Unsung Hero: ‘I’m a bit of a geezer, but I care’

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“It started one Saturday afternoon when I got an obscure text from our Chairman Neil Grundon. And let me be clear: we are not text buddies,” says Tex Bourton, Operational Training Manager at Grundon Waste Management. “It said something about ‘more men under the age of 40 die from suicide than cancer.’ So my first response was to ask him if he was OK. It turned out he wanted to do something at work around mental health.”

This was 6 years ago, and since then Grundon has made massive progress in starting and developing the conversation around mental health amongst the firm’s predominantly male, older, lone-working workforce. So much so that Bourton was ‘highly commended’ as an ‘Unsung Hero’ in our Make A Difference Awards, handed out in April 2023 at The Watercooler Event.

Looking back on this text conversation, Bourton recognises it was unusual that he was contacted in the first instance, as he ran the operational training team, dealing with training drivers to handle plant and trucks.

Finding the right tone for a male workforce

But he can see now why the Chairman purposely picked him because he knew he’d resonate with the overwhelmingly male workforce, who had not previously been used to speaking about mental health, and this was crucial. Even though he’d not, at that point, had experience delivering any mental health training, Bourton’s colleague had a gut feeling that he would be relatable; a feeling that turned out to be right.

“This kind of thing would have naturally fallen under HR or Health and Safety,” says Bourton. “But I’ve had an interesting and varied life, shall we say, and have been down some wrong paths in my time. And before this role, I was a driver myself, who has come up through the ranks. Snowflake would be the last word to describe me. Basically, I’m a bit of a geezer, but I care.”

The first step was creating a 3 hour mental health awareness session that hit the right tone, again crucial when delivering mental health content to a male audience. This was initially delivered to the driver workforce.

Bourton understood that any men walking into sessions would probably be feeling “a bit unnerved” so he made sure to add a “big dollop of humour in there, as well as gallows humour,” he says.

He also realised quickly that the way to “bring it to their world” was to put it in the context of his own story and his own personal learnings. For example, he was diagnosed with combat stress in 1991, so talks about this and how he found coping mechanisms and asked for support. This, as well as other experiences in his life, led him to take an interest in mental health and volunteering for the Samaritans, which he still does.

“As a result of me opening up, people started to talk to us about their stories. I think keeping the group size small, capped at 12, helps encourage this,” he says.

Creating a safe space where men feel they can be open

Another aspect central to success with men is creating psychological safety from the outset. Employees turn up to sessions and Bourton goes out of his way to stress that some of the content could be upsetting, and that they’re going to be talking about sensitive topics like suicide.

“I say things like ‘leave the room at any time if you need to, please don’t sit here and just suck it up’,” he says. “I also reassure them that we’ll never pry and there’s no pressure to talk unless they want to.”

After the success of the initial driver training, the programme has been rolled out to the entire company – this was at senior management’s request after experiencing it for themselves. So far, over 550 employees have completed the training, with 200+ booked on in the coming months.

Collaboration across the organisation is key

Collaborating with other functions has also been key to the programme’s impact. Bourton has worked closely with HR, Health and Safety, Compliance and Marketing, as well as senior management.

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But rather than the numbers of employees doing the training, what motivates Bourton most to do this work – which he does alongside the ‘normal’ day job – are the personal stories from employees of how the training has impacted their lives.

This kind of personal feedback, according to Toni Robinson, Head of Compliance, has been “exceptional” with statements such as “best training” and “has helped me make sense of a family member’s issues”. The example that sticks with Bourton himself is one worker confided in him that the training had empowered him to speak to his wife about her suicide attempt, which he previously hadn’t been able to do.

Bourton is an experienced trainer, and clearly knows his audience extremely well, so is able to hit the right tone when talking about mental health. His over-riding advice to others doing this work – whether delivering to a male audience or mixed gender – is to be yourself as much as possible, rather than try to morph into some kind of all-knowing mental health expert. As he says:

“I am what I am and I can’t, and don’t, dress myself up. And it seems to work. We’ve had massive amounts of positive feedback.”

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