WHSmith's plan to increase number of 'mental health first aiders'

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It's HR in Retail month on HRZone! We're focusing on all things retail - check out our HR in retail hub to read all our great content!

‘We all need to look after each other and ourselves.’ This is the mantra that is driving WHSmith, as we seek to deliver a comprehensive mental health wellbeing strategy that will not only raise awareness of mental health issues and address the stigma surrounding them, but also provide mental health support to our staff.

With around 14,000 employees, across more than 1,000 stores, three offices and three distribution centres, the business will be working over the next 12 months to ensure all of our 1,100 line managers receive Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training.

With this, we are looking to fulfil our pledge to have just as many Mental Health First Aiders as physical health first aiders within the next 12 months.

Addressing mental health in the workplace

We have many physical first aiders at WHSmith, who are all trained to help colleagues in the event of something like a heart attack – but what happens if a colleague is having a panic attack?

One in six employees suffer from mental health issues, so it’s increasingly important that we have first aid provision for mental health too.

Following the death of a friend who took their own life almost four years ago, I have  been keen to understand what I could have done differently, if at all, to support my  friend.

At the time, I was concerned that if I spoke to my friend about how he was feeling I might have made things worse. I now know this not to be true.

A meaningful conversation, asking the right questions and listening, might have helped.

Today, I am passionate about anything I can do to remain mindful of my own mental wellbeing and support the mental health of those around me – not just for personal reasons, but for business reasons too.

Mental health issues account for almost 70 million employee days off sick annually, the most of any health condition, costing the UK economy between £70 billion and £100 billion per year.

Good for workers, good for business

After months of investigating and consulting on the best approach for the company to tackle mental health, the business decided on a two-pronged approach to delivering our mental health wellbeing strategy.

Firstly through working with Time to Change to raise awareness of mental health issues and the associated stigma amongst our employees, and secondly, working with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England to provide training on how to support mental health in the workplace.

As well as giving our staff Mental Health First Aid training, we are also having six members of staff train to become MHFA instructors.

We are now at a point where funding and plans for delivering this strategy have been approved by our board.

Working closely with MHFA England, our training provider, we have developed a tailored approach to delivering the training which reflects the nature of our business – where our employees work across various sites, offices and stores.

A shift in attitude

Our CEO, Stephen Clarke, is supportive and recently (in February 2016) had the opportunity to meet with business leaders in Downing Street to discuss the need for a shift in attitude to people with mental health issues in the workplace.

Following this meeting he had this to say on behalf of the business: "Whilst we are all very aware of how we can protect our physical health; most of us aren’t so knowledgeable about how to look after our mental health. The workplace can be a vital drive for change in addressing this issue, which is why we are proud to be making a commitment to training our staff in Mental Health First Aid."

As well as giving our staff Mental Health First Aid training, we are also having six members of staff train to become MHFA instructors, meaning that they can continue to train staff in Mental Health First Aid going forwards.

Demand from staff for Mental Health First Aid training is already exceeding our initial expectations, and the popularity of the training means that we are already considering extending the training beyond the next 12 months.

This World Mental Health Day on 10 October, WHSmith is pledging to have just as many Mental Health First Aiders (112) as physical health first aiders within the next 12 months. Employers, line managers and HR staff can find out more about how to support the mental wellbeing of their staff and Mental Health First Aid, by visiting www.mhfaengland.org.

It's HR in Retail month on HRZone! We're focusing on all things retail - check out our HR in retail hub to read all our great content!

About Alison Garbutt

Alison Garbutt

Alison Garbutt is Head of Strategic Projects at WHSmith. 

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