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EY: positive about mental health

By Dan Teuton
15 January 2019
EY won the Workplace Mental Health Award (sponsored by Cardinal Clinic) at the 2018 Thames Valley Business Magazine Awards (TVBMA). Tim Wickham finds out about the effort and enthusiasm behind the firm’s approach to promoting positive mental health.

At this year’s TVBMA the judges were impressed to see “so much effort and initiative being put towards mental health in the workplace”, adding that EY demonstrated a well-developed and sustained focus … and has shown extensive and innovative ways of trying to reduce mental health stigma”.

At a national level, hundreds of EY employees participate in the firm’s mental health network, a platform to share information and ideas, and more are joining all the time. As well as the firm’s formal support for employees seeking healthcare assistance, a mental health buddy initiative enables colleagues to personally help each other. In the region, EY’s Reading and Southampton offices run a range of activities that inform and support employees.

A turning point in EY’s approach to mental health came with the launch of its Thinking Differently policy in 2013 that included setting up the mental health network. “The tide of interest really started to turn after that,” said Cathy Wilkins, co-chair of the network.

“Mental health issues are more talked about and people see it is something important that we all need to get behind. Our philosophy for everyone is to ‘thrive not survive’,” she said.

The firm collaborates with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England and over 700 employees are trained MHFAers. 

They include EY’s senior leadership team and line managers who act as counsellors to their team members.

“Our approach is to emphasise the importance of detecting possible problems before they go too far. MHFA helps us spot possible ‘red flags’ about colleagues who may need help so preventative support can be offered,” said Justine Thorpe, an audit manager and mental health champion for the Reading office.

Local action

The Reading office represents staff at a regional level on the network. “We hold monthly regional and national calls which hugely benefit us by cascading and sharing information,” said Thorpe.

Being positive about mental health is part of EY’s holistic approach to health generally. This includes tackling causal elements, such as stress, diet, a lack of sleep, and even drinking enough water.

A stair challenge at Reading’s Apex Plaza (rather than taking the lift) was held in December to promote a healthy lifestyle ahead of the period of Yuletide indulgence. Events on Blue Monday in January (the day commonly viewed as the most depressing of the year) offer post-Christmas support. A ‘radio day’ in 2018 featured Skype interviews every hour with employees who talked about how they are coping with mental health issues.

An event that delivered the biggest impact was a ‘lunch and learn’ session featuring The Stranger on the Bridge, a documentary about passer-by Neil Laybourn’s successful action talking stranger Jonny Benjamin out of jumping off Waterloo Bridge.

“When the video was shown we discovered that EY in Reading has two ‘strangers’ of its own – people who have prevented someone from committing suicide,” said Wilkins.

Friendly support

The buddy system is a very popular way that EY employees support each other. Around 120 people who have experienced mental health issues themselves have signed up to support their colleagues. “We’ve had fantastic feedback on the scheme,” said Wilkins who, along with Thorpe, is a buddy. “People feel there is somebody there for them at a difficult time who understands what they are going through.”

Time to care

A business the size of EY has the resources and funding to run an extensive mental health support programme. But companies of any size can take action. In EY’s experience, people giving their time is probably the most effective way of promoting positive mental health.

Events such as showing a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk on mental health cost very little, and are a great way to start the conversation. Rolling out the free Samaritans toolkit ‘Wellbeing in the City’ is also a great place to start.

“Every business probably has people who could train in mental health first aid so they can support their colleagues,” said Wilkins.

Thorpe added: “We are passionate about positive workplace mental health. We encourage people to feel confident about talking through things. EY recognises that if employees are happier at work then they are going to perform better, so mental health initiatives are a good investment of both time and money.”

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