Jacobs: how authenticity is at the heart of its mental wellbeing strategy

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It can be a challenge for big corporations with large numbers of employees to come across as authentic and genuinely caring about each individual, within their wellbeing strategies. However, technical professional services company Jacobs has managed to engage thousands of employees in its wellbeing initiatives, with volunteers eager to train as mental health champions and dial in to its mental health resilience calls. This network now has 2,300 trained employees. Ahead of his appearance at the 5th annual MAD World Summit on 11 October, we caught up with global vice president of HSE Paul Hendry and global HSE strategy lead  Fiona O’Donnell to find out why they think their work in this area has resonated with so many.

The power of personal experience

“We knew that many people in the organisation suffered from anxiety and depression and the executive leadership team wanted to learn more about how they could support their colleagues and reduce days off due to poor mental health,” says global vice president of HSE, Paul Hendry.

This led the team to send a small number of employees on a mental health training course which, in turn, led to other employees also wanting to do the training to become a mental health champion. This showed that mental health was top of mind for many employees and that more support and guidance in navigating mental health issues would be very beneficial.

So, a training course was developed internally and initially piloted with any interested employees in the UK and Ireland. The HSE received a huge response for the 4 hour course.

After seeing such a positive response to the training and the Mental Health Champion Network in the UK and Ireland, the programme was successfully launched globally.

How the pandemic saw the champion network ‘explode’

“Positive mental health promotes wellbeing, enthusiasm, stress resilience and retention, resulting in valued and supported staff that are far more likely to achieve their potential,” says Fiona O’Donnell, global HSE strategy lead, Jacobs. “We knew it was important to put support and guidance in place to help employees that might be struggling with their mental health or dealing with stress and to help those who may be able to spot the signs in their colleagues.”

When the pandemic struck, Jacobs saw the utilisation of the positive mental health champion network explode and started a a mental health resilience series of calls These covered a wide range of topics  relating to mental health like fatigue, anxiety, depression, suicide prevention, imposter syndrome and the benefits of laughing. The most recent call – on suicide prevention – had just under 5,000 people dialing in.  This was also a milestone call for the company as they offered the call out externally for the first time and promoted heavily through LinkedIn and other social media channels.  The call was also extended to their investor community.

“We’ve been very clear on how the calls should be run; we balance clinical expert input with input from people in our organisation. We cover a lot of topics that are heavy, but we balance that always with hope and we finish on a song which we feel relates to the topic!” says O’Connell.

‘We believe we can make a difference’

As we said in the intro, without a doubt, one of the reasons that these mental health initiatives have been successful is down to their authenticity. “We really believe we can make a difference,” says Hendry. “We’ve never lost that belief. And the other thing that makes us authentic, I think, is that we don’t always tow the organisational line; I’m happy to say that the fast pace that we work at is sometimes not helping. I don’t shy away from saying the company could be doing better. We are on a journey.”

Another aspect that helped the team gain trust was that, working in health and safety, the 500-strong safety professionals are constantly in conversation with, and observing workers, on projects, so they really understand the challenges of the job. “We are not ‘clipboard’ people,” says O’Donnell. “We are there to help and support and listen and understand. That’s why when we invested more focus on positive mental health we got results.”

‘We needed to rip up the rulebook’

Part of the HSE team ‘Step Back’ dynamic risk assessment now covers psychological safety, too. This used to be concerned only with the physical environment but now it also asks direct questions about employee mental health such as how people are feeling.

Hendry adds that the traditional ways of dealing with mental health – like directing employees to an Employee Assistance Programme – could have been working better. “We needed to rip up the rule book and put mental health back in people’s hands,” explains Hendry. Another way he did this was by launching an internal podcast interviewing senior leaders about their music taste. It also helped to break down the barriers and stigma around mental health conversations by getting them to talk openly about their personal lives, often touching on their struggles as well as successes.

“We discuss topics that really resonate with people,” says O’Donnell.

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The importance of senior leadership involvement

Indeed, senior leadership involvement, particularly the CEO, has been another ingredient in Jacob’s success. As is often the case, when senior leaders in the business support mental health programmes like this, you see much better engagement  This is the case with Jacobs, its chair & CEO Steve Demetriou is a trained positive mental health champion along with all the executive leadership team.  “Once the top executive talks about it, it makes it easier for everyone else,” says Hendry.

Focus on prevention

Hendry is pleased that the conversation has started and with the success of the growing Positive Mental Health Champions Network.

“This network is doing a phenomenal job on top of their day jobs to reduce the stigma and start conversations. Our focus is now around preventative measures and launching a programme called ‘One Million Lives’.”

This is an app-based programme developed with an Australian psychologist Peta Slocombe which enables users to complete a mental health check-in so they can receive a rating, along with useful resources to support their needs. It’s not a diagnostic tool but promotes self-awareness and encourages employees to see their GP if issues are flagged. The app has already accumulated 28,000 check-ins with one employee telling Hendry that it “saved my life”.

Future vision: to reach employees and their friends / families

The app was launched in 2020 to Jacobs’ 55,000 global employees and shared with interested clients and partners. Believing in its benefit to support everyone’s mental health, the company is now promoting it more widely, with aspirations to create the “world’s biggest mental health check in” to co-incide with World Mental Health day on 10th October.

The check-in tool is completely free for anyone to access.“We want to give back”, says O’Donnell.  “We recognise that the lives of our employees’ family and friends can impact the day to day lives of our employees and, as such, want this to be a free resource for all. This check-in is for the everyday.”

O’Donnell points to the recent news that an American Health Panel has recommended that all people under 65 should have a mental health screening as routine and that the US Preventive Services Task Force has also announced similar guidance regarding children and teenagers in an attempt to help to prevent mental health disorders going undetected. “This is what One Million Lives is all about,” she says.

For this particular campaign Jacobs is working with a number of other organisations, like FormScore and #samehere which also offer check-in tools. It has also reached out to a number of our competitor organisations “We believe we are stronger together”, says O’Donnell.

“We feel we are stronger together,” says O’Donnell. “This is about joining arms and tackling it together. We want everyone to leave their company badges at the door to solve this mental health problem that we truly believe is solvable.”

Paul Hendry will be part a keynote plenary session at MAD World Summit and he will also be facilitating a roundtable at the event entitled “Working together toward preventative mental health action”. 

The MAD World Summit, is taking place in Central London on 11th October. MAD stands for Make A Difference. Now in its 5th year, the Summit is the go-to solutions-focused conference and exhibition for  employers who want to embed mental health and wellbeing as a strategic priority. Find out more about the different ways to register and sign up here.

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