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Sellafield’s mental health first approach to construction projects

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To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, Sellafield’s Kevin Bell recalls the steps the SMF project team took to roll out mental health initiatives – and the positives as a result.

The award-winning Sellafield Silo Maintenance Facility (SMF) project was completed with an exemplary safety record. The team’s approach to safety went beyond the physical – there had previously been no mental health support for construction workers on the site.

“We contacted Mental Health First Aid England to see what they could offer in terms of training and support,” says Kevin Bell, Silos Maintenance Facility project manager. “The project became the first construction site at Sellafield to roll out mental health initiatives.”

Initially, seven staff were trained as mental health first aiders. Managers and supervisors then went on a half-day course on mental health awareness, which provided them with the tools required to recognise the signs of a mental health issue. “We arranged events for the whole workforce, including a presentation by Mental Health First Aid England, raising awareness of mental health issues and the importance to speak openly on the subject.”

Training innovations included ‘Practical Ideas for Happier Living’ – an evidence-based workshop focused on reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Another was ‘STOP, make a change, stand down’, which enlisted actors to help roleplay real-life scenarios around typical mental health issues, led by a clinical psychologist.

“The focus on mental health has grown at Sellafield since SMF first identified the need for support,” says Bell. “There is now a Wellbeing Forum, providing a platform for all contractors and Sellafield Ltd to collaborate on aspects of health and wellbeing, ensuring consistency is maintained across the site. Even this is now expanding – from the Sellafield site into the wider community.”

Making sure that mental health awareness training translates into action can be tricky, especially on sites in which staff are not used to addressing mental health issues. Here’s how the Sellafield SMF team made sure it stuck.

Listen to your staff (and act)
If staff feel listened to, and that the management really cares about their wellbeing, they’re more likely to take the programme seriously. Crucially, you must act on their concerns – if you don’t respond to those concerns, you won’t build up the trust you need.

“People are our biggest asset. It's not about the technology, it's not about the machinery – it's about the people who operate them and now they come to work. You’ve got make them feel valued.”

Lead by example
“It's got to be honest. You can lead it from the front, but you really have got to believe in it. It can't just be a tick box exercise. It has to be here to stay. Mental health and wellbeing is always going to be there. We continually keep it at the forefront of everything we do. It’s overall wellbeing – eating a healthy diet, not working 75 hours every week. You’ve got to look after the people that work for you.”

Take it to future generations
While it was hard for Bell and his team to let go of their mental health and wellbeing initiative and allow it to be adopted by other organisations in the local area, they are proud that it’s now positively affecting people in all sorts of professions, including the emergency services. “It was amazing to see it grow arms and legs and in really, really cool places where you didn't think it would go.”

Most importantly, the scheme has made it into schools, so future generations of workers will be more prepared to deal with mental health and wellbeing issues in future.

“They’re the future engineers, the future project managers. If you can get them so they're willing to talk about things, then they’ll grow up with more understanding and openness around the issue. More importantly, they'll grow up willing to listen to things and understand the pressures that can affect some people.”

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Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: fizkes/


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