The impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of workforces was a key debate at Utility Week’s recent Heath Safety & Wellbeing Conference. Denise Chevin reports.

Over the past few years, businesses of all sizes in the UK, both private and public, and globally, have acknowledged the importance of mental health and wellbeing. But the pandemic has taken this issue to a whole new level, as workforces have found themselves working remotely, juggling with homeschooling, or being furloughed, not knowing if they will have a role to return to.

At Utility Week’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing conference held in December, a number of speakers pointed to an acceleration in those seeking help for mental health problems in the wake of Covid-19. And 94 percent of the audience said that workers’ stress levels had risen during the pandemic.

Setting the scene for the debate was the eminent expert and governmental department adviser on the relationship between work and mental health, Dame Carol Black. She stated at the outset: “It’s crucial that CEOs and other senior executives make it clear to employees that they care about and understand mental health, that it’s good to talk about it, and that you shouldn’t be embarrassed if you have to say that you’re feeling under the weather, or you’re depressed.”

Black said many studies had revealed the dire effect that the pandemic was having on peoples’ mental health, including a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that the population’s mental health was at the lowest level since records began.

Black added that many organisations had been addressing the challenges of mental health. “I think they were trying to put things in place to combat these. But no one could quite have known what it was going to be like. People have had to be very active on their feet, adapt and go with the flow, and put in things that they believe need to be there to support mental health.

“So I think mental health, for quite a time, will have a higher priority, because we’ve got to support and enable people to come back to work and not feel unduly stressed and anxious.”

Gavin Campbell, EDF’s continuous improvement and learning manager at Hinkley Point C, the nuclear power station under construction in Somerset, said that the pandemic had brought to the fore the importance of treating each other with kindness.

“The pandemic has demanded that we change how we apportion our time, and it has bizarrely in some circumstances connected us as humans. All businesses have to take onboard protection of their people’s mental wellbeing going forward, pandemic or otherwise, because it affects productivity and bottom line, and profits. The pandemic has heightened the business awareness of those requirements, which is actually a positive benefit.”

Karl Simons, chief health, safety and security officer Thames Water, who also presented at the conference and took part in the Q&A, said that companies had learned a lot. “As a critical national infrastructure organisation, we already had a strategy in place prior to the pandemic. With things that worry people, like access to PPE, we’d ordered 25,000 sets of masks before it even became a pandemic –  we knew what was coming.

“Mature organisations like ours did a lot of work upfront, and we had strategies in place which benefitted us massively. And that has a knock-on effect within the organisation on culture. Because if I’m saying to my workforce ‘here’s what we’re doing in advance of potentially what’s to come’, people get a lot of confidence from that, from seeing that the leadership team are actually thinking about what’s to come.

“Nobody ever thought it would have the gravity that it has, but it’s all those things that give confidence to your workforce that enable support to be there at the right time.”

An audience poll revealed that 94 percent thought that their workforces had experienced greater levels of stress since the pandemic, and speakers were not surprised. Black remarked: “Stress can be a response to many things of course. It may be to the volume of work, the environment in which people find themselves working, but it might be trying to do your child’s homework, do the housework, and do your job. Or just fear of the unknown. It’s all in there, mixed together.”

[box out] What works: how utilities are tackling mental health

Energy and water companies told the conference about a variety of strategies for improving staff wellbeing

Making it part of the conversation at Hinkley Point C

Gavin Campbell, EDF continuous improvement and learning manager at Hinkley Point C, said that the approach to tackling mental issues on site at the new power station was to almost normalise it and get people talking about it.

He said it was particularly hard in construction, and especially on a site where 90 percent of the 5,000 workforce were male, to overcome the stigma of mental illness.

To do so required leadership commitment, he said. HPC employed 370 mental health first aiders, one for every 15 people on site.

He described a ‘watershed moment’ where at the end of a briefing for a group of site workers one of the mental health first aiders, a steel fixer by trade, “stood up in front of 126 of his peers and said ‘if you’re having a rubbish day, if anything’s on your mind, come talk to me. I will make time for you’.

“So if you can normalise mental health challenges into a conversation that resonates with the audience, then you really are on the journey to breaking that taboo.”

Campbell described a number of other initiatives around wellbeing including setting up clubs and discussion groups, as many site workers live away from home in accommodation provided. One of the new developments was to employ a full-time chaplin, who is there to support people if they’re religious or not. “It’s another way of distilling that conversation out into the workforce,” he said.

“And that’s an important point, because when you’re trying to make mental health a part of the conversation, you don’t ask your people to come to you for that conversation. It’s important to enable teams to have those conversations amongst themselves.”

Treat mental health with the same priority as asset failure

Susan Gee, group occupational health and wellbeing manager at Yorkshire Water, said senior leaders should treat mental health issues amongst their workforces with the same urgency they would do for problems with their physical assets.

“We personally have a mandated day-one referral to occupational health for mental health and stress issues. And that’s not to say that people are seen on day one, that is to acknowledge it as day one.

“The way I sold this to my then CEO was that I said ‘if we’ve got 221 reservoirs, and quite a significant number were breached, or leaking, or going to fail, you definitely wouldn’t ask me to ring you back in two weeks and let you know how it’s going. You’d be all over it. It would be an emergency’.

“So the minute that you know that someone is not doing well, we should be treating that with the same vigour as we would an asset failure, because it is an asset that is failing, and it’s the most important asset too.”

Gee said Yorkshire Water had been very proactive in encouraging interaction with occupational health, including mandated mental health first aid training amongst managers and had made the training available to any employee. In addition, the company had introduced team and individual stress risk-assessments.

“We’ve just audited them, and we’re going to refurb and relaunch them, and we’re going to ask our more senior managers to look at the output, in conjunction with our safety officers, to understand where the work environment needs to be changed. We’ll also overlay the outputs of the team stress risk-assessments against the business plans, so that we can start getting smarter about projecting where we might have issues, particularly around the management of change.”

He added: “Last year, we had 1,920 referrals to the department and this year we’ve seen quite an increase. We’ve already had 1,864 referrals, and 1,200 of those were from April to the end of November.

“Prior to Covid, the split was more demonstrative of muscular skeletal issues, whereas now 40 percent of the referrals to occupational health are related to mental health.”

Targeted approach at Severn Trent

A targeted approach to health and safety messaging, which saw a focus on a key area each quarter on a rolling basis, is paying dividends at Severn Trent. The new approach had seen a 12 percent reduction in days lost to mental health, Claire Simmonds, health and safety business leader at Severn Trent, told the conference. “We’ve seen a 71 percent increase in the use of our employee assistance programme in the nine months following the mental health quarter. It’s been something that we’ve heavily pushed throughout the last six months, especially with Covid, but we were doing that before Covid as well.

“For every 10 people that were using the service before, we’ve now got seven more people that are using it, which is a heartwarming result. And it’s the same when we talk about slips trips and falls, and for driving – we’re seeing it across all four quarters.”

Simmonds explained that before each quarter began, there would be meticulous planning and analysis of data within the business. The first two weeks for the quarter were about “hooking the business in and explaining the kinds of problems we were seeing.

“We’d then move into weeks four to six where we’d start to share top tips, and do some challenges, followed in weeks seven to nine sharing new things and work differently. Then finally in the closing weeks it would be time to get new things embedded, and changing procedures if we needed to as a result of something we’d discovered over that particular quarter.”