Reps lay bare BT’s mental health challenges

Telecoms & Financial Services, Health & Safety

Disturbing examples of how vulnerable members with mental health problems are continuing to be failed by unsympathetic managers and inflexible processes in BT and Openreach have once again been brought to the fore by frustrated CWU reps.

Despite general agreement that BT’s Group-level policies and online advice for those undergoing mental health crises are industry-leading, speaker after speaker at a special CWU branch forum cited troubling examples of how fine words are all too often not being put into practice – with sometimes devastating consequences for those suffering mental health meltdowns.

That stark message was delivered to BT’s global heath & wellbeing clinical lead, Bruce Greenhalgh, and senior BT Employee Relations personnel on Tuesday (January 29) at a specially convened follow-up to an earlier branch forum that the company was unable to attend in October.

Billed as reps’ opportunity to hear direct from BT Group about how it plans to address deficiencies that were brought to the fore at last April’s CWU Annual Conference, the Forum was attended by no fewer than 50 CWU reps from all four corners of the UK.

Many of those present had been instrumental in the CWU Conference votes that committed the CWU to:

  • Enter into discussions with a view to ensuring that comprehensive mental health training is delivered to all BT managers within three months of their appointment
  • Press for any declared mental health issues to be taken into consideration by managers when they are formulating coaching or performance plans for CWU-represented grade employees
  • Secure changes to the highly insensitive wording in standard letters sent out under the attendance process to reduce the particular distress they to people already suffering mental health problems.

Nine months on from Conference, speakers were adamant that, despite positive high level talks with the company, little has yet changed at the grass roots.

David Simpson of Northern Ireland Telecom explained: “BT has some great policies in place, but they fail to trickle down – especially, in my experience, in the call centre environment.”

Recounting a case where a member who’d struggled to even leave their home during a period of intense stress, anxiety and depression had been hit with a warning for performance just weeks after a personally challenging but successful return to work, David said: “The question I’d like to ask is how does it help someone who’s struggling with mental health issues if you take them down that road? It only adds to the stress.”

A BT Group-wide problem

Sara Miah of North Anglia Branch stressed Openreach was another problem area – citing the stress suffered by new joiners in Service Delivery as they struggle to meet expected performance levels while still effectively learning on the job.

“”We’ve all got a plethora of horror stories,” she began. “One of my roles in the branch is welcoming all our new members and when they start they are full of promise, enthusiastic and can’t wait to get going. If you talk to them a few months later, however, it’s a very different story.

“I’ve lost count of the number of new joiners that have left – not just because they are being managed out for performance or attendance, but because they decided they don’t want to work for BT or Openreach because they’ve decided they are not the companies they thought they were.

“I’ve had an engineer who actually had a nervous breakdown on the side of the road and the ‘support’ he had from his manager afterwards was disgusting – more to the point of bullying to try to get him to come back (to work).

“The support just isn’t there.”

Michelle Sherry of Coventry Branch agreed, stressing her particular concern for young recruits in Service Delivery who find themselves struggling to keep up with onerous workloads while they are still learning the ropes.

“I was one of those new recruits four and a half years ago, and the stress it causers is so unhealthy it’s unreal,” she recalled. “I can only describe it, from my own experience, as like having your head in a vice.

“You’re having to learn all this new knowledge, you are not given time to absorb it – all you’re worrying about is the job you haven’t yet got to, so you’re running around like a headless chicken.

“It makes me so sad that you see these young boys and girls being reduced to tears in fact findings. Why are they even being looked at? They’re new and they’re learning!”

Colin Wilks of Lancs & Cumbria Branch agreed. “What are you going to do to help new starters overcome stress and mental health issues when they are under such pressure to produce and are just new to the business?”” he asked.

“You’ve invested money in the engineers for future years, yet the moment they make a mistake they are under pressure, called into meetings and being disciplined. Of course they are going to make mistakes – they are new – and managers should make allowances.”

Procedural cruelty

Some of the cases recounted by reps drew gasps from the room.

Josh Williams of Greater London Combined Branch recounted a fact-finding and discipline case levied against a member for an ‘inappropriate message’ she’d sent to her manager late at night saying she was considering suicide.

Malcolm O’Brien of Lincolnshire & South Yorks Branch, meanwhile, told of an initial formal warning that had just been issued to a member who’d been diagnosed with suspected cancer – a cruel blow to someone already experiencing major stress that was compounded when he was refused special leave when was summoned to hospital for an emergency operation. “Now he’s been told that any sick he has could leave to a final formal warming,” Malcolm continued.

“That’s how they are treating people in call centres – and it’s not just isolated to Consumer – it’s Business and VVS as well. They’re beating people over the head with a big stick to get them back into work – and not giving any consideration of the personal circumstances.

Rossana Hawkins of Capital Branch told of the crass insensitivity displayed by extremely young managers to two long-serving middle-aged female employees.

One, she explained, is now off sick having suffered three heart attacks shortly after being disciplined for lateness that had been triggered by multiple health issues, including high blood pressure and an altered mental state associated with the menopause. The other has just received the infamous long-term sick review letter with its warning of the possibility of ‘employment being terminated’ having had time off for cancer treatment

Rob Roberts of North Wales & Chester branch outlined his horror at a “particularly disgusting” disciplinary involving a member displaying such extreme signs of stress that the manager sought advice – only to be told that ‘if she hasn’t got suicidal tendencies or thoughts carry on with the meeting’.

“The woman was then suspended and allowed to drive away,” Rob added, concluding there had been “a total lack of duty of care to the person.”

Listening and learning…

Despite the uncomfortable messages conveyed to BT, the highly constructive meeting signalled a shared desire of all those present to work together to ensure good policies are translated into much improved practice at the sharp end.

Assistant secretary Dave Jukes concludes:  “The Forum was really useful and it was clear to everyone that the BT people in attendance are absolutely genuine in trying to change things for the better.

“The points made  by the branch representatives were really powerful  – the key message being that the company already has great policies but it is in the implementation of those  policies that it is sometimes falling short.

“There’s clearly an issue we need to deal with regards to new starters, deficiencies in mental health awareness that need to be addressed and a particular issue with the training of managers that our reps are keen to see happen  quickly .

“These are all things the CWU national team have raised with the company previously, but I think that giving BT the chance to hear direct from CWU reps who are dealing with this issue on a day to day basis was a useful step that amplifies the importance of positive action to tackle the mismatch between great policies and how they are sometimes applied.”