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Case Study on Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

Claire Lish

HR Director – Pepper Group

17th March 2020


Investing to maintain a healthy workforce pays for itself many times over, argued Claire Lish of Pepper Group at the March meeting of the ABP, held for the first time as a webinar because of the prevailing health emergency.

A healthy workforce does not just happen: it has to be carefully nurtured and “Nudged” using micro steps to achieve a succession of milestones.

Pepper Group has grown hugely over the last ten years.  Starting with 50 staff in small offices, it now employs hundreds.  It is focusing on using a variety of initiatives  to deliver a more ethical approach to their business, in an industry not exactly renowned for its sympathetic approach to either its clients or staff.

From a starting point that there must be a better way to engage with staff by HR being a better partner, there have been significant step changes which has helped to grow the HR function.  This involved opening a narrative which included the following key points:

  • Goal Setting
  • Educating and Informing
  • Referencing Peer Activity & Experiences
  • Self-Discovery
  • Wide range of options
  • Adult Interactions – avoiding paternalistic interventions – but in some cases unashamedly paternalistic
  • Openness, Help & Assistance, Choice

The journey began with an employee demonstrating an acute mental health problem resulting in self harm.  Once the emergency services had made their remarkable contribution, the organisation decided to do all it could to return him to normal health.

This was the start of a 4 year journey, inspired by the knowledge that sickness absence and mental health had to be addressed, as it was adversely impacting on the business.  The starting point was that if work could be made more purposeful, then employees could support each other and progress together.

Goal Setting.  A joined up team was picked to develop a multi-strategy approach.   It was important to set targets and to drive the agenda forward.  What really began to make a difference was when all staff were involved, thus enabling a period of reflection and providing the environment for improvement.    Thus developed the Pepper family approach to Mental Health issues which allowed a “safe space” for the employee and others at work.

The period around 2016 saw rapid growth for the company and there was inevitably too much focus on the transactional HRwas activity which was “getting in the way of making progress” wellness issues and the promotion of wellbeing.    Local engagement involved an increase in work with line managers.

It is OK to be not OK.   Target setting was key to making progress, especially in the area of “feeling good at work”.   Feeling better means that peopleare more productive at work and being engaged means that they are more present than those simply showing “Presenteeism”.  Those with personal or work problems could at last be authentic and indicate that in reality they were not OK.

Educating and Informing.  The period of growth was accompanied by a unashamedly paternalistic approach to supporting people in the business. An identifiable element of progress was when people could identify that they had as many choices as possible in their approach to work and when they could have time away from work.   The line manager would monitor when they chose to Start and Stop, in close cooperation with the individual and the HR team.

Referencing Peer Activity and Experiences.Work matters, is purposeful and requires a leadership team.  MIND Mental Health First Aiders were invited to train so that 10% of staff were trained as mental health first aiders.  Their presence was like a Lighthouse, with everyone having access to these aiders who were trained to put across the message that “I have got time to talk”.

Mental Health clinics were introduced incorporating“battle boxes”filled with information leaflets and DVD’s fromOxford Cognitive Therapy Centre.  Once introduced, staff referrals increased by more than 10% as people recognised that it was at last OK to talk about mental health in the workplace.  Victims for the first time stood up and talked about family, work colleagues and told their story,   Employees felt HR was beginning to make a difference.

A key development was that a Mental Health budget was formally introduced and ring fenced.  There was a significant cost but it has proved its ROI because it was more than compensated for by reduction in sickness absence and absenteeism.

Self Discovery.  Another initiative involved enlisting a separate organization to deliver training sessions.  Each employee was invited to at least 1 session per month to discuss opening up the conversation about family and mental health issues.  With up to 1000 hours of training in total over a year it started to change the conversation.

However, more needed to be done.  While it was now absolutely OK to talk about Mental Health, support was needed in the actual workplace.   Learning at work group activity was linked to a comprehensive campaign – at this point the company started to win awards for employee engagement and welfare.

Wide range of Options.  People were encouraged to learn new skills, hobbies and even start microbusinesses.  People were encouraged to support pressure groups such as International Men’s Day which addressed high rates of male suicide, and International WomensDay which looked at for example, pregnancy issues, infertility and how to fail brilliantly and bounce back with more resilience.

Wellbeing weeks were introduced with hobbies being encouraged: Judo crochet, and excessive alcohol awareness – with healthy habits being encouraged especially over the critical Xmas period.  Sleep packs including pillow mist, sleep masks, and herbal tea were handed out promoting the idea of good sleep.  New ideas for communicating were encouraged, but, recognising that people needed to talk to each other more, there was no online training.  People are encouraged to think of different ways to have a face to face conversation.

Adult Interactions.  What was emerging at this point was the growing awareness that everyone had a complicated Mind Map and had different needs which required being able to tap into a range of benefits.  Effort was put into finding out what was important to each individual and to engage with each employee individually.  Was it family?  Paternity or Maternity leave?   If someone had not been promoted after 8 years, what was wrong (if anything at all) and how could the individuals be better encouraged?

Openness, Help & Assistance: Choice.   Mental Health days demonstrated that some people had been taking up to 10 additional days off work as sick leave.  Sickness absence just had to be addressed .   .

A scheme was introduced which enabled people to book time off on a day almost on impulse, known as “Wellbeing Day”.  They could take individual hours off to go to for example a spa or hill walking or spend time with mum.  What was remarkable was that these days taken went hand in hand with reduced sickness absence, and, providing a basic level of monitoring was in place, were rarely abused and always were more than compensated for through productivity increases.

At this point, the executive board recognised the work of HR and the progress which was being made in terms of reduced sickness absence.  The organisation was now genuinely working together as a effective team and could say that it had undergone a transformation..

Making the Initiative Sustainable.  This is a fast moving business and more was needed than simple management  training which provided options for individuals.  What was subsequently found to be effective was small team workshops which soon began to demonstrate that they could add value.  The teams began to show that they were a safe space for employees. Not only that, but people in small teams began to see how they could contribute to changes as the business evolves.

Two further initiatives were introduced which reinforced this process:

*              Line managers were empowered to select and grow teams.  To equip them to empathise with individual needs, they were given a 2 day management development training course which included, inter alia, behavioural issues, technical training in using ICT, Employment Law and pregnancy advice. Teams would then encouraged to provide and manage very focused coaching sessions which were confidential with no agenda.  These provided an opportunity to explore and see areas where people could grow, with formal feedback voluntary.

*              A second group were showing limited progress and the question was asked why they were doing the same function after as much as 8 years.  Opportunities for further training were then opened up through proactive involvement by HR.

In conclusion the Journey started with one broken man and an organisation not sure how to deliver on mental health, with absolutely no idea that the “People Matter” initative would become so big.    This resulted in changing the face of the business with incalculable long term benefits.

Claire concluded by reflecting on some of the learningscovered by the ABP conference in October 2019 and what the business had done correctly and some not so well.

When an organisation moves from paternalism to more matuee business, one area which is always a challenge to deliver successfully is a cohesive and coordinated communications package. There is no right or wrong way, but it needs to be measured and it needs to be effective.  It started with messaging staff and eventually communicating through teams.  However, with hindsight there was insufficient awareness of new changes and initiatives in the programme and, quite simply, there wasn’t enough communication for the volume of ideas and initiatives.     Pepper has now rectified this by hiring a communications leader with experience in bringing together a complex set of comms and social media.

The organisation has to constantly challenge itself and ask: where do we go from here?  Key to this is to present itself as a “responsible and reliable” organisation.   The values of the organisation need to evolve such that staff values are aligned and evolve in partnership.   There is no ongoing situation where there is Business as Usual and new realities need to be reconciled with the legacy of the successful HR initiatives as described.  Staff need to develop resilience and self awareness.

For example simple changes in the use of technology can disturb some employees and suddenly there is an additional wellbeing issue.  This is particularly the case when, for example, homeworking is introduced or when team leaders put teams through training on Skype.   The importance of the role of appropriate communications cannot be understated.

In short, staff need to develop a positive mindset such that they can all “Raise their own Potential” to meet the next organisational challenge, as one thing is certain: the business will be different 12 months ahead. For the moment, however, Pepper is recognised in the Financial Services sector as a beacon of excellence amongst peers.

The ABP should like to extend its gratitude to Claire for preparing and delivering the presentation under the exceptional  circumstances and when she clearly had many other pressing issues to handle.



17 March 2019

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