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NMCN: mental health support with established and innovative resources

Discover how this engineering and construction company developed a mental health app to help its most vulnerable colleagues.

Dr Ruth Hartley

Health and Safety Manager,


About your organisation

nmcn is a leading engineering and construction company in the UK. Our 1,800-strong team offers multi-sector engineering and construction skills, technical innovation, design and specialist fabrication. We deliver major built environment and water industry projects across the UK – from buildings and highways to large-scale water networks and treatment plants. With our history dating back to 1946, nmcn now has 12 UK offices and four off-site manufacturing facilities.

What challenges were you trying to address?

There was (and is) ongoing concern for the mental health and wellbeing of people living and working during a pandemic. We had no measure to understand if our colleagues were struggling day-to-day, or a means of quickly identifying people who needed support. Our objective was to develop a tool and process for doing this.

What was your solution?

Mental health is a key component of nmcn’s holistic approach to health, safety and wellbeing. Before 2020, significant resources were invested in a mental health and wellbeing programme (e.g., trained mental health first aiders). This foundation enabled us to respond to the unprecedented circumstances people are experiencing due to COVID-19. We also produced a range of resources highlighting how to build resilience and obtain support. This included intranet articles and specific resource pages (covering how to get help, how to build resilience, financial concerns, dealing with existing mental illness, and exacerbated issues such as grieving with a lack of social support) and tailored toolbox talks for people working on our sites. Mental health considerations were also integrated into our new polices and guidance documents, and training was given for people working at home and managing people working at home.

Our pre-existing programme aims to:

  • Understand and reduce the psychological hazards people are exposed to (mental health risk assessment)

  • Change the ‘macho’ culture around mental health - enabling people to talk about mental health and seek support

  • Develop robust resources and support We used existing systems and resources, in combination with an innovative approach to identify and support our people. This was achieved by adding a ‘Wellbeing Check’ (personal mental health rating) to our ‘providence app’ and developing a signposting support process utilising our mental health first aiders (MHFAs).

2020 shifted our focus, our reactive aim was to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. Our Wellbeing Check enables us to spot people who are unwell and support them. This approach has demonstrated efficacy and we will continue to use it for as long as it’s needed by our people. Our initiative has been well received because it demonstrates a step change, enabling people who need help to be identified and supported through a process rather than waiting for people to actively seek support at a time when they may be less able to do so.

How did you roll out your approach?

To be quickly and effectively implemented, this initiative needed support from across the company. It was sponsored at the most senior level by our Chief Operating Officer. The providence app had already been developed by the IT department to track a variety of COVID-19 data daily. Our COVID-19 response team, including Quality Environment Safety and Health (QESH) and HR directors, believed that this app could be adapted to include a wellbeing check. The Wellbeing Check question and support process was developed by our HR team and Dr. Ruth Hartley, who is part of our QESH team.

The question was added to the providence app in Mental Health Awareness Week (May 2020). People are asked, ‘How do you rate your mental health at the present time?’ on a scale from ‘really struggling’ (one) through to ‘thriving’ (seven). People scoring one or two are contacted by a MHFA, signposting them to support; including, our online resources, Employee Assistance Programme or, where appropriate therapists we pay for directly. This allows support to be offered proactively and promptly to people who need it. This strategic use of MHFAs also enables the wellbeing of our MHFAs to be supported. This mental health data is also monitored by the COVID-19 response team who use it as a KPI for the collective wellbeing of the business. There are two forms of innovation that underpin this initiative:

  1. Our main innovation was the providence app and the inclusion of a mental health question. This allowed us to assess people’s mental health on a daily basis and produce essential data. We were also able to support people in critical psychological distress who may not be identified by ‘traditional’ approaches.

  2. Our less obvious innovation was the way existing resources have been combined, managed and adapted to respond to a unique and unprecedented problem. These resources are not unique to us; however, their utilisation is. This also means that the nmcn approach is relatively inexpensive and easy to replicate.

However, it should be noted that this initiative was only possible because:

  • We had conducted previous research demonstrating the effectiveness of a single item mental health question

  • There was an existing support infrastructure to merge with, including: intranet resources to signpost people to; an Employee Assistance Programme; private medical provision, and; for people who are in severe psychological distress, excellent counsellors who we refer people to (and pay for).

What have the results been?

Since launch, we have supported 70 individuals who rated themselves as ‘really struggling’ and 158 individuals who have rated themselves as ‘struggling’. Each person receives support depending on their needs. Support duration varies but can consist of several follow up calls.

Whilst uncommon, some people were experiencing suicidal thoughts. A smaller number still had started to formulate plans for taking their own life. It’s impossible to say if any of these individuals would have gone through with their plans. However, it is clear that these people were in severe psychological distress. We were able to identify them and get them help from experienced counsellors. Potentially, lives have been saved. Although not the primary motivator, the data produced also provides a sense of wellbeing across the business. This has been relatively stable - the majority of people are mentally well. Additionally, themes emerging from support conversations have enabled us to address concerns through tailored approaches e.g., communication specifically for people on furlough.

Through positive experiences of the support process and word of mouth, more people are being referred to our support team by colleagues and managers, or approaching them directly - this is a culture shift.

What advice would you give to other businesses looking to do something similar? This system is easy to adopt, with a requirement that organisations will need to have the infrastructure and appropriately trained staff to support it. However, a key lesson for us was looking at what we already had and adapting it to support our people. The best way of doing this will vary from organisation to organisation and, at a time of limited resources, an approach that is both pragmatic and bespoke to specific organisational characteristics is likely to be more effective.

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