Starting a Mental Health Employee Network Group at Work
Six months after graduating from University and starting my career at BMW UK, my world was torn apart when I found out a close friend from University died by suicide. As with many similar stories especially with men, none of us had any idea he was struggling. Shortly after, my cousin who had battled with Anorexia for about 25 years passed away in her 30s due to the impact the illness had had on her body. Coupled with some close friends struggling with their mental health, my naïve bubble was well and truly burst, but being a self-confessed ‘doer’, I knew I wanted to do something. As there were already several employee groups at BMW for other topics, some colleagues and I spoke about the potential value of setting up a Mental Health employee group. Whilst my instinct would naturally lead me on an impatient quest to fix everything, I realised this issue wasn’t going to be quite so simple. However setting up a group with like-minded individuals to reduce the mental health stigma and drive cultural change, even if it only positively impacted one person, would be both healing and rewarding.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as an internal communication asked if there would be an appetite to establish a collective of Diversity & Inclusion network groups. Without hesitation, I offered to set up a Mental Health group alongside a couple of keen colleagues. Not long after we had 50 members and our group name, Minds Matter.
Once we were up and running, we could start trying to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health…and I could really start doing! Having partnered with an external Mental Health Workplace Specialist (Steve Hoblyn), we’ve run numerous educational sessions on Understanding Anxiety, Depression and Self-care. This year we have a full calendar of sessions on topics such as sleep, mindfulness, mental health daily management and managing guilt, all scheduled to help individuals better manage their own mental health.
Our biggest achievement and my proudest moment personally was training 32 Mental Health First Aiders last year. If an employee trips in the office, every company has first aiders and processes, but what if someone has a panic attack?
After putting so much effort into raising awareness and encouraging openness, having individuals that are trained to have conversations and signpost to relevant help we realised was not a nice to have, it was crucial. Understandably, there is such a fear of starting a conversation around mental health due to the worry that you may not know what to say, you may say the wrong thing, or the individual may get upset. There’s a huge movement around the importance of starting a conversation and encouraging people to have conversations, to not only support each other but normalise the issue. I really agree with this and as a general rule of thumb I truly believe in the #AskTwice concept and that if you’re being authentic and caring, even if you maybe don’t have the best choice of words, it’s usually better than not saying anything at all. That being said, reflecting on the MHFA course and without wanting to deter people from starting a conversation, I think it’s important that we all take accountability to upskill ourselves on the language we use and understand how to be empathetic, not sympathetic — there’s a great video called Empathy by Brené Brown on this. And for me personally, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that listening is doing and it’s also hugely powerful.
I’m so pleased that we were able to get the MHFA programme approved out at our campus comprising of BMW, BMW Financial Services and Alphabet. Not only that, we were overwhelmed with requests to attend the training and had to schedule an additional course — it just goes to show how much this topic resonated! Whilst, possibly naively, post-launch we were expecting people to reach out to the MHFAs to talk, we’ve found that it’s actually the MHFAs that start the conversation as they are more confident in doing so, as well as being more ‘in tune’ with spotting potential signs.
If I could give one piece of advice, it’s to ensure at a company level you have a robust and holistic approach to rolling out MHFAs. You can’t simply train individuals and that be the end of it. It’s crucial that you have regular regroups as an MHFA team, ideally supported by the MHFA trainer, creating a safe space where associates can discuss what ‘interventions’ have taken place (confidentially) to guide and support one another. It is hard to put into words how crucial this part is but in essence these MHFAs are having highly emotive conversations and it’s important they have a space to unload and be supported.
I am thankful to get so much praise for running Minds Matter but truthfully on reflection, as someone who may come across as comparatively unemotional, headstrong, and tenacious, this really is my way of coping even if it can be exhausting knowing I can’t fix it all. I’ve accepted that I’m never going to accept losing my friend Dan and I don’t think I’ll ever stop trying to take positive action to try to move the topic forwards, even if it’s just in my work-life bubble…for now at least.