May 15, 2018

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‘Company’s should provide staff with personal medical assessments’: In conversation with Karl Simons, Thames Water

SHP caught up with Karl Simons, Chief Health, Safety & Security Officer at Thames Water to find out how the company is working with its staff to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

Karl SimonsFirstly, thanks for your time Karl. Please tell us a little about your background and your role within Thames Water.

Karl Simons (KS): “I joined Thames in December 2012, having worked on all continents across the planet in a variety of industries including oil & gas, minerals, construction, rail and the MOD. At Thames I am responsible for leading the strategic development of health & wellbeing, safety and security.”

How much of a part does mental health play in your day-day-day responsibilities?

KS: “I guess I’ve always understood how mental health plays a major part in what I am about, whether at home as a father to my teenage children or at work where I have a responsibility to the tens of thousands who work for an on our behalf.”

Have you seen the remit of your role change over recent years, to incorporate more mental health and wellbeing duties?

KS: “What’s great is society is now promoting mental health in many ways, and in turn it is slowly dawning on employers that they need to consider what they are doing for their staff. Over recent years at Thames we have been ratcheting up the profile and visibility of mental health alongside physical health, so our Health & Wellbeing strategy is equal in both. I am very fortunate to have a world class group of H&S professionals working for me that have developed and driven the health agenda across the business.”

Thames Water proudly states that it has reduced work-related illness absence by 75% in the last five years. How have you gone about doing this?

KS: “This is the best bit! Achieving these outcomes is a direct result of the energy, effort and investment the company has made over this period. There is no single silver bullet, you can’t just do a training course and expect everything to change, remember we are tackling a deep rooted British stiff upper lip tradition, but with time and the introduction of the right initiatives we have really turned this super tanker of a company around. Each year we have set out a series of ambitious and targeted Health & Wellbeing objectives that show our people we care, there are too many to specifically talk though as they tackle topics areas such as leadership, competence, engagement & communication and I have recently been presenting around the London conference circuit where I can talk about what we have done specifically so others can hopefully learn.

“The real trick is to massively promote the ‘positive’ side of mental health, thanking people when they have done a good job is immensely important to someone’s self-esteem and I never underestimate this. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t compliment someone at work – it’s not because I have to, it’s just what I do.”

The main focus for Mental Health Awareness Week this year is stress. How big a role does dealing with stress play in the workplace?

KS: “It’s a daily thought for me, as a Mental Health First Aider I am regularly contacted by someone suffering the effects of negative mental stressors, and I’m always humbled to be in a position to help by signposting them onto the right place to get support. Let’s face it we know that stress weakens the immune system, which can leave a person susceptible to disease. So we work hard to ensure we encourage a culture where people are able to be open and talk to their peers or managers about how they are feeling.

“There is lots that companies can do towards tacking the effects of excessive stress. Top of the shop is leadership, both through the introduction of initiatives that set the tone that the company does care and is supportive of our vision which is to ensure everyone goes home safe and well every day, and these are not just words. When any of our employees are unable to return to work due to work related illness, which may be stress, we hold an Executive Illness Review, Chaired by a senior manager to ensure we have taken all the right steps to learn from this and prevent a recurrence.”

Why do you think it is so important that organisations have a set plan for how to deal with employee mental health issues?

KS: “A company must be realistic and clear on what it wants to achieve. My personal view is not to set long term pointless pie in the sky goals that no-one believes in and will change over the years anyway, this just confuses people. Remember to change a culture, its people have to have belief and passion in what the company is doing, so set out a clear vision statement (ours is a daily vision), then set annual objectives so you are dealing with the here and now, it’s realistic, believable and can impact the people.”

Please tell us a little more about the Mind-Fit course that the company has developed. How it works and what it does for you employees.

KS: “I am really fortunate to have an amazing training and health team working for me and this group of professionals have come together and creating an exciting educational course with a real difference. For the first time in the world we have made Virtual Reality work in a mental health training course. The challenge was, I didn’t want to see it happening to someone else in pictures or on a video; I wanted to see, hear and feel it happening to me!

“Virtual reality is the only way to achieve this but turning it to work in an actual course setting with 12 delegates was the issue that we overcame. We now enable the instructor to press a button and everyone is immersed at the same time into the virtual world, going through the same experience.

“When our people arrive to attend the course, they are provided with their course pack, which contains the normal literature but also their personal VR headset and ear phones. Then during the course the instructor may be talking about a topic such as stress at home and the trainer says ‘ok don your head sets everyone’ and off they go! When they surface back to the real world, they are then able to discuss where they have been and what they have experienced.

“We have been showcasing our mental health virtual reality educational programme to many of the country’s major safety-critical employers, including the British Army, water companies, mental health charities, and at the National Health and Safety Executives conference. We also offer the footage to anyone who wants to use it free of charge. It’s going down very well and I believe it’s the future of education.

“We worked with Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer on the Prime Minister’s mental health at work review, which produced the ‘Thriving at Work’ document and I was pleased when Lord Stevenson thanked us.”

He said: “The approach being taken by Thames Water, using virtual reality to improve mental health in the workplace, is one of the most impressive and practical approaches that I came across when Paul Farmer and I were producing our report for the Prime Minister.”

You have also introduced personal and confidential medical assessments for all employees, how has that been received amongst staff?

KS: “I believe very strongly that every company should provide its staff with an annual confidential personal medical assessment. In Thames we started this in 2013 and it’s been an incredible success, leading to many people getting support for issues they were unaware of and the trends have steered our health campaigns each year. Also for the thousands of contractors working on our behalf on our capital and infrastructure frameworks, we have steered them into providing the same access to a personal medical assessment for their people, which is first class and reflects the kind of supply chain partners we are working with.

“Most people ask ‘how did you get this started?’ My response is the same now as it was in 2013 – we provide our senior managers with a package that includes a medical assessment. Does that mean their health is more important than the receptionists or the plant fitter that works for us? Of course not, so why wouldn’t we give the same benefits to everyone!

“We MOT our vehicles every year at a cost of just over £50, so why wouldn’t we MOT our people for the same £50! That’s how we see it and our test provides a full MOT that also includes physical and mental along with the latest cancer tests too. Each year, members of my team and I are contacted by our people who have been diagnosed with cancer thanking us for enabling them to be diagnosed so early with no visible signs or symptoms, so they can get the early treatment they require. The present tally is 13 people with bowel or prostate cancer and all are receiving the vital early treatment needed.”

Is there anything specific that you are doing within the company to mark Mental Health Awareness Week?

KS: “Yep a tonne of stuff, including interviews on TV and Radio to promote the work we are doing, which hopefully others can learn from, to videos being released to support line managers in having the conversations with their team and daily reminders through our medial channels. Our CEO will also be leading a series of engagement talks with lots of teams.”

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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