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Nick Warburton is former editor of SHP Magazine. He is currently working as a freelance journalist and as an account manager at Technical Publicity.
May 30, 2023

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SHP Awards

Fiona O’Donnell – “It really is mental health in your hands”

The Global HSE Strategy Lead at Jacobs won this year’s Trailblazer in Workplace Wellbeing accolade at the SHP Awards. Here, she speaks to SHP about the organisation’s free and influential One Million Lives tool and her wider internal role promoting mental health and wellbeing.

Fiona O’Donnell, Global HSE Strategy Lead, Jacobs

One Million Lives (OML) is a free mental health check-in tool that enables Jacobs’ 60,000+ global employees to explore the state of their mental health in real-time, explains Fiona O’Donnell.

Launched in December 2019, it is a simple-to-use platform that stores anonymised data securely on the cloud and features two check-ins that are based on the Kessler Psychological Distress (K-10) scale. The first is a quick five question check-in while the second poses 75 questions. “If you go to your doctor and say, ‘Look I’m feeling down’, they may assess you based on the K10,” she says underlining its clinical approach. “When you are finished taking a check-in, the system gives you a dashboard and shows you where you are on it. It measures things like psychological distress, perfectionism, social media use, your sleep, and it then rates your mental health. Based on the region that you are in, it will give you resources you can access, so it really is mental health in your hands.”

Positive feedback

Fiona is quick to stress that OML does not provide a diagnoses of an individual’s mental health condition but rather provides proactive strategies for improving mental health and wellbeing. There is a ‘get help now’ button for those who do need immediate help. Feedback has been resoundingly positive, and some employees have reported how it has potentially saved lives, especially when the tool was made freely available to employees’ families and friends. “We’ve had people tell us that it allowed them to have a conversation with their teenage kids about suicide, which they never would have had the confidence to do before that,” she says.

The tool, which forms part of the company’s wider Mental Health Matters programme, has also enabled Jacobs to make strategic decisions based on the analysed data. For instance, when the business started to open up after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, the data indicated that the under-35 age group had been really struggling with social isolation. As a result, Jacobs prioritised returning these employees to the office. “We would never have known that had we not had the data,” she says. “It allowed us to put in place a tailored mentoring programme for that cohort.”

As Fiona explains, the company developed the OML tool in 2017 with Australian psychologist Peta Slocombe. In part, it was a response to Jacobs’ positive mental health champions training, a network that has snowballed from an initial 15 trainees in 2016 to numbering around 2,500 individuals in 2023. “The positive mental health champion network is something that people really see the value in,” she says. “We have people put themselves forward as champions that really are passionate about this and passionate about helping people.”

More proactive

As successful as this development is, however, Fiona says the business felt it needed to be more proactive on mental health and wellbeing issues. Fiona played a critical role in pushing OML forward as the business and employees emerged from the pandemic. As Fiona explains, Jacobs had always intended OML’s impact to be truly global so when World Mental Health Day was celebrated on 10 October 2022, she saw an opportunity to extend its reach beyond the global workforce, family and friends and involve a large number of collaborators and competitors.

With more than 10,000 people dialling into the three global calls, Jacobs created the biggest mental health check-in. Fiona played a pivotal role in its success through her relationship with CEO Bob Pragada. “It’ll give you a measure of the organisation that we have that I was able to just pick up the phone and ring him,” she recalls. “Bob is amazing at engaging with business. I said, ‘We have an idea. We are going to host this world’s biggest mental health check-in, why don’t we break down all the barriers and contact CEOs at our competitor organisations and tell them we want to wrap our arms around each other and do something together’. Within two weeks, I was on a call with four or five CEOs talking about mental health and rolling the campaign out across all of our organisations.”

While there’s a huge individual benefit to having mental health programmes, organisationally it’s absolutely imperative that our people are thriving.

As noted earlier, OML forms part of Jacobs’ wider Mental Health Matters programme and every seven-to-eight weeks, Jacobs provides a mental health resiliency call that regularly sees about 5,000 employees take part. “We started them because we felt our positive mental health champion network needed a bit more support and it just grew and grew,” she explains. “What we do is pick a topic each time. We’ve done some on suicide prevention; music and mental health; anxiety; and addiction. The last one was on resilience. The real success of these calls has been the peer-to-peer support. Typically, they are made up of personal stories and the science behind how the brain works.”

Fiona says the long-term aim of the OML tool is to encourage all employees to check-in regularly, even those that are thriving, so their mental health can be tracked over time. This helps the business at a strategic level, she adds, because if Jacobs knows its employees are mentally fit and well, they know their performance will be better. “While there’s a huge individual benefit to having mental health programmes, organisationally it’s absolutely imperative that our people are thriving. If they are not, we’re in trouble,” she says. “The people that are running massive organisations have so many other priorities that sometimes it can be difficult for them to connect those dots. Having anonymised data through OML has really allowed us to reinforce what we do from a wellbeing perspective and demonstrate the return on investment that you get when you invest in your people and wellbeing.”

A rewarding role

Fiona first joined Jacobs and its Irish operations in 2006. Over the next 13 years she accumulated a wealth of OSH experience before landing the role as head of safety for Jacobs’ European operations in 2019, a position she held for three years. She stepped into the global role last summer and reports into the company’s Vice President of HSE Paul Hendry. It was her first job working for an engineering firm in 2000 that first sparked her interest in an OSH career. “I started talking to people in the field and knew I had the ability to influence. That’s what health and safety is all about, so it kind of encouraged me to look at a career in it.”

Listening to her talk about her OSH journey,  it is clear how enthused she is by her current global role at Jacobs. “I’m tied into most regions globally, just trying to deliver that consistent approach to our health, safety, environment and wellbeing strategy,” she says. “It’s difficult, right? You’ve got different cultures, different mind-sets and people that are at different stages of their journey around safety. It’s a very challenging role, but equally one that is very rewarding.”

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