Ask ICAS: How to develop a mental-health plan for your organisation

Richard Rutnagur of the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and representatives from two SMEs explain the personal and professional importance of mental health and share principles that can help all organisations to develop their own mental-health plans.

The events of the pandemic elevated the subject of mental health and how it directly impacts our personal lives, business productivity and organisational performance.

However, for many organisations, particularly SMEs without dedicated HR support, implementing a plan for workplace wellbeing can seem like a daunting and complicated prospect.

In this special edition of the Ask ICAS series, Richard Rutnagur, the Director at SAMH with overall responsibility for mental health in the workplace, revealed how organisations of all types and size can develop their own mental-health plan, sharing the basic principles, practical steps and guidance to help you get there.

Richard was joined by Louise McCosh, Managing Director of FD People and HR Director at French Duncan, and Mairi Day, a Partner at Digby Brown solicitors, representing two SMEs that have recently developed their own mental health plans. Louise and Mairi shared insight on their experiences with supporting staff wellbeing and revealed the processes that went into establishing their programmes.

Watch the video or read the summary below to learn more.

The five ways to wellbeing

Richard opened by highlighting the statistic that mental health problems affect 1 in 4 people at any given time. However, he was keen to note the difference between mental health and mental illness. To do this he referred to what’s known as the Mental Health Continuum, a model which illustrates that everyone has mental health and that, just as with the physical, the state of this health can vary from time to time or day to day on a scale ranging from healthy to ill.

“We all have mental health,” he said, “and we all have good days and bad days. It’s important to recognise that and give ourselves the latitude to cope with it. We can’t be at our best every day, we can’t thrive and be productive every day, and it’s okay to recognize that.”

Richard also highlighted the economic cost to employers of poor mental health, citing Deloitte data that showed that in the period 2020 to 2021 this was somewhere in the region of £56bn, equivalent to 2.6% of UK annual GDP and equating to a cost to employers of approximately £3,710 per employee. To further reinforce the case for investment in mental health support, he shared another statistic: every £1 invested in measures to tackle mental-health problems is estimated to yield a £5.30 productivity return.

Having illustrated the need for action, Richard moved on to discussing practical steps, how you can look after your own mental health and how firms can support the mental health of their employees.

In terms of looking after personal mental health, he outlined one particular established model, referred to as ‘the five ways to wellbeing’:

  1. Connect – humans are social animals so it benefits us to take active steps to connect and talk to people.
  2. Be active – physical activity makes us feel mentally and physically good.
  3. Take notice – often referred to as mindfulness, it’s about taking pleasure in the moment and not always worrying about the past and the future.
  4. Learn – acquiring new skills or knowledge provides a sense of achievement that will support your mental health.
  5. Give – the act of helping and supporting others is proven to support wellbeing.
    Next, Richard moved to sharing the design framework that SAMH uses to help organisations with the creation of an employee assistance programme (or EAP) and building a mental-health plan. Shown in the form of a virtuous cycle, the framework begins and ends with ‘strategy’, what Richard described as, “…having intent – be clear when you put a mental-health plan into your organisation what you are trying to achieve. Set the tone, have leadership and a clear organisational purpose.”

Richard ended by highlighting some examples of initiatives that employers have introduced to support their mental-health programmes and EAPs. These included awareness and training sessions, wellbeing days, community and social-responsibility (or CSR) programmes, counselling therapies and corporate gym schemes.

Talking a holistic approach

Louise McCosh was next to speak and began by sharing insights on her experiences when establishing an EAP at French Duncan.

She described the backdrop, noting that French Duncan have always been a particularly people-centric organisation and how, as a result, they were particularly hard hit by the pandemic, with colleagues facing the range of issues related to isolation and the struggles of balancing remote-working and home lives.

Louise said that to establish their EAP they took a three-pillared approach. This included emphasising to colleagues that the firm acknowledged and accepted that it was okay not to be okay, and that it actively encouraged them to talk about issues whenever they arose.

“In terms of our strategy, it was very much about leadership from the top and being very open with staff.”

Secondly, they wanted their approach to be employee-led and so appointed eight wellbeing champions from within the firm, all of whom were trained as mental-health first-aiders, and who formed a committee that still meets regularly to promote related issues and develop supporting initiatives. Thirdly, they ensured to take a holistic approach, understanding that, when it comes to mental health, there’s no one-size-fits-all, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.

She then shared examples of some of their initiatives, which they purposely grouped under three main pillars:

  1. Working practices: these included supporting staff to create boundaries between their home and work lives, offering flexible working, organising regular check-ins and rolling out management training.
  2. Wellbeing initiatives: these included arranging talks, mindfulness sessions and organising social events.
  3. Interventions: these included providing HR support, offering an EAP and finding local counsellors who could support colleagues if required.

“It’s a holistic approach and we’re not done, we’ll keep building on that and thinking, ‘what’s working well and what isn’t?’.”

It’s a sign that, as a firm, we care

Mairi Day of Digby Brown was last to speak and revealed some of the steps the Scottish law firm has taken to support the wellbeing of colleagues.

As with the experience described by Louise, Mairi noted that it was the pandemic and the changes it enforced that kick-started their organisational mental-health process.

In May 2021 they launched their mental-health initiative, entitled, ‘The Road to Supporting Your Wellbeing’. Mairi highlighted that for them this was a strategy that weaved through everything they did as a firm. From the outset they understood that it had to be more than solely an HR initiative and should instead be a collaboration with senior management, come from the top down and be led by someone in a Partner role, which in this case was Mairi herself.

“It’s not just about having an initiative with a capital I – mental health, now more than ever, is so important…but it starts with everybody, it starts with all of us, sitting at our desks being as well as we can be, and that seeps out to our teams and departments and the firm as a whole.”

Their mission statement was to make a positive difference to the mental health and wellbeing of people at Digby Brown and to get there, they set four main objectives:

  1. To have a workplace culture free from stigma and discrimination.
  2. Provision of personalised support and availability of resources.
  3. To help their people achieve good physical and mental wellbeing.
  4. To realise those benefits for the development of stronger relationships with clients and communities.

Delivering upon those objectives entailed a range of outcomes, from communications, to training, events, resources and support. Mairi discussed some of the practical examples, including providing colleagues with ‘stress boxes’, value awards for demonstration of positive behaviours, and a confidential connection line to allow people to talk at times when they feel in need of someone to listen.

Mairi closed by offering encouragement to any firm considering implementing their own plan: “It’s a very positive thing. Even just at the very start of the bud, which grows. A few people have said to me how grateful they are that we started the initiative and it’s a sign that, as a firm, we care, and that really goes a long way.”