Peter on LinkedIn through https://www.linkedin.com/in/pete-harkness-tech-iosh-33587b47/.