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Mental Health in Health and Safety | Gareth Mullen | Thames Water

Mental Health, Well-being, and Employee Care in Health and Safety | Gareth Mullen | Thames Water (Expert Interview #15)

Gareth Mullen was a health and safety professional who made the jump to occupational health when the time was right in his career. In today’s episode, we have a look at some of the mental health and wellbeing practices that Thames Water have developed, their benefits/drawbacks, and how you can implement as part of your own mental well-being strategy in health and safety.

Gareth is one of the content partners on the HSE Network with key experience in not only developing mental health policies but implementing and improving them.  If you want access to the full video version of the interview, it is available on the HSE Network.

Read full transcript

– [Elliot] So, we now welcome Gareth Mullen from Thames Water to the HSE Network. Gareth, thank you so much for joining us.

– [Gareth] No problem.

– We’re going to be talking about a range of things today, mainly based on mental health. So, Gareth, mental health, huge subject, getting more and more popular at the minute as more and more people talk about it. Well, how much of a part has it taken up of your job at the minute?

Okay. I guess, for me, something I always talk about is obviously the health and safety profession, and then took over an occupational health team for a short period of time. And that’s where the health side of health and safety started to come more into it. So, for me, talking as much about health as loud as we do, perhaps safety, is the most important thing.

– Brilliant. Yeah, because it seems to be as well that we talk about HSE as Health, Safety, Environment, but all that really gets spoken about is safety, and people falling over, or killing themselves, or whatever. It doesn’t seem to be the more…but you can’t see what’s going on inside.

– Absolutely. Yeah.

– Yeah, definitely. So, we were speaking a minute ago about how you work with the government and all that stuff, and we were talking about a couple of things, about Brexit. And it seems to be that a lot of the focus, I know we were talking about something different, but a lot of the focus at the minute has been on things like Brexit or the big things. We’ve got a mental health policy in the UK, and it’ll work. It doesn’t matter that it was nearly 200 years ago, you know?

So, yeah, you were saying you were working a lot with the government and those sort of agencies, so…

– Absolutely. So Theresa May introduced, as promised, a review of mental health a few years back. And we worked very closely then with the Cabinet Office, who came down to look and see what Thames Water was doing. And, through that work, we’ve helped shape Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer producing their report, the Thriving at Work standards, which are now the guidance documents for all businesses to work towards, to help them provide a framework for them in looking after the mental health of their employees.

– Definitely. And I was watching, actually, the prime minister’s questions the other day with the new government we have now. And a lot of people were still bringing it up, so it was quite nice that it’s not something that was made, a policy… it isn’t another one of the government’s policies that’s sort of been put aside. It is still at the forefront of a lot of the vast majority, I would say, of the MP’s minds.

– Absolutely. Yeah.

– So, how important do you think it is, and, hopefully, what you’ll be doing moving forward? Because, obviously, these things need to be adapted. Mental health, even though it’s been around a long time, it’s still quite new, I suppose, in the way it’s being spoken about now. So things are going to change quickly, I suppose, as new technologies come in, or whatever, and more people talk. So, I suppose, upgrading a policy as well.

– Absolutely. And it’s adapting things for your environment, so there is no silver bullet. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy that’s going to work for everybody. So it’s looking at what you’re able to do, and what are the issues facing your employees? Because everybody’s very much focused, at the moment, on mental health at work, when actually, it’s the mental health of your employees, full stop.

Where, yes, they spend eight hours a day at work, but actually, they go through a lot more at home. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the time, it’s what’s going on at home that comes into the workplace. So you have to look after the whole employee, not just the work employee.

– Yeah. I was talking to someone else a minute ago about fatigue, and people turning up. They all of a sudden introduced a system of fatigue, and noticed huge numbers that legal hated to see, because you’ve got people turning up and trying to do their job. And what we were talking about is from a driver’s point of view. They’re turning up absolutely shattered from the night before, because whatever they’ve got going on in their personal life, they’ve turned up sort of almost unable to work, but they have to go to work.

And then it causes nothing but problems, I suppose, for every business.

– Absolutely. Mental health and physical health are no different to that. So, again, lots of companies will focus on the work aspects, forgetting about the home life. And yet it’s the home life which starts to impact. So, if you imagine, many companies will provide physio treatment for somebody who has an injury at work.

And that’s great, that’s fantastic. It’s just kind of only solving a small proportion of that issue. Within Thames Water, we’ll provide physio for anybody who has any injury at work. So if you think about the NHS nowadays, how difficult it is to get a physio on the NHS. You could be waiting six to eight weeks.

That’s six to eight weeks that that employee is suffering, isn’t at their best at work, and therefore impacting on themselves, their colleagues, and delivering of the work itself. So we now offer that physio up front, straight away, with a view of getting somebody back into work within two to three days. And, therefore, saving on all that productivity, lost time, absence, and the pressures upon their colleagues to actually keep up their work.

So, yeah, small outlay at the front end can have huge benefits to the bottom line at the end of the day.

– Because I was speaking to a colleague of mine the other day, and he was actually physically feeling sick rather than mentally. But he wasn’t particularly doing his job very well. There was other things on his mind. You sort of have to say to him, “Rather than muscle through for a week at work not being very well, go home for a day, relax, try and get better sort of quicker, and then you can come back and you’re on form.”

Not only do we then not have to pay sick pay and all that stuff. You’ve actually got someone being paid for the job they’re doing. But, you know, they’re also recovering quicker, I suppose.

– Absolutely. And the whole package leads to an employee that’s feeling happier, feeling cared for, feeling loved. And that results in happier employees at work, which means better productivity, better work environment.

– Yeah, the whole morale thing seems to crop up a lot. I mean, it come up a lot when I was studying business. It was always, “How do you motivate your staff, keep high morale, keep that up?” And if you’ve got a lot of people who think, “Oh, the business doesn’t really care about me,” … Especially a big business like yours, you know, it’s not a shop corner sort of, it’s a big business.

And to feel that you are part of it when there’s obviously so many people, must be, I suppose, quite a tricky thing, but also quite a nice thing for the person that feels loved, if you like.

– Absolutely. And that’s why we promote everything that we do as much as we possibly can. Because, for us, that’s around…we’re attracting, then, employees to the business, employees who want to be there because of the things that we do. And therefore, again, are happier employees, more productive. And, at the end of the day, everybody benefits from that.

– So, internally, it seems to be, as we were saying, more people are starting to talk about this now. It is still a big problem with people keeping it clogged up, but it does seem that there’s been quite a big change in the last couple of years, really. So, how do you find it is, in a business like Thames Water, to try and get people to sort of announce it, or admit they’ve got a problem, I suppose, the first problem that you have.

– Absolutely. And it comes down to the culture that you have. You have to have that open culture, first of all, otherwise, people won’t come forward and talk. So our mental health strategy, it was entitled, “Time to Talk.” It’s giving people the opportunity, not only to talk themselves, but to have people to talk to.

So, as a business, we have 500-plus mental health first-aiders. We aim for 1 in 10 employees being a mental health first-aider. And we advertise the fact that we’re mental health first-aiders. So if I was in work garb today, I’d have my green mental health first-aider lanyard on, which identifies the fact that I’m a mental health first-aider. I have an obligation, if somebody comes and stops me in the corridor for a chat, I have to stop.

Yeah, I’m there for that person there, first and foremost. And so the business has to have that culture of, “Yes, it’s okay for people to talk.” They need to talk to somebody, and those people need to be available. So I could be being called off to the exec for a meeting. If I get stopped, I have to stop, yeah? We do have a culture for ourselves, as mental health first-aiders, that we can take that green lanyard off.

That means we’re then closed. Okay, that day we might find a hard time at home ourselves. We don’t want to be listening to other people’s concerns. So the ability to switch off as well is very, very important.

– And, I suppose, we were talking earlier that someone who has a particularly difficult home life, for whatever reason, it might even be one day they’ve had this. They bring that into work, and then they have a tough day at work, and then they bring that home. And you end up in this horrible spiral that just goes off into the… And you’re knackered, really. Yeah, it’s interesting.

So how do you sort of close up…? From the highest point of the business, more like the CEO, the top-level people, they employ you and everyone else to do the job. If they don’t see mental health, let’s say, as a top priority, and they think health and safety is a million other things, I suppose it’s being able to feed back to them that, “This needs to be done.

We might need to invest in this,” or whatever. But I suppose it’s trying to, I don’t know what the word is, but encourage them that this is the right thing to do.

– Yeah. It’s establishing what the benefit’s out of this. So if we went to the exec and said, “We want to spend £75,000 this year on physio treatment for our staff,” we’d probably get told to go away. But if we can start with something small, start to show the benefits of what we’re doing, so if you mention the £75,000 that we’ve spent two years ago on physio treatment resulted in about £800 saving in terms of absence and productivity, then you get over that.

– Exactly. Talk a language they understand.

– So it’s about telling them that story, and you need to take them on the journey to help them understand why. So if you look at we provide personal medical assessments for our people. So, every year, all 5500 employees that we have have the opportunity to undertake a personal medical assessment. Part of those personal medical assessments is to have a blood test done for prostate cancer, for the gentlemen over an age.

We know we have 13 individuals who have had that test and have come to us to tell us afterwards that they have prostate cancer.

– Who might not necessarily have done the test.

– Who never would have done the test, had no signs or symptoms, didn’t have a scooby they had anything wrong with them. And because we caught them early enough, they’ve all had treatment at a relatively low level, and are all here today to talk about it.

– Wow. That’s excellent.

– Now, that’s just the 13 people who’ve come forward, because, obviously, we don’t know who’s had a bad result. That’s all confidential. What we do know is we’ve had 244 individuals who had signs that said they had a higher level, and therefore propensity, for prostate cancer, who were advised to go and see their GP for further tests.

– Wow. So I suppose that goes back to the the point we made originally, that the company does care about you. You’re not in to do a job, get paid, and go home. “We do actually care about you.”

– It’s the whole person. Absolutely.

– Yeah. Wow, that’s absolutely brilliant. Thank you very much for talking to us today.

– No problem, sir.

– Thanks. Thank you very much.

– Thank you.