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The Importance of prioritising mental wellbeing

[Please note that this article discusses sensitive subject matter around mental health and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.]

By Elizabeth Akass, Editor, Engage Business Media

KP Snacks explains how its progress in company mental health care has had a transformative effect on empowering and comforting staff in times of need.

KP Snacks is home to some of the most iconic and well-known snack brands in the UK. Originally founded in 1853, KP Snacks now has seven production sites around the UK. It is part of the European Intersnack Group, which produces over 600,000 tonnes of savoury snacks each year and is Europe’s second largest snack producer.

Martin Power, Employee Health and Wellbeing Manager at KP Snacks, explains why there was an internal shift in focus on mental health at the company. “We, like most businesses, noticed that we were having problems around mental health with our staff experiencing personal issues, and it was incurring increased absence and business cost, and we could see this in our feedback surveys which we take once a year. They told us they were struggling with managing their emotional and mental wellbeing.”

“Our team in occupational health noticed internal trends were showing an increase in negative mental health. Our referrals around mental health were increasing around 17% to 18% year on year,” he says: a substantial increase. “There was a general upswing around mental health in terms of public awareness, and we wanted to tie in to be on the upper end of the curve. We also looked at business costs, and the data showed us what we should be doing.”

He notes that this change began at a similar time to the government encouraging businesses to take action on mental health. “We knew there were external drivers to get us to do the right thing around the government’s own mental health awareness pushes, and we wanted to be at the forefront of that.” He says: “We felt it fitted in around what our values and behaviours were. One of our key values which is intrinsic to our business is valuing our people, and we felt it tied in really well to that.”

Power explains how KP Snacks approached this new focus on mental wellbeing. “When we wanted to train our people, both our managers and our colleagues themselves, we wanted something that we felt had a good evidence base, something that worked, and something where there was a lot of availability in terms of resources and that we could access things for our colleagues in terms of promoting their positive wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) kind of jumped out at us really; it was a really well-known product, well-developed, and well-evidenced.”

Mental Health First Aid England provides training courses to equip people with the skills needed to support their own and others’ wellbeing. It is designed to help people recognise the symptoms of mental health and enables them to provide support to those who need it. The organisation has worked with over 20,000 employers with unique workplace cultures, and aims to train one in 10 people with MHFA skills in the UK.

Power continues: “We looked at how we wanted to approach this, and how to identify the right people to take the training course and become Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs). One issue with these sorts of opportunities is that everyone says they want to do it, but we wanted to ensure we got the right people who felt confident supporting our colleagues at all levels of the business. That’s across senior management, middle management, supervisors, and team members themselves. We wanted it to be an all-level approach to implanting MHFA at the business.”

“I did a business case to the senior management team, outlining what the course involved, what we could expect our mental health first aiders to do for our colleagues in terms of support, and also regarding promoting changing the culture around mental health at KP Snacks.”

The company initially trialed the idea with a small-scale pilot of one course over two sites. “We then collected feedback around how our colleagues felt having done the course. We touched base with them to make sure they felt comfortable supporting our colleagues on a day to day basis.”

Power then discusses a key example of the significant impact this training had when a staff member tragically took their own life. “As these things do happen, we have issues where people experience mental distress. We had a very traumatic event happen at one of our sites, and this affected that shift badly as you would expect.” He says that typically in such a situation the Occupational Health team would get heavily involved in supporting colleagues, carrying out debriefing sessions, mental health awareness sessions, and more.

However, in this case, following the MHFA training, two MHFAs on the affected shift told Power that they wanted to help and took on some of this work as they knew their colleagues best and could support them effectively. “One of the people on the pilot was a line manager for that team, and they managed it themselves. If they needed a bit of input from us they would access it, but generally speaking they were self-sufficient.”

This helped employees receive more personable support and enabled them to feel cared for by colleagues they were familiar with, which seemed to reduce the negative impact of the traumatic event on their mental health. “From a business perspective, another benefit was that we had no absence from that shift,” he says. “Since then, we’ve had a number of instances where MHFA colleagues have stepped in where Occupational Health would have normally done the work. The business itself is becoming much more self-sufficient around mental health, and this has reduced the resources being used.”

Moving forward, Power says that the MHFA training will continue to be a priority at KP Snacks. “We’ve just finished two courses recently so we’re approaching 130 colleagues who have done Mental Health First Aid.” He continues: “Rather than just support colleagues and deliver everything centrally in terms of comms and mental health, we’ve taken an active role in helping people own that and participate in it. Some are better at it than others, but we’re supporting them through it. The recent World Mental Health Day was a great example of this, as we didn’t do any central comms around it – the MHFAs owned it and did everything themselves.”

The work of these individuals is appropriately recognised and rewarded internally by KP Snacks. Power says: “We pay our MHFAs now as we do our regular First Aiders as we feel it’s important to value them for the work they do. We will also be doing a mental health champion’s day next year which is just about refreshing skills, getting together and sharing best practice, and valuing each other.”

This transformative effort by the company has not gone unnoticed, and in 2019 KP Snacks won an award for its mental health programme at the Food and Drink Federation Awards for HR Initiative of the Year. “It recognises the achievements we’ve made, and two MHFAs picked up the award – it’s all about them and their hard work.”

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