Ian Howard Q&A

Ian Howard, Highways England

  1. What can we, as individual companies, do to support mental health awareness in our businesses? What can our trade body do to support?

There are a number of avenues to pursue to support mental health awareness in businesses and trade bodies:

  • Gain the approval, blessing and above all support of your CEO and Executive Management.  We at Highways England have found that this is absolutely essential because any management team will take the lead from the CEO and it’s vital that your CEO is “on message” and invested in making a cultural change in business life.
  • Research and support the Time to Change Organisational Pledge. We at Time to Change, led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, is England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination. The pledge has offered organisations like Highways England an opportunity to make a public statement of aspiration to tackle mental health stigma in their workplace, and develop an action plan detailing tangible activities to bring this about.
  • Take part in Time to Talk Day. This year’s Time to Talk Day is all about bringing together the right ingredients, to have a conversation about mental health. Whether that’s tea, biscuits and close friends or a room full of people challenging mental health stigma, Time to Change want you to get talking.
  • Self-Educate.  This is a simple step and it’s something that everyone can be involved in.  There’s no excuse not to self-educate because there’s masses of information out there that can help individuals and businesses become more enlightened about being better acquainted with mental health and wellbeing. Here are some links to help get you started.
  • Support a well-trained and robust group of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) within your businesses.  Highways England has trained 165+ MHFAs who are working at all locations and all levels throughout our business.
  1. Does improved mental health lead to improved productivity?

Often people will point to the financial and other benefits - having increased productivity, reduced sick pay or fewer legal claims. But, for me, it’s fundamentally about doing the right thing.  For me it’s the moral and societal imperatives that come first and foremost.

Too often, a lack of support and understanding by employers means we do not recognise mental health difficulties in the workplace. This leads to a reduced pool of employees, more time off through sickness and lower productivity. By fostering a mentally healthy workplace culture and putting in place the right support, businesses, small and large, find that they are able to achieve peak performance.

Recent research by Time To Change confirms that a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers:

  • More than one in five (21 per cent) agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 14 per cent agreed that they had resigned and 42 per cent had considered resigning when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 30 per cent of staff disagreed with the statement ‘I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed’
  • 56 per cent of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don't feel they have the right training or guidance.
  1. Is there a north-south divide in mental health?

I’d love to have a simple answer to that one but I don’t think that one exists.  Take a look at this webpage, you might find the information you need https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/blog/there-northsouth-divide-attitudes-towards-mental-health

  1. How can we engage with employees, many who are the jack-the-lad type who don’t want to be seen as "weak"?

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year. That’s a lot of people – and so almost all of us are likely to have family, friends and colleagues whose lives have been touched by these often invisible, but very real, conditions. Stigma and discrimination still exist when it comes to mental health, particularly in the workplace where we spend such a big part of our lives.

Employers need to realise that people are individuals and there’s not a “one size fits all” approach - it’s about making sure people have access to the right support, at the right time, and in a way which suits them. There’s still a great deal more we can do when it comes to mental health though and much of this is around normalising it, so that people feel just as able to discuss their mental wellbeing, as they do any other health issue – and we need to work hard to remove the barriers – real and perceived – to accessing the support UK businesses have in place.

Getting rid of stigma and discrimination around mental health is part of that.

  1. How can we encourage more men to “open up”?

Senior male leaders in society – and especially in business - should speak openly about their experiences and actively encourage an environment in which people are comfortable about speaking out, being themselves and asking for help. The more senior one is, the easier it is to do and the more powerful the impact. All of the most impressive and authentic leaders (both male and female) I have met or worked with on mental health have the courage to be themselves rather than just behave in a way that they think their industry, company or boss expects.

Speaking as a man I am always happy to talk about my experiences. I am not ashamed of them. Mental health problems could affect anyone. No-one (I repeat, no-one) is immune. The more that people are aware of the issues (especially men), the more effectively they can be anticipated and managed at an early stage.  Catch any illness at an early stage and you’re well on the way to promoting faster recovery and a better quality of life.

The Office for National Statistics recently published an analysis of deaths from suicide in different occupational groups for people aged 20 to 64 years, based on deaths registered in England between 2011 and 2015.  Amongst males elementary occupations and skilled trades have a high incidence of suicide compared with the national average in England.

During the period 2011 to 2015, of the 13,232 suicides recorded in England with information on the deceased’s occupation, the majority (10,688; 81%) were among men. Focusing on the 9 major occupation groups elementary occupations (that is, low-skilled workers) had the highest risk of suicide which was 44% higher than the national average. Suicides in this group accounted for 17% (1,784 out of 10,688) of all male suicides with an occupation recorded.

Males working in skilled trade occupations had the second-highest risk among the major occupational groups. Suicides in this group accounted for 29% (3,059 out of 10,688) of all male suicides.

There were 2 other major occupational groups where the level of suicides was higher than the national average: those working as process, plant and machine operatives (8% higher) and those working in caring, leisure and service occupations (9% higher). However, the latter group was not statistically different to the national average.

The remaining 5 major occupational groups all had a lower risk of suicide than the national average, with the lowest occurring among managers, directors and senior officials. In this group the risk of suicide was around 50% less than the national average.

Statistically speaking men are more likely to take their own lives than lose their lives in the armed services or as victims of terrorism. It’s a sobering fact that male suicide is now more deadly than gunpowder.

  1. Do the long hours we work in the UK lead to mental health issues and if so, how do we change?

The pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population.

The cumulative effect of increased working hours is having an important effect on the lifestyle of a huge number of people, which is likely to prove damaging to their mental well-being. UK Mental Health experts are increasingly concerned that a sizeable group of people are neglecting the factors in their lives that make them resistant or resilient to mental health problems.

A recent Mental Health Foundation survey found:

  • one third of respondents feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work
  • more than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems
  • when working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27%), one third feel anxious (34%), and more than half feel irritable (58%)
  • the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it
  • as a person's weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness
  • many more women report unhappiness than men (42% of women compared with 29% of men), which is probably a consequence of competing life roles and more pressure to 'juggle'
  • nearly two thirds of employees have experienced a negative effect on their personal life, including lack of personal development, physical and mental health problems, and poor relationships and poor home life.

Your workplace can contribute to improving its employees work-life balance. Organisations should:

  • promote the messages about work-life balance to individuals in the workplace
  • develop policies that acknowledge the association between work related stress and mental health. These policies should also describe the roles and responsibilities of employees at all levels in the organisation in promoting mental health, and describe mechanisms to support staff who experience mental health problems
  • encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workload. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too great
  • give better training to managers so that they can spot stress, poor work-life balance and its effects on the individual. They should also be trained to develop better systems to protect everyone in the workplace
  • promote a culture of 'working smart, not long'
  • ensure that employees’ jobs are manageable within the time for which they are contracted
  • audit their work environments to identify elements of practice, policy or culture that may be detrimental to a healthy work-life balance
  • regularly monitor and evaluate policies against performance indicators such as sickness, absence and improvements in staff satisfaction
  • allow staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours as they would for other medical appointments
  • encourage activities that promote good mental health, for example lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes.
  1. Will HE offer mental health awareness/guidance/training to their supply chain?

Highways England has already started that work and several of our key partners have taken up the cause themselves to open up about mental health within their organisations.  We have seen Mental Health First Aider networks develop within our supply chain partners and “toolbox talks” address mental health directly.  I believe that organisations should follow their own path and Highways England should lead the way.

  1. Why don’t HE make it mandatory to sign up to Time to Change if you work on the network?

That’s a difficult step to take and one I don’t think that the business world or society as a whole is yet ready to embrace. By leading on this issue Highways England “sets the tone” for how we like to do business. Making this a mandatory requirement would be a retrograde step in my opinion.  Businesses should look at their own company culture closely and see if it’s right for them.  If we in Highways England see it as simply “the right thing to do” perhaps UK industries will realise it on their own volition rather being forced or coerced into following that path also.

  1. Are HE aware of figures re no. of people in supply chain with mental health concerns, i.e. does 1 sector in the supply chain have more of an issue than another?

Not as yet, but clearly this is something that we should be working on with our supply chain on in the fullness of time.  We realise that there’s still a lot of ground to cover in our own organisation and the pace of change in UK industry is going to be gradual rather than rapid.  We encourage our supply chain to embrace a forward looking attitude to understanding the mental health of their workforce we’ll eventually reach a “tipping point” where the stigma and discrimination attached to mental health conditions will be viewed as poor business practice and become a thing of the past.

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