Mental health concerns in BT under the spotlight

Telecoms & Financial Services

The pressing need to secure improvements in the support that BT provides employees with mental health issues was reaffirmed at a major branch forum this week – with reps from across the country providing disturbing examples of how vulnerable members are still being failed by unsympathetic managers and inflexible processes.

Talks were initiated with the company shortly after this spring’s CWU Annual Conference where delegates in Bournemouth overwhelmingly committed the union to enter into discussions with a view to ensuring that all managers receive mandatory mental health training within three months of their appointment.

Amid concerns that employees who are already struggling to cope are being seriously impacted at work, the union is pressing the need for any declared mental health issues to be taken into consideration by managers when they are formulating coaching or performance plans.

The CWU is also seeking better training and refresher training for managers to ensure they fully understand how they should support members experiencing mental ill health – and a reassessment as to how standard letters sent out under the attendance process could be rephrased to reduce the distress they cause.

Following encouraging progress in negotiations, Monday’s forum had been billed as an opportunity for branch reps to hear direct from BT’s global health & wellbeing lead about the company’s current thinking on how glaring deficiencies can best be addressed.

In the event, however, BT pulled out of the meeting at the eleventh hour, citing a serious H&S incident requiring immediate investigation.

Admitting that the company’s last minute cancellation was “bitterly disappointing,” however good the reason, assistant secretary Dave Jukes stressed it was now crucial that BT hears direct from those dealing with vulnerable members at the sharp end – inviting contributions from the floor that will be fed back to the company in advance of a re-arranged meeting.

What followed was a no holds barred discussion in which rep after rep recounted harrowing examples of how BT’s laudable Group-level policies on the responsible management of employees with mental health problems are all too often failing to be observed in practice 

Inconsistent approach

“BT’s corporate message is really good,” observed Geoff Hodge of Somerset, Devon & Cornwall branch. “If you look at the Employee Relations pages (on the intranet) there’s the Mental Health Toolkit and a whole plethora of good stuff there. The messages are great at a corporate level but, once it filters down though all the tiers of management, and especially once it gets down to our members’ managers, the message appears to have been lost…and our people are being damaged as a result.”

Recurring themes raised by reps included a profound ignorance amongst tier one and two managers as to how to deal with team members with even declared mental health problems, let alone individuals displaying warning signs of distress that are increasingly prevalent in an ever more stressful and demanding world of work.

Karen Kendrick of Manchester Combined Branch cited the insensitive application of the attendance policy, with some managers attempting to force line reports into face-to-face meetings within a fortnight of their going off sick. She recounted how, even that morning, she’d implored one manager to “just leave in peace for a few weeks” a member who’d just had a breakdown.

“It’s getting really nasty, and I believe there are certain younger new managers who are using that process on anyone who has mental health issues until they get worse,” Karen continued.

“I’ve even had a case were I was actually told by the case advisers that they didn’t think the guy involved was strong enough to take the case to an employment tribunal. Thank goodness he did, because it was disability discrimination, but the stress they put this guy under was incredible.”

Widespread concern was expressed about how the highly insensitive wording of the long-term sick review letter – particularly surrounding the possibility of “employment being terminated” – is perceived by those already struggling with mental health problems.

Such crass insensitively, a number of reps pointed out, can all too often lead to a downward spiral that can lead to super-stressed individuals falling foul of the performance management process.

David Simpson of Northern Ireland Telecom Branch recounted a case where a woman who’d struggled to even leave her home during a period of intense stress, anxiety and depression had, following a successful phased return to work, been hit with just such a warning for her attendance.

“What sometimes follows is that performance slips because they can’t concentrate or focus…and then they go down the route of performance management,” he continued.

“The question I’d like to ask is how does anyone think that giving someone with mental health problems a warning is going to help them? It’s a slap in the face to them and it sets them back!”

Responding to feedback from Dave Jukes who understands that BT is already planning to fast-track web-based training for managers to hopefully expedite improvements in the way mental health issues are managed in advance of a roll-out of face-to-face training, a number of reps stressed that, although web-based training was an ‘easy win’, it could be no substitute for courses that managers have to attend in person.

Fiona Curtis of Northern Ireland Telecom stressed: “I do appreciate that they are going to be doing web-based training, but if the company is really taking this seriously they have to put more finances behind it.

“It’s a fact that one in four people have mental health problems, so realistically every single manager out there is going to have at least one person on their team with a mental health problem…it’s that big an issue out there today.”

A time for honesty…

Pledging that all the issues raised by reps would be fed back to BT in advance of a rescheduled face-to-face meeting with the company’s health and wellbeing lead, assistant secretary Dave Jukes stressed he was optimistic that the union’s message on mental health is finally getting through.

“This isn’t just a challenge for BT Group – it’s a societal problem,” he stressed. “People are under increasing stress for lots of reasons – and it’s increasingly accepted that mental ill health bears a huge cost to business as well as the individuals involved.

“Labour Research estimates that the monetary cost to UK industry stands at between £70bn and £99bn – and the scale of the problem of the nation’s deteriorating mental health is demonstrated by the fact that between 2012 and 2017 the number of university students seeking help rose from 50,000 to 78,000 a year during a period when student numbers was dipping.

“Although I’m bitterly disappointed that BT wasn’t able to attend this Forum the forceful messages that came out of it will be fed back to the company along with a request for responses.

“All the indications to date are that BT is keen to work alongside the CWU to address just the sort of concerns that have been raised by branches – but the proof of the pudding will ultimately be in its actions, not words.”