Opinion
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

'MANAGERS ARE NOT COUNSELLORS, BUT OUR ROLES INVOLVE RELEVANT SKILLS'

Rachel Warwick is global head of culture, engagement and development for Ocado Group. In her work, she has always had a focus on wellbeing, but her interest in signposting colleagues to mental health resources heightened when her then husband attempted suicide three years ago.

3rd September 2021



Trigger warning – this article discusses suicide

Everyone has a different view of the duty of care organisations have to take for their employees, but the pandemic has blurred the line.

Health and safety measures for managing stress risk at work have been around a long time, but you can’t ignore now that you have to see a whole person.

The needs of the people in my team have changed and I am more aware of what goes on in their lives and in their homes. It’s not that people weren’t caring before, but the emotionally intelligent skills of leaders and managers have come to the fore. The past year has meant lots more people have been struggling with isolation, or juggling childcare.

As an indication of our changing world, this summer, new legislation, ISO45003, came into effect for managing psychological health – it’s the first guidance to do that.

One of the best ways to open up the conversation about mental health and suicide in an organisational setting is through personal stories shared by people with an influential voice – and they don’t need to be senior figures. When there is authenticity around storytelling, it helps people connect to a topic that is otherwise very difficult to talk about.


Just over three years ago, my husband Tom – we’re no longer together but still very close friends – tried to take his own life. He was moments away, but successfully found. In the aftermath, we both needed a lot of support. I am a trained occupational psychologist and, even though I am not a clinical psychologist, I felt lucky I knew roughly where to turn. But it struck me that lots of people wouldn’t know.

Not long after this happened, I moved into a new role of head of health and wellbeing with easyJet. For World Mental Health Day, another leader suggested we do a filmed interview about suicide prevention. People asked me if I felt OK talking about it. They didn’t want to get it wrong. They worried if you communicate about suicide, other people would be more likely to consider it.

I wasn’t an expert in the topic, but I thought if I told my own story about what had happened, what I think could have prevented it and what helped me cope with the trauma, it might help break the stigma, and lead other people to talk about their mental health. The ripple effect was significant. I had several people reach out to me who were suicidal.

I realised that, when you start communicating about suicide, you have to make sure you have clear signposting to how people can access the right support. Managers are not counsellors, but our roles increasingly involve relevant skills. If someone tells you – whether or not you are their manager – that they feel suicidal, you want to be able to guide them to the right expert support and resources.

At the heart of this is the need for broader education and training in health and wellbeing.


People find it easy to talk about physical injury, but psychosocial wellbeing goes beyond that. Organisations need to understand that managers will have people within their teams facing mental health issues. When I nearly lost Tom, I realised I had no idea what to do if someone had told me they were having suicidal thoughts.

Identify the roles that would most benefit from training and equip those people with what they need. People will worry about saying or doing the wrong thing – that it could be a trigger. You don’t want to make managers feel they are taking on the role of a trained professional, but it’s so important to me that organisations raise awareness.

Help to educate others how to spot the signs of poor mental health and where to signpost people. But acknowledge that you don’t expect those people to be psychologists or clinicians.

In Ocado Group, for our global organisation of over 19,000 people, we launched a digital platform called Unmind. It’s made up of clinically approved tools and expert guidance to support employees with all aspects of mental health and wellbeing and includes signposted support services by country. As part of the Unmind mental health foundations training series, there is a whole module dedicated to talking about suicide; the aim is to help people to feel empowered to support others who are having suicidal thoughts. This module was created in collaboration with Jonny Benjamin MBE, who shares his personal story.

We are also creating a manager’s toolkit for supporting mental health, which will contain, at least, information on where to go if you need to talk and if you need guidance; a simple practical checklist; tools to help the conversation if someone comes to you for help; and a thorough list of policies and points of contact. Expert content is key, but the foundation is the mental health foundations training series on Unmind which is available to all our people globally.

And while technical wellbeing and mental health training is important, so is education around the need to be more present and emotionally intelligent. Help leaders to understand how to take care of themselves, but also then how they can translate that into how they manage, check in and take care of their teams.


Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are externally run and confidential. You will get general aggregate data, but a manager would not know if someone in their team has contacted a trained counsellor. Anonymity is important, though if there was a real fear of life, there are circumstances where you might need to break that. Otherwise, you have to trust that there are experts running those services.

EAPs provide a really important service. In many cases, you have 24/7 coverage in local language, trained counsellors at the end of the phone. Often, managers have their own helplines on the EAP. But signpost people to other places – external charities, like the Samaritans and Mind. And there are industry-specific services. At Ocado, our people can access Grocery Aid in the UK, which is an amazing charity. The key is to make people
aware, through internal comms channels, what is available.

When Tom tried to take his own life, I had no idea my organisation even had an EAP service that would allow me to have sessions with a counsellor and it turned out to be something I really needed.


Work was the most amazing anchor. I came to work, but I wasn’t myself. My colleagues spotted that and just asked if I was OK. I would sometimes erupt, but their genuine kindness and compassion, and acceptance that I wasn’t myself, was a massive help.

Men are disproportionately impacted by suicide and often are the ones that are least likely to open up and talk about it. I think it’s important employers understand their people data, and the associated risk factors. We need to think of the make-up of our demographic in the way we communicate things and tailor what we do.

What is it about our society that stops many people talking about their feelings? How people feel matters. It’s OK to talk about it. It is a massive challenge that people feel they can’t be emotional – that our brains can’t release what’s going on.

We shouldn’t single out a gender or nationality in your communication – suicide could impact anybody – but the population of your organisation might mean you have more people at risk. Educate on the facts. Link back to your employee data. Use events throughout the year that might single out the message for certain groups.

And spend time educating and encouraging people leaders to share and be open about their own wellbeing so that the impact of those conversations and behaviours start to trickle down throughout the organisation.


I asked Tom what would have been helpful when he was at crisis point. He says that he wishes he had known about other people in a similar situation – that there had been people who had shared their experiences of an unsolvable problem, but then found support. We have to let people know that they are not alone.

At the time, Tom believed he was thinking rationally, but now recognises he was not seeing the reality around himself clearly and would have benefited from talking to someone to help find clarity of thought. Knowing that
resources are available is not always enough to change someone’s actions, which is why it is important we are able to spot the signs that a colleague is struggling – has anything changed in their behaviour? – and create the opportunity for them to talk.

Our conversations at work need to be more caring – they need to be more than business focused. We have to think differently about how we work with our colleagues.

We’re all trying to spin plates and wear different hats, and it’s easy to not find time to have those conversations, but we really can’t forget how important those are.


Rachel’s story was told to Rob Jones.

Read our introduction to this series and guidelines for reporting and communicating about suicide.

Read Caroline's story: 'The more we talk about suicide at work, the less it becomes stigmatised'

Read Gordon's story: 'It is not a weakness to realise there is something wrong and to ask for help'

Read Kiera's story: 'It's vital students believe they are in an environment where they will be emotionally supported'

Read Andrew's story: 'Bring a sense of community into your culture and show you are interested in people'

Read Penny's story: 'Invite someone you have reason to beliueve may be struggling to open up about it'

Read Karen's story: 'Whatever we did had to be informed by insight and evidence'

Read Dane's insight: 'Many employees fear opening up if they're struggling'

 

Talk to someone if you need help

Samaritans is a registered charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide. If you're having a difficult time, or you are worried about someone else, call 116 223 or visit samaritans.org

 

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