Spending on mental wellbeing is a wise investment
When I first saw Balfour Beatty’s construction site safety campaign “Zero Harm” back in 2008, I cynically wondered if the slogan carried as much impact as “On time and under budget” might.
Over time, I have grown to admire Balfour’s leadership in providing education about health and safety at work and a zero tolerance to deaths, disabling injuries to staff, injuries to the public, long-term harm to health and environmental incidents.
When we acquired our grounds maintenance company 18 years ago it had not occurred to me that someone could be seriously injured or killed cutting the grass at a supermarket. As our business expanded into new sectors, the risks of working on busy construction sites, alongside the railway and under power lines were more obvious.
Ground Control is a family business and our people mean everything to us. The idea that someone could be seriously injured or killed while carrying out work for us was deeply troubling. Our clients, industry bodies and health and safety experts have helped us to embed best practice. As a result we have received 11 consecutive gold awards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.
While protecting physical health, though, we had yet to understand mental health and wellbeing. The same year that Balfour Beatty announced “Zero Harm”, the founder of our business, who had become a close personal friend, took his own life. This left us reeling. How had we missed the signs? What could and should we have done to help him?
We started to pay attention to the early signs of mental stress. We hired two counsellors to spend a day each week supporting office staff in confidential, one-to-one sessions. We invested in training dozens of mental health first aiders. Through our employee assistance programme, every employee and their family members had access to 24/7 telephone therapists and support. To promote mental wellness we introduced free gym membership, mindfulness courses, fresh fruit in the office, weekend wellness warrior events, menopause support and yoga. It still did not feel as though we were doing enough.
At one of our company conferences I spoke about removing the stigma of mental health. In shame, I contrasted my own reactions towards two different employees who had needed time off for chemotherapy versus time off for stress. The first was met with compassion and generosity. The other, initially, invoked frustration.
I was ignorant of the severity and risks posed by poor mental health and how we all needed to treat mental wellbeing with the same sensitivity and support that we treated physical health. I cited the staggering statistic that one in six people suffers with some form of mental illness in the UK, according to the charity Mind.
In fact mental health is a bigger danger than physical health and safety. In 2020 there were 5,224 suicides in England and Wales, and suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Workplace accidents in the same period, meanwhile, resulted in 142 deaths, with another 60 members of the public killed.
Ensuring physical health and safety is non-negotiable, of course, but employers also can do much more to support the mental wellbeing of vulnerable employees. In the same way that schools are uniquely positioned to spot “at risk” children and mobilise support, employers may also be able to identify mental health risks within their workforces.
Line managers have a key role to play. A good line manager should be close to everyone they manage, even in these hybrid working times, and alert for any signs that someone is beginning to struggle, whether that is due to workload or external factors in their personal life. So, one tip to any employer or business owner is to invest in mental wellbeing training for everyone who has a line management responsibility.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, workplace injury and ill health cost employers £16.2 billion in 2019. A 2020 study by Deloitte stated that poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year. Deloitte cited that for every £1 spent on supporting their people’s mental health, employers get £5 back on their investment in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover. It shows that higher return on investment can be achieved by early interventions, such as organisation-wide culture change and education, than more in-depth support that may be needed at a later stage when a person is struggling.
Everyone can do better here. Our executives recently attended a two-day training programme on empathy and inclusion. By sharing their own vulnerabilities, building empathy within themselves and being able to listen to others with a completely open and non-judgmental mindset they become better leaders. Creating a culture of psychological safety and connecting on a deeper level can only be a good thing for everyone. Businesses that care for their people on all levels will see the benefits.
Kim Morrish is an owner and director of Ground Control, based in Billericay, Essex. Kim and her fellow Ground Control directors Simon Morrish and Martin Leuw are sharing their experience of trying to double the size of the business to £250 million in sales over the next four years while keeping sustainability at the core of what they do.