AWE gets serious about mental health

29 Jul 2019

Prospect’s AWE branch secretary and Stephanie Fitzgerald, who came on board for a year as the employer’s health and well-being specialist, tell Boc Ly how they’ve laid the foundations for a better place to work.

As the full-time branch secretary, Ginny Braginton takes on the bulk of the personal cases on behalf of Prospect members at AWE.

She has a unique insight into problems that staff across the organisation are experiencing and she began to notice common underlying themes.

“When I started to ask more questions, members started to open up about why they were really struggling. Migraines, sickness, diarrhoea, sight and back problems actually turned out to be stress, anxiety and depression,” says Ginny.

Rather than helping staff with these underlying problems, AWE was unwittingly identifying them using less sympathetic, more punishing language, such as bad behaviour, repeated absences or poor performance.

Ginny knew something needed to be done about this ‘silent problem’ and didn’t hesitate to go to the top.

“I have regular catch ups with Iain Coucher, our chief executive. I explained my concerns that AWE was poorly managing, and often causing, stress due to the constant change that the company is going through without assessing the impact on the staff.”

To his credit, Mr Coucher responded positively to Ginny’s concerns and asked if Prospect knew of employers who were excelling in promoting mental health and well-being for their staff.

With the help of Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary, Mr Coucher chose energy company, SSE, as an organisation that he would be interested in speaking to about how they support good mental health.

In September 2017, Ginny, Sue, Amy Bishop, Prospect’s AWE equalities rep and Iain Coucher met two representatives from SSE.

Soon afterwards, AWE created a new post for a health and well-being specialist and Stephanie Fitzgerald, a chartered clinical psychologist specialising in treating anxiety disorders, started in the role in July 2018.

Working with the unions

“Broadly speaking, my remit as a health and well-being specialist is to make sure employees are happy, healthy, safe and engaged,” explains Stephanie.

“As soon as I arrived at AWE, I asked, ‘Who are your unions? Who are the reps that I can speak to?’ I’ve always worked well with unions and it’s a really important relationship.

“Ginny and I agreed that there was work to be done around morale and rebuilding trust. It’s really important that employees feel they can trust their company. AWE has been through a few changes.

“A lot of change can be unsettling for people and people can suffer from change fatigue.”

Working closely with the unions, Stephanie introduced a health and well-being strategy that was signed off by the executive board. AWE also signed the Time to Change pledge.

“That’s been huge because it’s making a public statement as a company, saying it’s okay to have mental health issues at AWE, and that you will be supported and helped with them,” Stephanie says.

Having laid these strong foundations, Stephanie regularly met union reps to ensure that progress would continue.

“I had a really blunt conversation with Ginny about six months in and she said, ‘Well, you have moved things forward in six months that we’ve been trying to get through for six years.’

“We worked really well together and it was encouraging to make so much progress so quickly.”

Stephanie has since left AWE to begin a new role but they’re both confident that AWE is now in a better place and will continue making improvements.

Ginny hails the contribution that Stephanie was able to make, calling her a ‘real gem.’

AWE will be hiring someone to continue her work, and the new occupant will have a direct reporting line to the executive, a communications business partner and an HR business partner.

“None of these things were in place when I started. If you like, I’ve carved out a beautiful chair for someone else to sit on,” says Stephanie.

Not just a beautiful chair,  but – more importantly – a better and happier place to work.

Prospect has signed the Time to Change pledge and Ginny has volunteered to be a Time to Change Champion: www.time-to-change.org.uk