WH Smith: changing the mindset around mental health
Speaking to The Retail Bulletin during Mental Health Awareness Week, Alison Garbutt, head of strategic projects at WH Smith, says a personal experience involving a colleague taking their own life as a result of a mental health problem prompted her to address the issue across WH Smith.
Action through personal experience
“Because of the stigma and lack of awareness we did not know what to do with mental health, which at its most extreme results in death. My colleague’s death showed how ignorant I was about mental health and the reaction of other people - suggesting they had been selfish - led me to want to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around it. I also wanted to raise mental health support to the same level as physical,” she explains.
Garbutt came up with a strategic plan two years ago, having received sign-off from the WH Smith chief executive and understanding from the HR director, which involved raising awareness, reducing the stigma, and providing relevant training.
Raising awareness was helped by a link-up with ‘Time to Change’ (that has been created by Mind and Rethink) that involved the chief executive signing a pledge with the organisation to end discrimination towards mental health.
Part of this has involved encouraging employees with contacts at schools to raise awareness within them and to also bring in authors of mental health books to do readings and signings, and hold fund raising events.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, WH Smith has also been creating an environment for its employees to share their stories about any mental health problems they faced and what specifically helped them. In addition, the company has launched two ranges of cards through its Funky Pigeon business.
Garbutt says one of its designers (who suffered pre-natal depression) has produced a set of images focusing on giving the card’s recipient a “pick me up” and another set that highlights how “we’re so proud of you”. The cards are designed to encourage positivity around mental health and 30% of proceeds go to the charity Mind.
The training part of the mental health initiative at WH Smith has also seen it link-up with a third-party - ‘Mental Health First Aid’ - with the aim of having the same number of mental health first aiders in the company as physical ones.
“In the same way as with physical aiders, we want them to be the first line of support. If say somebody is having a panic attack then we want a first aider to have a conversation with them and maybe help them seek professional help,” says Garbutt, who adds that there has been a 100% improvement in the confidence levels of first aiders in having a conversation about mental health.
In addition, she has put in place a training schedule for all 1,000-plus line managers within WH Smith to receive a half-day training session: “It involves case studies highlighting the stigma around it and showing symptoms of potential mental health to help ensure individuals get the right support.”
She admits that scheduling this training across so many people has been “tough” but significant progress has been made, with 90% of line managers in the head offices having been trained, three-quarters in the Travel division, and 50% in the high street stores.
Clear benefits evident
The value of this training has been clearly evident, according to Garbutt, who says: “The line managers’ improvement in confidence to talk about mental health is up about 60%. Previously they would have avoided the conversation.”
Although she says the mental health plan she put in place - and received sign-off from the chief executive - did not require the delivery of any direct business benefits, she says it will ultimately have a positive impact on WH Smith.
“If we support people to enable them to get help then this should result in a reduction in the number of absences due to mental health issues. But this will take time as there are many decades of stigma to overcome,” she admits.
It is still early days in terms of retailers dealing with mental health, when compared to organisations in other sectors such as Unilever, but Garbutt has a key recommendation for other retailers: “They need to find out what works for them. We found working with the likes of Mental Health First Aid and Time to Change was valuable so I’d recommend using them.
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