Safer Highways Mental Health Summit

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

In advance if the forthcoming Mental Health Summit, Safer Highways caught up with the events Chairman Karl Simons to ask about what’s in store

Let’s start at the beginning Karl why is the Thriving at Work report so important?

Well it was the former Prime Minister Teresa May who requested a review of mental health at work and the outcome was a document produced called Thriving at Work. The review was led by my good friends Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer and I had the pleasure of being involved in supporting the development of it through sharing the mental health framework Thames Water had implemented between 2013-18 that led to an 78% reduction in workplace illness. The report truly was groundbreaking and has led to a revolution in how so many organisations are now approaching mental health management at work in a different way and are taking it a lot more seriously.

And what do the standards mean to you?

I have said for many years “It’s not the physical or psychological condition that prevents a person thriving at work, it’s the environment in which they are placed”, this simple message once clearly explained to managers can fuel their ability to make reasonable adjustments that aid people working under their leadership to have fulfilling and productive work lives, even those with a clinically diagnosed illness.

To achieve a working environment with what I call ‘a culture of care’ you first have to listen. By this I mean listen to what others have done, listen to what your employees are telling you and listen to what your managers need. I’m a big advocate of sharing, by putting into the pot so others can learn, adapt and evolve. Understanding the 6 core and 4 enhanced Thriving at Work standards will enable a company to develop a clear strategy, which will then lead to the development of policies and procedures that provide employees with clear directions of the expectations of their workplace. This in turn will then enable initiatives to be implemented that affect training and competency levels to up-skill the knowledge base of the people; the way engagement on mental health matters is undertaken so awareness increases in the importance being placed on the topic; the support framework that can be put in place to aid people when signs of presenteeism occur or ultimately when absenteeism happens and the way communication happens both internally and externally with all stakeholders.

What should Business leaders be thinking about?

When a company does this well it can have a enormous effect on people feeling better in their workplace. The management and monitoring of the working environment to uphold compliance to the expectations set by the company is vital and is aimed at preventing individuals becoming uncomfortable at work, which can escalate through different levels leading to eventual absence. Leaders who take a little time to understand the psychology of human behaviour are much better placed to then implement the right initiatives to affect culture as there is clear evidence that individuals often suppress their feelings when they feel uncomfortable at work. What I mean is employees develop coping mechanisms to enable them to overcome adversity whenever it presents itself at work, often described as pulling on the corporate veil. This usually means a bubbling swamp of festering issues goes unnoticed by the management or peers. This eventually can lead to absence occurring once it becomes too much for a person to cope with.

It can be explained as a ‘psychological volcano’ that in simple terms shows the connection between the internal make up of an active volcano and a person:

  • A volcano is made up of layers of rock and ash that over the years have enabled it to suppress the bubbling magma at its base, but on occasion the pressure from the magma gasses builds to a level where through small vent channels it allows small bursts to occur. Finally when the pressure builds to extraordinary levels a full eruption is triggered.

  • A person psychologically over time build levels of resilience and coping mechanisms based on experience that enables him/her to suppress the boiling frustration they feel in the face of adversity. However on occasion the pressure builds and is seen in small outbreaks of behaviour such as becoming withdrawn or ignoring and if not dealt with the pressure levels can build and lead to an unacceptable outburst which can manifest as extreme anger through verbal shouting or even physical violence.

Removing the pressure through removing the stressors that are causing it, such as improving the working environment, should be considered as an organisations goal for their people and teams.

Why should people sign up to listen to this event?

I’ve listened over the years to a lot of academics telling people what you can do and what you should do, but very few practitioners saying here’s what I’ve done and here’s the outcomes achieved as a result! Companies have embedded safety management controls into work practices for many years, making reasonable adjustments to support people, yet regrettably few have applied the same thinking to their systems and controls for psychological health management. It is also very clear to me that “no one single initiative can achieve a cultural shift, you need to be relentless over consecutive years”, so the introduction of new ways of working that enable small steps in the right direction can collectively really make a big difference each year.

This event will not only have some really exciting thought leaders sharing their latest personal insights, but also will present the outcomes of a review of the work undertaken by so many organisations within a collective sector to improve the lives of those working within them through developing and implementing effective mental health strategies. We’ve again had over 100 companies who employ people to work on our public highways, complete their self assessment against the Core and Enhanced standards which will be verified through a specialist review and as we have a benchmark of where the sector was in 2019 through the results seen from the first survey, this means we can now understand and present any progress the Industry has made. I can’t wait to witness the outcomes first hand at the event!

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