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It is relatively easy and straight forward to introduce a standard mental illness scheme, perhaps including an employee assistance programme, counselling sessions, or other such measures. However, these often address only the symptoms and not the cause.
BT is taking a more proactive approach and targeting key workplace situations that can be the source of mental ill health – a tactic it expects will be long lasting, high impact and, hopefully, low cost.
One of the first targets for the multinational telecommunications business is one of the biggest for any company – change management and the demands on people that go with it.
“Something we’ve been very interested in more recently is change,” explained BT head of wellbeing Catherine Kilfedder.
“One of the things you can be absolutely sure of when you join an organisation is it will never stay still, so you will constantly be faced with some form of either low level type of change or even much more organisational level restructuring, mergers or acquisitions.
“Whatever it might be, its constant, and that’s the only given about employment in large organisations.”
Understanding the demands of work
This attitude is a refreshingly realistic understanding of the modern workforce and what employees must negotiate to do their daily work – often it is the extra or unexpected demands placed upon them that can have the biggest effects.
But this is also tied up with the belief that good work can be a positive effect for people’s mental health.
“We are absolutely not change methodology experts, but traditionally in our experience change management methodology doesn’t pay special attention to its people,” Kilfedder told the Health at Work conference.
“What we’ve been looking at is how can we make change healthier for our people. We are trying to influence the change agents in our business so that right from the outset when they are planning some form of change, is for them to actually see that as an opportunity to pro-actively generate good work, which we know is good for people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“So right at the outset we want to think about what the things are that constitute good work and how we build them into this change so downstream we’re actually creating better working conditions for our people than when we started the organisational change – that’s the starting point,” she added.
Once that has been done the aim is to see how the business can mitigate any existing risks to people’s physical health, wellbeing and mental health during that organisational change process.
Medical researchers have investigated and increasingly found a connection between neuroscience and leadership and change, and it is this which Kilfedder has based much of her work on.
“It’s how you work with people’s instinctual reactions to change,” she said.
“We try and move them to see it more as a reward and use an approach behaviour mindset, rather than as a threat, which is the instinctual mindset and avoidance behaviour, the ‘I don’t want anything to do with this’ reaction.
“So we work on using these kinds of methods to mitigate the risks.”
Managing the fallout
However, there will almost always be people who suffer as a result of change programmes, but it is how this fallout is managed that becomes important.
The organisation needs to consider how it can best support those people who are potentially affected.
Kilfedder is keen to point out that this is not an either-or approach, all of these principals must be undertaken, but the starting position is to create good work for people.
And then it becomes vital to measure the results of this work and the effects on employees.
“Measurement is really important because it’s a form of communication to your people, and you measure what matters. So if you don’t measure anything around health and wellbeing and mental health then you are essentially saying they don’t really matter,” she continued.
This was a critical point for the business to understand, because while, like most large organisations, numbers are king at BT, it was sometimes a case of not necessarily measuring the right numbers.
“When we measured the success of our change programmes we measured improvements in efficiency, cost savings, increases in productivity and maybe reductions in building size if that’s what we’re trying to achieve. But do we look at improvements in our wellbeing index, do we look at reductions in sickness absence, particularly mental health related sickness absence – and largely the answer is no.
“So we’re working very hard now when making changes to the business to routinely start to measure the people impacts of change and see them as a measurement of success as well as improvements in productivity and such.”
The key for Kilfedder is “to try and change the mindset for organisational restructuring to be about creating good work and protecting the health and wellbeing of other people and as a result we will be more productive and more efficient,” she added.
Making M&As healthy
Of course one of the most difficult situations to manage and for employees to deal with is during a merger or acquisition.
There are limitations to how much can be done in these circumstances, especially when acquiring another business, but it is important to consider the people moving in when possible, as well as those already part of the business.
Again, this is where involving other teams and processes of doing business need to be handled carefully and collaboratively – but the intention is to completely reconfigure the way BT does major change projects.
“What I have to do is get in there and influence the mergers and acquisitions team to do this in the right way – we’re not a paragon of virtue in BT in this issue, but we’re increasingly starting to recognise that we need to do this better,” Kilfedder explained.
“All the change messaging that we’ve developed in our team is now going to be incorporated in to that M&A model, into their tool kit and part of their knowledge course – and this is essentially going to become this is how we do change in BT.
“Now this is going to take maybe years to filter completely through and for everybody to get on board and for it make it down stream, but it’s absolutely the right thing to be doing,” she added.
That the telecommunications giant is taking this approach may not be surprising to many people – it is well known for its health and wellbeing support.
But why is it willing to go so far as to change the way it conducts major business transformation exercises to accommodate it?
The key is the link to business performance: BT is focused on improving its customer experience and how the employee experience underpins that is a crucial factor.
Part of the employee experience is how it helps and supports staff with their health and wellbeing including their mental health.
The organisation has accepted the business case for investing in mental health with the financial, moral, brand and customer experience benefits for supporting health and wellbeing universally understood.
“For us as an employer and where we’ve come from, we absolutely believe that mental health is a business issue, it’s a significant business issue,” Kilfedder said.
“We think that as well as supporting our people, our managers are a key audience – they need help and support too. Just because they are a manager doesn’t mean they are going to be skilled in dealing with people with mental health issues.
“If we don’t get it right, if we don’t do it better, then it’s going to cost us as a business, but actually the human cost can be significant too. Sometimes when I’m talking to senior leaders you can talk until you’re blue in the face about strategy and policy and show them all the numbers and cost savings.
“But you tell them one story about a personal experience of one of our people, that’ll be the thing that actually switches on the light bulb and turns them into a champion and a committed mental health advocate – so never forget the human cost and for our leaders that’s important to them too,” she concluded.