The food and drink industry was already a stressful environment for many – then the pandemic arrived. The toll has forced companies to take mental health seriously. How have they upped their support?
Yoga and mindfulness sessions aren’t enough these days. Not with the food industry in the midst of mental health crisis and, according to a Business in the Community report in June, almost half of all employees experiencing mental health conditions “caused or worsened by work” in the past year.
The time for such “reactive and standalone measures” is over, it said. “Now is the time to address the systemic causes of mental health at work, focusing on prevention and work that is good for wellbeing.”
The need for this shift has arguably existed for some time, but the past two years of lockdowns have only heightened the urgency. The pandemic has left a “deep and lasting scar on the mental health of millions”, according to Mind, which found 60% of adults had seen theirs worsen during lockdown.
The food and drink industry has been on the sharp end of this pressure. It has long teetered on the cusp of a mental health crisis due to its often high-pressure and high-stakes environments, frequently coupled with a lack of adequate time.
Even before the pandemic, one in three occupational health incidents in the food industry were mental health-related, according to the government’s Health & Safety Executive. Add in pressures like covid outbreaks in factories, shopworker abuse, and almost half of c-store owners working every day through the pandemic, and things have only got worse.
“Employers are realising that this is not something that can be approached in a piecemeal way, by just having a wellbeing day once a quarter”
Certain employees were hit harder than others. “Some sectors – including retail – have been disproportionately affected by the challenges of the past two years,” says Emma Mamo, Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing, who echoes the call for a greater focus on mental health in the workplace in light of the pandemic.
Luckily, such words are not falling on deaf ears. A number of food and drink companies have upped their mental health support in a bid to help their employees through tough times.
Chris Brook-Carter, Retail Trust CEO, highlights the “big shift” in employers’ understanding of mental health in the past two years – a change that came from the realisation it cannot be approached “in a piecemeal way, a wellbeing day once a quarter and signing up to a basic employee assistance programme (EAP)”.
Until now, EAPs – a free helpline employees can use to access specialist and confidential advice – have been the cornerstone of corporate mental health strategies. Now, however, the focus is increasingly on adopting a “proactive mental health policy that keeps people in the best shape possible all the time, rather than waiting for someone to fall into crisis”, Brook-Carter adds.
The brands upping their mental health efforts
Healthy life-work balance has long been a focus for The Collective. As lockdowns became the ‘new normal’ in 2020, it launched initiatives including ‘Take Two’, whereby everyone was given two hours on a Thursday morning for anything not work-related.
As restrictions eased, the dairy supplier “made a commitment to enabling truly flexible working” says MD Sarah Smart. The quality of people’s work is more important than the hours they spend at a desk, she adds. “We believe in output over input, and trust our team to get their work done.”
Company-wide yoga workshops and ‘take five’ breaks became the norm at Tetley once Covid hit.
The tea giant recognised “mental health concerns can manifest themselves in many different ways that might not always be immediately visible or the result of the workplace” says people manager Sally Conway.
This understanding has prompted Tetley to arrange menopause awareness training for managers at its Teesside facility in the spring. The session will focus on “anxieties related to menopause and signals to be alert to which might suggest extra support is required”, Conway explains.
The most important learning from Covid has been about “the importance of reducing the stigma of mental health struggles,” says Stuart Branch, chief people & digital officer at Weetabix.
As such, it expects to have 40-plus mental health first aiders across the business in coming months, and is piloting ‘quiet areas’ for reflection.
It also offers an ‘Inclusion Stories’ programme, focusing on protecting and raising awareness of mental wellbeing of different groups, such as people on the autism spectrum and those with ADHD.
When it comes to mental health, Princes has no desire to “take our foot off the pedal as we start to come out of the pandemic”. Rather, it aims to ensure its support continues to be “as robust as it can be”.
To that end, it launched its ‘Health & Wellbeing’ push in January, focusing on a culture of emotional health, physical fitness and financial management. The end goal is to “set the standard for looking after today’s and tomorrow’s colleagues” says Princes.
“We are working hard to embed an approach that has longevity,” it adds.
Take Co-op. The retailer observed a growing complexity of mental health issues among employees due to difficulties accessing NHS mental health services, says Helen Webb, Co-op’s chief people & services officer. As such, it evolved its mental health service in 2020, giving managers new training so they are “best equipped to support their teams”. While Co-op launched a new EAP and occupational health advice as the “base level of support”, all staff now have access to virtual GP consultations, mental health support and other health services, as well as financial wellbeing support.
Co-op isn’t the only one to turn to digital tools. Last year, Sainsbury’s introduced wellbeing app Unmind to give “colleagues access to lots of personalised tools to best support each individual” such as mood checkers, podcasts, and sleep and meditation tools, says Ben Taw, the retailer’s mental health champion and The Grocer Gold Awards 2021 Store Manager of the Year. The app now forms part of its “holistic, proactive approach to wellbeing” he adds, which is “striving to create an atmosphere where people can talk openly, reach out and know they are listened to”.
Aldi, meanwhile, has launched an e-learning module in partnership with Mental Health UK, which is part of every employee’s training programme. The module is one of its efforts to help employees speak openly about their own mental wellbeing. “We’re working hard to create a culture where colleagues feel supported and know where to turn if they need help,” says Aldi HR director Sophie Smith.
“A good employer is one which looks at mental health holistically”
This focus on open and honest conversations around mental health is perhaps one the most significant attitudinal changes to have taken place. At low & no brewer Lucky Saint, founder Luke Boase is trying to “normalise the conversation not just around how you’re feeling physically but how you’re feeling mentally.”
To achieve this, he’s a strong advocate of “keeping people together and engaged” and of everyone undergoing a regular “physical and mental health check-in” with their line manager. He’s not alone. Ice cream brand Oppo often starts management meetings with a check-in, asking everyone “where they are at and what sort of mood they are in” says co-founder Harry Thuillier. “It can help get everyone on the same page and be more tolerant of those who might have had a bad day. People are more likely to feel they can be themselves, and that makes for better ideas and communication.”
Simply helping colleagues to re-connect while they work from home can make a big difference. Pladis – which made mental health and wellbeing its “biggest project” following the suicide of a staff member in 2017 – recently extended its Positive Minds programme to increase its ‘connect’ meetings for the 140-strong sales team from monthly to weekly. “We found that meeting more regularly boosted feelings of connection while working from home so this is now a permanent fixture,” says Scott Snell, its VP of customer. “A good employer will look at mental health holistically.”
Still, many employees remain reluctant to talk openly. In this case, mental health first aid training can help provide the “tools to be able to spot someone who might be struggling” says Lucky Saint’s Boase. It’s one of a number of companies that has taken part in the mental health first aiders initiative – but it’s gone the extra mile. A number of Lucky Saint’s employees did the two-day course in early 2021 with Mental Health First Aid England, and the rest of the team has now followed suit. The business is also now working with mental health instructor Harry Corin to help train staff across its hospitality and grocery customers.
Mental health instructors like Corin are now in high demand. Corin himself delivered a coaching session to 180 members of Tesco’s commercial team in January after the retailer decided to offer more free emotional support services to colleagues and their immediate families, to include short-term counselling and a mindfulness programme. Already this year, there has been a 50% increase in employees accessing the service.
The uptick in demand for Tesco’s services is typical of the Covid era. The Retail Trust’s service now receives calls to its helpline “every 15 minutes, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day,” says Brook-Carter. “In total, we helped 200,000 people last year.”
The clear scale of the issue has led many to advocate for greater ‘mental fitness’ to try and boost emotional resilience. This is about not just maintaining emotional wellbeing, but actively improving it, often by simple, common-sense means like reducing alcohol or working hours. It can be “something we treat as a positive, in the same way as our physical fitness,” says Mike Gammell, co-founder of Days Brewing.
“In additon to the personal impact, mental health concerns have an effect at business level. It’s a leading cause of absence and sickness in the workplace with with around 70 million days lost each year”
Steve Simmance, MD of The Simmance Partnership, is also an advocate. As the particular pressures of the pandemic subside and life returns to normal, “the skills to be resilient are what’s important now, rather than having a call centre counsellor”.
Despite the progress made in mental health, introducing this proactive culture would mark a sea change for many. In 2021, The Simmance Partnership found 47% of large employers still didn’t offer any form of mental & physical wellbeing support, and 61% of SMEs.
Such oversight could prove costly, suggests Sally Conway, people manager at Tetley. “Mental health concerns have an effect at business level,” she says. “It’s a leading cause of absence and sickness in the workplace, with around 70 million days lost each year, costing around £2.4bn a year.”
With financial and emotional costs this high, mental health is something no one can afford to ignore.
The companies helping workers to make a move
“Many people find that physical activity helps them maintain positive mental health.” That’s according to Mind, which lists better sleep, managing stress and reduced risk of depression among the benefits of “sitting down less and moving our bodies more”.
So, it makes sense that grocery companies are encouraging their workforces to think more about physical wellness.
Take Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), which last year installed a machine at its site in Sidcup that allows people to monitor their blood pressure, weight, BMI and cardiovascular risk. The device proved very popular and “helped to make conversations about health and wellbeing part of our every day” says Sue Eilfield, VP for people & culture and inclusion & diversity.
Every CCEP GB site now has its own health machine (pictured, left). “Covid-19 work adjustments have reinforced the need to support mental health in the same way as we prioritise our physical health, which is why we put such a significant emphasis on both,” Eilfield adds.
Other suppliers have been similarly emphatic about the benefits of exercise. London’s Lucky Saint, for instance, held a walking challenge that saw its team cover a distance equivalent to Bavaria and back, while fellow low & no brewer Days Brewing has set up its own Tuesday night running club.
At tea giant Tetley, meanwhile, around 30% of the workforce form Tetley Tubby Team Fit, an initiative covering a wealth of goals, such as weight loss and lowering blood pressure.
Moving more is also key at Oppo. “We really encourage people to get some fresh air and exercise in the day,” says co-founder Harry Thuillier.
“People have reported feeling more sluggish due to working from home and moving less. So, we encourage having a walking meeting instead of sitting in front of Teams, or heading off for a run or to the gym.”