Companies House is the United Kingdom’s Government agency where all companies are registered. It’s well known to every business across the nation. Given the organisation’s ubiquity, it’s perfectly placed to be a role model to both public and private sector employers and is leading the way when it comes to workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing.
Angela Lewis is Director of People Transformation for the 1000 people strong organisation. Angela joined me on a Zoom call with Wellbeing Officer and Mental Health Network Lead, Natalie Dinnick.
Together they shared valuable insights into the lessons learned on their journey to transforming the organisation’s culture and supporting mental health and wellbeing – what works, what doesn’t work, and how they’re adapting to the pandemic’s pressures.
When, why and how?
Prior to 2017, the organisation’s focus was on helping individuals directly. Support on offer to those with complex mental health issues was comprehensive but hidden. Angela realised that culturally the organisation didn’t have an understanding of mental health and that without this their impact would be limited.
She wanted to make the organisation’s approach to managing mental health more open and transparent; to create an environment where people feel safe enough to be open about what is going on for them.
The journey started in 2017 when Companies House signed the Time to Change Wales employers pledge. Out of that came an action plan. A major part of this was building a mental health network of people within the organisation who volunteered to support their colleagues. They also pledged to keep promoting the message that it was OK to have honest conversations.
Angela said: “Our Chief Executive was very on board from the outset. Coming from an HR background she totally – not just superficially – understands the value of commitment to our people. Our vision was to have a culture where people wouldn’t ring in and say they had a back problem when it was actually their mental health that was troubling them”.
Colleagues volunteered to become Time to Change Champions. These then went on to become Mental Health Advocates, some of these also received further training to become Mental Health First Aiders.
As people became more open, the issues that needed to be addressed became clearer.
Alongside this, Companies House signed up to Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index so that they could understand what they were doing well and where they could improve.
Companies House now has a far-ranging programme in place to keep building on the momentum created. They proactively support wellbeing but also have interventions in place if colleagues are suffering from either short or long-term mental ill-health.
Here are some of the ways in which Angela and Natalie have embedded their culture of care and transparency across the organisation:
- They built a group of people from within the organisation who are passionate about supporting their colleagues
- They provided targeted training for managers in Mental Health Awareness, Personal Resilience, internal and external support available to Companies House staff and how to access these different supports
- They ran specific events around key dates in the calendar such as Mental Health Awareness Day and Time to Talk day to reinforce the message that it was OK not to be OK. This included round table events where individuals across the organisation volunteered to share their story and answer questions.
- Crucially, Angela has been open about her own mental health challenges and has encouraged other senior leaders to be open about their own experiences too.
- Having a small executive team who are really on board has definitely helped
Company House’s far-ranging programme of support includes:
- Fast track access to external counsellors
- Advocates and Mental Health First Aiders
- Access to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
- Line manager training, particularly around individual resilience
- Fresh air coaching – a 12 week walking course focused on mindfulness and self-help
- Blogs where people write about their own challenges
- Reasonable adjustments and occupational health for those with more complex needs
- Plus, a host of other wellbeing initiatives that help to keep people on an even keel such as yoga sessions and a choir
In Natalie’s opinion the Mental Health network are the most successful element of the programme. They keep a finger on the pulse of colleagues’ mental health. But they also help to spread the word about initiatives and feed back when something isn’t landing well, or when it’s clear that there’s a gap in support. This means that Natalie and Angela can respond quickly and adjust their approach.
A key lesson learned however was that trained Mental Health First Aiders were needed as well as Advocates. Advocates were realising that they weren’t equipped to deal with some of the scenarios people were bringing forward. The Mental Health First Aiders can go one step beyond simply listening and signpost to support, although they are not clinically trained.
Companies House’s comprehensive approach has an annual budget of £25k . But Angela stresses that programmes don’t have to be expensive. Much can be achieved simply by deploying existing resources
Dealing with the critics
I wondered whether Angela encounters any cynicism around this agenda. She agrees that there are some people who think that if they encourage employees to open up about their mental health, it will become the new bad back syndrome and people will abuse the system.
Angela believes however that the vast majority of people are honest and that policies and processes should not be written for a minority. She says: “Ultimately, we all have mental health that ebbs and flows across our lifetime, so let’s look at it like that”.
If more people start coming forward talking about their mental ill-health, Angela sees this as a good thing. It’s a sign that people are feeling that they can be more open. “Why would anyone make it up?” she says.
Other critics Angela comes across are afraid that once someone has been open about their mental health, it’s difficult to ask them to do anything, so colleagues will be hindered. Angela counters this with her belief that if you can invest in getting trust and psychological safety, you will ultimately drive high performance.
Angela also explained that this comes back to understanding that people have different levels of resilience. She said: “At Companies House we are a microcosm of society. We have colleagues with amazing resilience and others who feel more vulnerable. But our place is not to judge. We give people tools – support, access to Mental Health First Aiders, counsellors. We also encourage people to take responsibility for their own mental health just as you would do for physical health and invest in self-care”.
Natalie suggested that the Advocates help to ease anxiety too. Often people just want to be heard. Once they have that opportunity to talk to someone, anxieties can be diffused before they escalate.
Angela added: “Lots of people say – ‘oh mental health it’s just the flavour of the month or the year’ – but ultimately the focus on both physical and mental health are here to stay and unless employers are prepared to invest in it we’re going to lose large numbers of staff for long periods of time”.
Adapting to pandemic pressures
Companies House’s mantras from the outset of the pandemic were ‘no one will be left behind’ and ‘do what you can’. However, a big question has been around how you build psychological safety when so many people are working remotely? How do you adapt your approach when large numbers of your staff are out of the office and some are in the office?
Angela is constantly thinking about different staff having different reactions and the different triggers they might be experiencing. Companies House has nearly 200 people coming into offices and people are in very different circumstances. So how do you tailor your approach for each of them?
Angela believes that the answer is in maintaining clear and continuous communications. But also giving people the opportunity (for instance with regular coffee and catch up virtual meetings) to be very open and say whether they are having a good day, bad day or a bit of a wobble.
People have started to say they would like coffee and catch ups themed around topics such as coping with anxiety or coping with family members that have lost their jobs. Natalie has divided the themes between mental health advocates and first aiders who have more relevant experience or knowledge about those particular areas. In so now becoming more bespoke to individuals. We keep communicating with people and asking them when they need.
Looking longer term – at next 18 months – Angela is looking at how to keep getting across corporate messages of safety, connection, wellbeing and making sure delivery of the business and customer needs are met.
When announcing key decisions in relation to health and safety and the response to COVID-19, Angela and Natalie worked with their advocates and mental health first aiders to help people process what this meant for them personally. Counsellors also ran sessions on subjects such as the grief you can feel when work or life is changing.
Angela said: “Those sessions were really well attended. They helped people to realise that the emotions they were feeling were normal. We want to keep running them because life is changing so rapidly for all of us at the moment and this is something that we will all process in different ways.
Angela and Natalie also conduct lots of surveys and workshop sessions with colleagues to understand and engage with colleagues. In addition to their annual Civil Service wide engagement survey, they are considering a pulse survey tool to capture real time feedback as well.
“But actually” Angela said, “mental health first aiders and advocates are very good at giving you the word on the street very quickly”.
Measuring impact and maintaining investment
Workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing linked to high performance are so central to Companies House’s ethos that measuring impact is regularly assessed. Alongside this, Angela and Natalie are constantly asking how they can improve knowledge and seeking to understand what needs to be done differently.
External validation from initiatives such as Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index and other external awards are nice to have, but Angela and Natalie use other indicators of impact too.
They evaluate all of their events and training. This gives a good sense of where they are doing things right and where things can be changed or improved.
Angela looks at indicators such as sickness absence reducing, back aches going down and mental health going up (which she sees as a sign that colleagues are feeling able to be more open).
Productivity, performance, engagement levels, recruitment and retention can also be used as indicators of impact. Angela said: “Recruitment wise, many people tell us they’ve heard what a supportive organisation we are and we have seen an increase in applicants for roles that were previously very difficult to fill. The fact that people are highly motivated and don’t want to leave is a clear sign we are doing something right too”.
40% of people across the organisation are involved in networks committed to culture change. They might be mental health advocates or coaches or culture champions. What they are all doing is helping to move forward and embed a culture of trust.
It seems to be working too. In the past people would whisper about people’s mental health concerns. Now, as people feel comfortable to be more open, everyone benefits. Affected colleagues feel able to speak up and others feel able to tell that individual if they have noticed all is not well.
The next big culture shift: performance management
Angela wants everyone to be able to flourish at work. One big step she’s taken is to change how performance management is approached. She’s moved away from appraisals to a culture of conversations. It has three parts:
Rather than focusing on objectives and tasks, everyone has a conversation about these three elements. Wellbeing is deliberately included as this means every manager needs to be having conversations with their staff about their wellbeing as well as focussing on short and long term goals and opportunities.
This new approach fits with the concept of bringing your whole self to work, being open, having that sense of trust. It’s still business driven as goals and delivery really do matter, but this shift sends the message across the organisation that they care about colleagues’ wellbeing and development.
Angela wraps up our conversation with wise words: “The opportunity that we have seen with COVID-19 is that windows have been opened into peoples’ lives. This means you have much more understanding about your colleagues. If we are all more compassionate , maintain trust and look after one another, we can achieve great things”.
You can hear more about Angela’s approach and put your questions to her at this year’s digital MAD World Summit on 8 October, where Angela will be joining the “12 months of action” panel session.
About the author
Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times