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“We’ve got to encourage people to do better”

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These days, we might be more open about mental health, but it still takes courage to speak up about our own experiences.


When James Rudoni explains what motivated him to join Mates in Mind as its managing director in December 2018, his response is admirably honest: “I’ve suffered with poor mental health in the past, and it was mainly to do with the fact that my employer didn’t really understand how to support me and I ended up in hospital.”

What led to this crisis was a combination of factors – phenomenal financial pressures at work and then the sudden breakdown of a personal relationship. While these things drove James close to the precipice, it was his company’s response that pushed him over it: “There was no let up from the work, there was no real understanding. So that’s when I started to fall over. In the end I decided right, okay, so I moved away from that sector and I steered towards more frontline charities where I could apply my experience.” 

James Rudoni: "There was no let up from the work, there was no real understanding"

We only ever whisper about health

By the time James joined as its MD, Mates in Mind had been on a journey of its own, growing from fledgling to a busy charity. Andrew Wolstenholme then CEO of Crossrail told his peers at the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) in January 2016: “We are good at shouting about safety, but we only ever whisper about health,” citing figures that workers are 100 times more likely to die from health issues than in accidents.

“They agreed the situation’s unacceptable, neither morally or economically in terms of the long-term viability for the sector and, like with physical safety, nearly two decades before, the construction industry has demonstrated how purposeful progress can be made on complex issues when it pulls together,” explains James. Mates in Mind was launched in 2017 at the HCLG’s second Construction Summit, with the financial support and backing of the British Safety Council.

Enabling companies to do better

Of course, mental health is something that affects us all. One in three of us will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in our lives, according to Business in the Community, the not-for-profit organisation that promotes responsible business. Three out of five people have experienced mental health issues due to work. But mental ill health – particularly at its most severe end – is most marked in men, with suicide the biggest killer for men under 45.

In the male-dominated world of construction, the rate of suicide is 3.7 times higher than for the general population. On one level, Mates in Mind’s work is about clearing a space in this vulnerable industry to talk about the pressures: “If the organisation doesn’t have a culture where you can put your hand up and go ‘I’m not coping because of my past, because of stuff at home, because of the pressure I’m under’, if you don’t have that and the expectation is ‘man up sunshine or you’re out the door’…all those types of behaviour mean nothing is in place to prevent those people from suffering,” says James. “We’ve got to encourage and enable companies to do better, you know, it’s getting beyond the ‘man up’ attitude.”

How does Mates in Mind go about making a difference? Broadly speaking, it offers a holistic approach that includes general mental health awareness training, resources and information and, for its supporters, a chance to be part of a movement to make a change.

Mates in Mind wants companies to "get beyond the ‘man up’ attitude” and support openness around mental health

Start the Conversation and Manage the Conversation, its flagship training programmes, start from the premise that employees need to be empowered to talk if they have a problem and spot warning signs in their colleagues. Also, managers need to spot staff who might be struggling and be able to respond with empathy and practical support. Training is classroom–based and also offered online.

“More than just a conversation”

James does not deny there are challenges, however, and the simple offer does not negate the complexities of managing and supporting good mental health. Recently, for Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, Mates in Mind put out a bold statement to say that words on their own won’t do.

“Addressing mental health is more than just a conversation about stigma at work, it really is about busting that taboo and changing cultures,” James stated at the time. He expands now: “The real change we’re trying to make is that companies, no matter how big or small they are, take a whole organisation approach to mental health. So instead of going ‘we’ve got mental health first aiders, tick, we’ve done mental health training,’ actually they’ve got to embed the whole thing.”

It’s about offering meaningful support. At this year’s Health and Safety Expo, HSE’s chief psychologist, Peter Kelly, criticised ‘cheap health awareness tools’ that failed to address the real sources of workplace stress. So Mates in Mind is geared at nudging employers to change culture and tackle organisational stress – everything from influencing how business leaders talk about mental health through to company HR policies and the way jobs are advertised (templates are available on the website).

Organisations can also check how well they are doing via self-assessments. These are based around the mental health core standards set out in the 2017 Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work report. Once completed, Mates in Mind recommends the next steps to take.

Training and skills

It’s a large undertaking for a small charity. How is it feasible? Rudoni catches the criticism and throws it back: “We operate with a small team that supports 277 organisations and over 200,000 individuals, so we can’t do it at that granular level. We don’t deliver ongoing support directly to individuals, we deliver enabling skills to organisations to get on and do this themselves. Then we will be the guiding hand as and when they need it.”

Workers receiving Mates in Mind training

Support is in providing information, action plans, best practice and training. “We’re experts in enabling organisations to put in place the right mental health training and skills.”

That might sound like a ducking of responsibility, but there is a real sense that Mates in Mind is a team effort. That is, in as much as it empowers its member base to take its messages and training and run with it, the same individuals and leaders are also making their voices heard at Mates in Mind.

A new programme, called Listen, Support, Signpost “has come straight from our supporters”, says James: “They’re saying look, we’ve got staff trained on mental health, we need some help as to how we get the most out of them. So we’ve developed this new programme, we’ve trialled it with some of our supporters and we’ll be rolling it out later on in the year.”

Adding coal to the steam engine

Mates in Mind currently has nine business champions and 185 supporters. Russell Stilwell, founding director of RSE Building Services, is passionate about his role as a Mates champion: “The Start the Conversation with staff, it stuck,” he says. Very open about his own past breakdown, Russ had already made some headway on mental health support, but working with Mates helped to formalise it. “It strengthened the work I do, it added some coal to the steam engine. The ability for someone inside our company to have been unwell because of stress was extremely empathy-driven from me, they could feel comfortable. My door was always open.”

Russell Stilwell (centre) with his wife Deborah (to his left) receiving Highly Commended in the Mates in Mind SME category Impact Awards in April

Practically speaking, champions are heads of companies who want to help influence the sector by chairing events or speaking on behalf of Mates in Mind to their supply chain. Each business champion will have donated upwards of £7,000 to have that higher profile. It provides a platform to talk and gain recognition for good work: “You hear other employers saying, yeah they’re playing the mental health card. We don’t look at it like that, if I see someone is suffering I’d run at them,” says Russ.

So, what next for Mates in Mind? The charity has recently rebranded to appeal to women and other sectors which have more of a balance of genders. “We are now working across transportation, logistics, sports, a whole range of different sectors,” says James. He says it’s going to be important to adapt the messages to women. “Some people think, women talk so it’s ok for them, but women try to take their lives more often than men, they just use less deadly methods. So, there’s still an issue that needs to be addressed and we’re certainly not ignoring it.”

Challenges could be that other sectors are not as mature in their preparedness for the changes Mates in Mind wants to see. At one recent event, James reports how the audience made up of transport professionals responded: “It felt like they were somewhat oblivious to the problem, or rather they know it’s there, but they weren’t sure how to address it. Other sectors are going to be in the same situation.”

Impact and feedback

Mates in Mind’s most important achievements to date are, however, in the stories and testimonies it receives all the time. “We’ve had people that have said, ‘if I hadn’t had my training from Mates in Mind I wouldn’t have spoken to my colleague and, if I hadn’t spoken to him, he would have taken his life,’ so we’re saving lives right now, we know that,” says James.

It’s also not about simply pulling workers back from the precipice at that crisis moment, but helping companies create better environments to work in. “It’s about the journey organisations go on and the improvements they are making over time. We’re getting a lot more feedback saying this is making a difference to how we manage mental health and how we can support people that are starting to struggle.”

Find out more at matesinmind.org

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