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April 5, 2023


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‘Make it normal, make it supportive’: Talking mental health support with Mates in Mind’s Sarah Meek

IFSEC Global speaks to Sarah Meek, Managing Director at Mates in Mind about how workplace communication can positively impact mental health, and the ways in which employers and colleagues can support this.

IFSEC Global (IG): Hi Sarah, for those who may not know, could you tell us what Mates in Mind is?

MatesInMind-GenericLogo-23Sarah Meek (SM): Yes, Mates in Mind is a charity which was set up five years ago by the Health in Construction Leadership Group, to look at how we can prevent the causes of mental ill-health across construction and related industries and to focus on cultural change within organisations as well.

We want to see what we can do to minimise the risk of someone becoming unwell and then needing to access services.

However, if they do get to that point, where they need access to extra support, then we are hoping to break down those barriers, reduce the stigma at work, and make it OK to talk about.

Sometimes there’s a lot of suspicion or judgement around employee assistance programmes and how somebody would be seen in the workplace for disclosing that they are facing a mental health challenge.

We aim to reduce that stigma by providing training, specifically to line managers who have responsibility for employees, and can proactively do something about work related stress, for example.

We also have a general awareness programme that allows the whole team to recognise signs of stress and mental ill health in themselves and in others.

IG: Sounds like a great initiative. Is there a main fact or statistic for mental health that stands out to you?

SM: We know that within construction there are around 507 suicides recorded every year, and we do think it’s a higher number than this as not all suicides are reportable under the RIDDOR process.

But for us, one is too many, we would really aim for zero suicides wherever we can, and for people to seek early help to support them, rather than leaving it too late.

Also, through our own research we found that a third of people working in smaller and micro businesses are facing severe levels of anxiety.

The further down the supply chain we get, the more we see, for example through financial flows, lone working, relationship difficulties at work or at home, not having a wider team around you and demand for supplies – are just some of the issues that may contribute to people being in a low mood.

IG: In terms of helping employers in the workplace, what advice would you give to approaching someone who is struggling?

SM: We would recommend – rather than it being held with a few people – to absolutely make mental health something that everyone is aware of in the workplace.

It’s important that the whole team is brought along in spotting signs and providing important peer to peer support.

People might feel comfortable talking to others to the left or right of them, not necessarily approaching either their line manager, project lead or the designated person within the workplace to speak about mental health – so for us, it’s really getting that peer-to-peer support in place. Making it normal, making it supportive.

The more we can do to change culture, the better.

It’s also great when we see people in a position of seniority or upper management talking about their own mental health or how they have struggled, as it allows people in the organisation to know that it’s OK to talk about and you can get through this.

For us, it includes the supply chain too, not just people who are on the pay roll as fixed employees, but the people who are on site, the trades, the people who come in through the organisations on to projects – they all play a part, and that includes the apprentices as well.

This way everyone feels that they are valued and being looked after.

IG: What advice would you give to those who are struggling with mental health?

SM: I think for anybody who has noticed that their colleague, their friend, their family member, isn’t quite themselves, to speak with them as openly as possible.

Not asking ‘how are you?’, because that generally elicits ‘I’m fine’ as a quick response and makes it quite hard to allow a space where the person feels they can speak openly.

So, a question more like ‘how are you sleeping?’, ‘what’s on your mind?’  or ‘I’ve noticed you seem distracted or not quite yourself’ is often better to start this conversation.

If you are concerned about someone then please ask them again – not to the point of being intrusive, but really showing that you care as you don’t know when the person might take the opportunity to speak up.

For people dealing with mental health themselves – contradictory to personal thoughts when we are facing a personal challenge, it is not going to mean that you will necessarily lose your job, it’s not going to mean that people feel different about you or think you aren’t capable.

It takes a tremendous amount of strength to say that you are finding things difficult.

It’s also important to note that people’s challenges can be different on different days, we all know that relationships both at home and at work can have an impact, finances can impact, even having a worse commute than normal – all these things can really affect you when you are already feeling vulnerable or down.

Speak to somebody about it.

Know that there’s also a confidential text line available 24/7 that we have (text Beamate to 85258), and that other organisations also offer, so that you don’t have to say who you are.

Most larger organisations would have employee assistance programs, or if you’re working on a project, ask if there’s one that you can access. They very often have things such as counselling or financial support.

Share it with somebody.

IG: We know that Mates in Mind started its focus in construction but is now broadening to wider industries as well. In the security industry, there is a lot of lone working – where security professionals have lone shifts, small teams, or self-employed installers driving alone in vans. How can an organisation support those who lone work?

SM: We’ve certainly found through our research that lone working can contribute to poor mental ill health and that’s why we’re looking at different ways in which we can support the lone worker aspect.

For example, drivers often don’t share the cab or van with someone to be able to reach out and speak and can lack a consistent network around them at overnight stays, so initiatives like our text service can really help.

Keep an eye on each other when coming into the office as well, ask about them, rather than ‘how the project is progressing’ – more about ‘how are they managing at home?’.

It’s only when you get to know someone more closely that you can notice when something isn’t right.

IG: Definitely – so for managers to get to know employees on a personal level?

SM: Absolutely, and that’s why training is important with line managers because we know that people progress through a company for their technical expertise and their length of service, but they haven’t necessarily been taught the skills around how to start that important conversation with somebody if you’re worried, and we can absolutely help with that.

IG: We’ll be seeing Mates in Mind at IFSEC and FIREX in May this year, what are you most looking forward to?

SM: Since it’s been made aware that we’ll be working with both the fire and security industries, we’ve been really welcomed by both and have had people reaching out to us already which is great.

We can’t wait to present on both stages to tell people a bit more about what we do and then for people to come over and have a chat with us to learn more about the work of the charity and to explore what we can do to help

Let us know if you have challenges or what you’re struggling with – or even just for us to learn more about what you do.

We’re going to have two stands in both the bar areas at IFSEC and FIREX, with a team on both sides – please do come along and start the conversation!


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