Steps has been working with BAE Systems for a number of years on leadership development and creating a culture of inclusion within the organisation. The group knew though, they could never truly call themselves ‘inclusive’ unless they spent some time looking at mental health at work and exploring the impact of behaviours and attitudes around this topic. They approached Steps to partner with them on a programme to bring employees from across the business together to start the conversation.
As with all Steps’ work, the design process of the bespoke programme began with extensive research which enabled us to create meaningful content, focused around recognisable situations that resonated with all employees regardless of their role within BAE Systems.
The programme is ongoing, and each one-day session is attended by around 120 people seated in small groups with people they don’t usually work with. This helps create a safe and open space where people feel able to contribute as equals with their peers and allows individuals the chance to offer thoughts and ideas within a smaller group.
Each session is introduced by Steve Fogg, Managing Director of Shared Services at BAE Systems, who shares his experience of how mental health has touched his life and highlights his belief in the programme as a force for change. This in itself is a powerful demonstration of the senior level commitment behind the programme, and the notion that mental health is ‘everyone’s business’. Using a mixture of scripted scenes and interactive theatre we then tell the story of ‘Jack’ – a fictional character who faces challenges at work and at home that lead, over time and through a subtle sequence of events, to mental illness. We explore glimpses of his home and work life, his interactions with colleagues and loved ones, and the inner dialogue that drives his behaviour. There are moments of tension, anxiety, frustration, shock – and moments when all 120 people fall silent in response to what they are seeing.
Balancing the (sometimes unexpected) emotional reaction of some individuals with the appropriate use of light humour to encourage relief from the tension and pressure, coupled with regular breaks, allows people to reflect on what they’re seeing and take the space for personal reflection. Input from a business psychologist helps provide the context and a cognitive understanding of mental health at work, and mental health representatives from BAE Systems are on hand throughout the day to offer support to those that need it.
Group discussions and activities are also used, as is mobile voting technology. These techniques enable delegates to respond openly or anonymously to key questions, providing a stimulus for honest and open conversation and giving people the chance to have their voice heard in a range of ways.
BAE Systems talked from the beginning about mental health being a people issue, not a leadership issue, and what we’ve co-created is a unique experience for their people that demonstrates their commitment to raising awareness of mental health and gives their employees the skills, techniques and confidence to start a conversation. The response from attendees has been unprecedented – in terms of attendance levels, formal feedback, internal advocacy and individual engagement with the programme. We also know first-hand that a number of individuals have sought help for their mental or physical wellbeing, as a direct result of the programme.
The work has gone on to win four Chairman’s Awards in Embracing Responsible Behaviour within BAE Systems and the team are now rolling this out more widely across the business, to potentially some 30,000 people. We’re delighted to be working with BAE Systems on such a vital topic, pioneering an innovative approach which continues to inspire people to think, and act, differently.