“We are proud to be making a commitment to training our staff in Mental Health First Aid.” Stephen Clarke, CEO


Started MHFA training 
2016 

Staff trained so far 
170+ Mental Health First Aiders 
1,133 Mental Health Aware 


“We all need to look after each other and ourselves.” This is the mantra that is driving WHSmith, as the business delivers a comprehensive wellbeing strategy to not only raise awareness of mental health issues and address the stigma surrounding them, but also provide support to its staff. 

With around 14,000 employees across more than 1,100 stores in the UK, three offices and three distribution centres, the retailer has worked tirelessly to ensure all of its line managers receive MHFA England training and that it has just as many Mental Health First Aiders as it does physical health first aiders. 
 

Why we train our staff in MHFA England skills

“One in six employees suffer mental health issues, so it’s increasingly important that we have first aid provision for mental health too.”

Alison Garbutt, Head of Strategic Projects who is spearheading this agenda, says: “We have many physical first aiders who are all trained to help colleagues in the event of something like a heart attack – but what happens if a colleague is having a panic attack? One in six employees suffer mental health issues, so it’s important that we have first aid provision for mental health too.”

Following the death of a friend who took their own life, Alison was keen to understand what she could have done differently, if at all, to support her friend. “At the time, I was concerned that if I spoke to my friend about how he was feeling I might have made things worse. I now know this not to be true. A meaningful conversation, asking the right questions and listening, might have helped.”

After months of investigating and consulting on the best approach for the company to tackle mental ill health, WHSmith decided on a two-pronged approach to delivering a mental health wellbeing strategy: working with Time to Change to raise awareness of mental health issues and working with MHFA England to provide training on how to support mental health in the workplace. 

WHSmith worked closely with MHFA England to create a tailored training model to suit the nature of the business, and currently have four qualified MHFA England Instructor Members who deliver the training in-house alongside their day jobs. This model allows ongoing training to be delivered to meet demand. 


Results

The network of Mental Health First Aiders at WHSmith has reported an increase of 352% in their knowledge and understanding of how to start a conversation about mental health.

With their robust delivery model, it comes as no surprise that WHSmith has achieved its target of matching the number of Mental Health First Aiders to physical first aiders across the business. These staff members have all attended an MHFA Two Day course, followed up by monthly meetings to network and keep their knowledge alive. The network of Mental Health First Aiders at WHSmith has reported an increase of 352% in their knowledge and understanding of how to start a conversation about mental health.  

Meanwhile, over 90% of line managers and store managers have attended a Mental Health Aware Half Day course. MHFA England’s Line Managers’ Resource is widely circulated to help embed the knowledge after the training. 74% of WHSmith employees now say that they feel comfortable speaking to their line manager about their mental health if it is impacting on their work, compared to the industry average of just 16% in the retail sector in general. (1)

The business’s reported absence rates for mental ill health have increased from 3% to 24% of total absence days, suggesting that stigma is on the decline and staff are now feeling more empowered to be open about the reason for their absence. Recent employee survey data suggested that respondents ultimately felt more supported after disclosing a mental health issue to their line manager. Uptake of support is also on the rise with EAP access rates increasing, and 81% of employees say that they would know where to go to get support for their mental health at work. 

One of the biggest pieces of evidence for the overall success of the strategy comes from a recent employee survey where 93% of respondents recorded WHSmith as being supportive about issues concerning mental health.


What the future holds

WHSmith will continue to deliver the Mental Health Aware Half Day course to the final 10% of line managers who have not yet attended, including all newly appointed line managers. Despite the challenges posed by their wide geographical spread, they continue to increase the size of their network to ensure each store region has a minimum of two Mental Health First Aiders. Digital learning options and refresher training will be rolled out to help reach even more of the workforce and support people to retain their skills.  

WHSmith’s aim is to train one in ten employees on MHFA England courses. They remain focussed on balancing this ambition with ensuring that the rollout works for their employees, scheduling training at times that delegates are likely to be receptive and ensuring that the appropriate support networks are in place.

Stephen Clarke, CEO of WHSmith, says: “The workplace can be a vital drive for change in addressing this issue, which is why we are proud to be making a commitment to training our staff in MHFA.”


1 Business in the Community: Mental Health at Work Report 2017