We wanted to make our workplace a safe environment where colleagues felt comfortable and at ease talking about their mental health. We also wanted to change the way people thought and acted about mental health concerns and we wanted to provide practical guidance for our people managers, to support them, too.
We consulted with Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, the Chair of Enable (our employee disability network) and its members, the executive sponsor for the network, the Equality and Diversity Best Practice Group and other key EDI stakeholders across the business.
The chair of Enable and our Equality and Diversity Manager completed research to find out what support, advice and guidance existed for organisations and they found the Time to Change Employer Pledge. With the full support of our Chief Executive and executive management team, we signed up to the pledge and made budget available to put 20 colleagues through Mental Health First Aid training.
We were overwhelmed with the response to our initial communications, advertising for people to become mental health champions, receiving 70 applications for the 20 posts. Rather than go through a shortlisting and interview process to find our 20 champions we decided to increase the budget to train all 70, as we did not want to lose this wonderful passion! We now have more than 200 in place, supporting colleagues across the country.
An impressive network of champions came with the realisation that a system of support was needed to keep them safe and enable them to carry out their role to the best of their abilities.
Champions can encounter all kinds of mental health problems and there is the potential for them to become stressed and overwhelmed. Riverside didn’t want the experience of being a Mental Health Champion to have a negative impact on any individual’s mental health and so we started to think about the ways in which champions could be supported to help them to support others.
We ensured that clear boundaries were set for champions. They are there to listen and provide support but are reminded that they are not mental health professionals. Each champion is asked to only support a maximum of four individuals at any one time to limit the amount the champions take on and to prevent them feeling overwhelmed.
Additionally, there are ample resources that champions can make use of, including an online toolkit. We decided to make the toolkit digital so that it could be accessed by employees in locations all over the country. Within this toolkit, champions can find all kinds of useful resources, including an FAQ giving champions an idea of the kind of issues they might encounter and personal safety plans that they can give to other colleagues.
Regular networking sessions held in local offices allow champions to support each other and share best practice. Champions are also encouraged to keep a reflective practice diary so they can reflect on their interactions with colleagues and think about the ways in which they could improve. All these practices help our champions feel supported which, in turn, enables them to provide the best possible support to others.
The work of Enable and its army of Mental Health Champions has supported colleagues and encouraged a safe working environment for employees to openly talk about mental health.
It can be easy to focus on those who need immediate support for their mental health in the workplace, but we believe organisations wanting to develop a sustainable approach to mental health should invest in longer-term support for champions. The resources and procedures developed by Riverside were the result of a realisation that champions needed to be supported in order to protect their own mental health and make their work sustainable. These practices can provide inspiration for other organisations looking to take a similar approach.
There were no barriers at all, the need for such a huge commitment was embraced by the whole business.
Our main challenge was to encourage all colleagues to talk freely about mental health and to support those who had problems to feel they were safe to talk about them in their place of work. We encouraged colleagues to share their stories which we used in all internal communications, offering anonymity where a person wanted to share their experience but might not have felt brave enough to share their name.
Another challenge was that, because of the varying nature of stresses within different areas of the business, some local champions found themselves supporting more colleagues than we felt was fair, given the role was voluntary and on top of their regular duties. We therefore looked at ways to ensure that cases were spread more evenly among champions including asking champions to complete activity logs so we could have an oversight of the numbers of people being supported and caseloads of individual champions.
With regard to learning, we have visited other organisations to share our approach and we presented at the CIH conference last summer, which led to us receiving lots of enquiries as to how to successfully launch a campaign of this size in other companies.
We are also very proud to say that Time to Change has recognised Riverside as a flagship organisation in their campaign to support colleagues.