Prince William: HR should be the "door people feel they can go to"

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Speaking on a panel at the inaugural This Can Happen conference, the royal shared his own experiences of mental health issues in the workplace

There needs to be more understanding of the effect high-pressure, traumatic work environments have on employees, according to the duke of Cambridge William Windsor.

Speaking on a panel at the inaugural This Can Happen conference, he said: “In high-pressure environments, it’s understanding it’s going to affect you – we’re all human,” he said. “And it’s not just in high-pressure [situations] it happens. It can creep up completely out of the blue to people in unexpected ways.”

Windsor shared his own experiences of mental health issues in the workplace when working as a pilot for the RAF and the Air Ambulance. At both organisations he witnessed “cultures of openness and understanding”, where the organisations “took mental health seriously” and “understood that for the workforce to do a good job, they need to look after not just the body but also the mind”, he said.

Despite many thinking the first response should be mental health training, he said that it’s more about knowing that “it’s OK to feel you want to speak about it”. However, he said even with these “good cultures” it “wasn’t enough” for him following one particular incident. “I never thought I’d get to a point or situation where it would get too much for me,” he said, adding that people often think they have a “shield” but that this “can be penetrated”.

With his work requiring him to deal with traumatic incidents involving children, he found that after having children “the relation [between his] job and personal life tipped over the edge”. “I got very sad about this particular family and you start to take away bits of the job and keep them,” he said, adding that because people don't want to take these issues home to loved ones the “only place [they] can [take them] is to work”.

“I identified something was going on,” he continued, and saw that “colleagues were also feeling troubled by the case”. “So we regularly spoke about it together,” he said, advising that “the most important thing is being able to talk about it”.

“When there’s the culture of openness and understanding in the workplace then [talking about mental health] gets drawn out naturally,” he added.

The prince said he took a conscious decision not to take his work home. “I realised I had to,” he said. “I was seeing lots of death and traumatic injuries every single day at work and, without realising, you begin to think life is like that and the negativity creeps up,” he said. “That was the big realisation for me that I had to disconnect from my job.”

Also speaking on the panel, retired North Yorkshire police sergeant Edward Simpson shared his own mental health issues – ones that led to him retiring from the force on medical grounds. For him, the turning point was “a scream” from a mother, when he took two parents to see their son who had been in a car accident.

“I was resilient up to that point when the mother screamed, then that invisible shield I had since training school completely disintegrated and I felt so vulnerable in that room and I couldn’t stop crying,” he said. After that incident he felt guilty about his reaction as a police officer and his confidence was knocked, he explained, before he “hit rock bottom” about four years later and had thoughts of committing suicide on the way to work one day.

Junior doctor Ellie Cannon, also appearing on the panel, spoke of having built a resilience to seeing people ill and in distress. “What sent me into a mental health crisis was a collision of my personal life and private life when a member of my family was seriously ill and was treated in the hospital where I worked,” she said. “My job hadn’t changed but I’d been knocked”.

Through his work on the Heads Together campaign, the prince said that “a number of issues came to light about the state of the country’s mental health and if we’re going to tackle it then workplaces are a key part of that”.

One of the problems that surfaced in the campaign’s research is that many employees don’t feel they can talk to HR about mental health, he added. “Many would say 'I wouldn’t speak to HR',” Windsor said. “That’s a big problem if so few people are willing to talk to the body of people who are there to help with the stresses of work.”

“We spend so much time at work there needs to be a more compassionate space to talk about problems,” he added.

“We still have a stigma obviously,” Windsor said. “We’re chipping away at it but that wall needs to be smashed down, where we can talk in all walks of life and colleagues feel they can open up and talk about it.”

To remove the stigma, he encouraged the audience to keep up the “momentum” around taking mental health seriously. “We all have mental health and in the same way we look after our physical health we should look after our mental health,” he said.

Language can be an important aspect of this, he continued, giving the example of the blue light community and the military now speaking about mental training, not just physical training, for their roles. There “hasn’t always been training about the mental tools you need in those environments”, he said.

The panel also suggested a number of things employers can do to better support employees suffering mental health issues in the workplace. “Make sure you do it because you care and that it’s genuine – not to tick a box,” advised Simpson. “And secondly, don’t sit and wait for someone to come to you to say ‘I need help’. I had no idea how unwell I was so I was never going to speak to someone.”

Employers and colleagues have a duty to be proactive, he said: “Be proactive and ask questions as you never know; that person could be driving to work wishing they were dead and asking that question you could save a life.”

Justin Woollen, sales manager at Cisco, spoke of ways to look after people who are not always in the office and work remotely. It starts with “being aware of your own mental wellbeing” he said, citing eating and sleeping well, exercising, and drinking alcohol in moderation as tips to caring for oneself.

Windsor added that there needs to be more leaders championing mental health in the workplace, and cultures where employees feel they can turn to HR. “It needs more voices in the workplace standing up and saying 'I’ve been there',” he said, adding the need to create open cultures “where HR is the door people feel they can go to”.

“If the heart is right then the blood flows round the rest of the business,” he added. “And we can all play a part in that.”

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