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  • Kat Hounsell

Mental health and wellbeing at WSTA

We wanted to discover the impact our Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) courses are having on the people who have taken part and learn about how MHFA fits into a broader wellbeing strategy. After all, it’s the actions and changes experienced following these events that are most important to us!

Here’s what the team at the WSTA (The Wine & Spirit Trade Association) had to say.

Names: Gemma Keyes, Director of Operations and Miles Beale, Chief Executive

Organisation: The Wine & Spirit Trade Association Size: 13 employees (including part time) and 2 Community Alcohol Partnership employees

What was the catalyst for putting mental health on the agenda at WSTA?

Gemma: It came from dealing with emerging issues with our staff. Over the past few years, we have had relatively few issues to deal with, but at least as many have related to mental as to physical health. With each occurrence, we have learnt more how to best support the team.

There’s now a positive and supportive culture amongst the team, and from line managers all the way up to Miles as Chief Executive, so the team feel problems and concerns can be raised.

Describe the activities you have taken to build a mentally healthy workplace?

One-off activities?

Gemma: We ran the Mental Health First Aid 1-day Champion course for the whole team - encouraging people to talk about mental health and wellbeing in the office. This was a turning point for encouraging open communication.

We have circulated The Benevolent’s helpline amongst the team, so everyone has this number. We also make sure the team know they can speak about any issues or concerns in confidence. For individual cases we listen to what that person needs and work out a plan to support them. This can include working with third-party organisations like an Occupational Health assessor.

Ongoing strategic activities?

We have also worked with a third-party HR company to ensure best practice guidelines are followed, and we have an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) set-up with Bupa. This includes a confidential helpline for advice on all sorts and access to free counselling.

We encourage initial confidential chats with me (Gemma), as someone who’s not Chief Executive or line manager for most staff. This can help with starting the conversation and finding out what support might be available, or reassure any concerns colleagues might have about talking about their mental health.

All these activities are shared on a regular basis with the team to remind them what support is available.

Future plans?

We already offer flexibility of hours with start and finish times; however, we’re now building in working from home - 1-day every week for every member of staff who wants it. We have had a positive response to that and are getting it set up as we speak!

We’ve also just written our first mental health policy separately to our sickness absence policy – doing this following the MHFA course is helping to make it part of everyday conversation.

What were your personal take-aways from the MHFA Champion course?

Miles: Mental Health is easier to talk about than you think. Not talking about it is the worst thing you can do. We’re focussed on creating an environment where people have permission to open up.

And since the course the atmosphere has changed, it’s less difficult to talk about mental health than it was, and people know who they can go to for support. Having tools and policies alongside the training works well.

Gemma: I did the course twice! My learnings are that you can be more direct than you think when talking about mental health. It’s important to proactively ask people how they’re feeling and generate conversation rather than waiting for someone to approach you. For people who manage others, it’s confidence building. It was also interesting to see how many people have been touched by mental ill health, either directly or through family and friends.

Since the course I’ve noticed people talking more openly about mental health and sharing wellbeing apps, such as those they use to manage anxiety.

How has talking about mental health more openly at work impacted your team’s wellbeing and performance?

Gemma: I believe people will be more proactive in raising concerns and asking for help and adjustments. This means issues will be dealt with more quickly and staying in or returning to work much easier. The team are also more comfortable talking about wellbeing and are considerate of one another – that all helps with support as well as performance.

It’s worth mentioning that work can be part of the solution, having space with a nice atmosphere, free counselling, knowing you can talk to colleagues and line managers, a positive routine of work and achievement at work. This can be a helpful background and positive influence for recovery.

Miles: Honestly, I did feel like we grudgingly had to accept flexible work and in the past that may have led to a less productive day due to poor IT support. I now see it as a positive way to allow people to manage their wellbeing, and flexible working can be an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

You get payback in a different way through improved staff engagement.

Talking about wellbeing is positive… resilience is needed in small companies as the loss of one person is disproportionately felt. As an organisation you go far by helping someone and building their resilience.

I’d personally like to see a cost benefit analysis in our industry of early intervention for mental health issues vs. not dealing with them for a while. My sense is you are better off investing proactively in wellbeing strategies than reacting to ill health as it arises.

Are there any other ways you support the wider trade with building mental health awareness?

Miles: In 2018, I spoke on the London Wine Fair (LWF) mental health panel, alongside The Benevolent, and people with more personal, every day experience of mental health challenges.

We generally support the Benevolent and are a cheerleader in Chief! We enjoyed sharing a stand with them at this year’s LWF on 20-22 May, where Miles also spoke on another mental health panel about promoting wellness and self help culture in business. It was an opportunity to share how organisations in the drinks industry can help staff with mental health, stress, and general lifestyle. We used it as a chance to build on last year’s session with The Benevolent.

Kat Hounsell, writer of this article (second to the right), at a mental health seminar hosted by The Benevolent at a previous London Wine Fair. Other panellists: Mike Turner (Please Bring Me My Wine), Christo Eliott Lockhart (Hallgarten & Novum Wines), Chris Porter (CEO, The Benevolent), Miles Beale (CEO, WSTA). Photo by The Drinks Business

What are your thoughts on talking more openly about the relationship between alcohol and mental health?

Miles: It’s difficult to talk about this anyway, even harder in the drinks industry and if you use drink as a coping strategy. We do need to talk about it, carefully - we need more people of influence and those in Senior roles to open up the conversation. If you had one piece of advice for other organisations (of your size) who want to start building a wellbeing strategy, what would it be?

Gemma: People in charge need to believe in mental health and wellbeing for the organisation. Have senior leadership onboarded and trained up. Would be very different if you didn’t have that openness from the top and ability to put support measures in place.

I think having at least one person do the MHFA course is important for a background in mental health, what you can and can’t say and how to best signpost people to professional help.

Miles: Talk about it! Find a reason to have a chat. Use the MHFA Champion course as a catalyst or icebreaker to put it all in context.

Gemma: For small businesses putting strategies in place can be difficult with financial constraints. However, ensuring there is someone in-house to talk to for a confidential chat doesn’t cost anything.

Miles: Third parties are rather helpful, for smaller organisations in particular - distance and professionalism has significant benefits.

Thank you to Gemma and Miles for this fantastic interview, packed with advice and learnings for other organisations.

If you want to open up the conversation around mental health and wellbeing where you work, then say hello!

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