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Does your airport CARE enough about your mental health?

Adrian Cameron, Airport Duty Manager at Southampton Airport, tells us how and why he developed the CARE programme, and how to battle the stigma surrounding mental health.

CARE programme betters mental heath

I have been working in the airport industry for 31 years and spent 14 of them at Southampton Airport. Here I devised the CARE programme: A mental health strategy providing specific training on mental health and stress management.

The scheme seeks to raise awareness amongst all employees on how to recognise when they or others are struggling; how to start conversations about mental health, support each other and where to go to find help.

This idea was born after my own experiences of mental health illness. Suffering in silence, embarrassed about how I felt and exhausted by the self-imposed need to portray ‘normal’, I realised something had to change. After thorough research, I realised that the first step towards getting better is acknowledging that it’s okay not to be okay.

Statistically, one in four of us are currently suffering or have recently been exposed to poor mental health.

I learned that the stigma associated with mental health remains a significant obstacle to the effective diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. It can prevent us from talking to colleagues or managers about our problems because we fear discrimination; it may even prevent us from acknowledging to ourselves that we have a problem. 

Statistically, one in four of us are currently suffering or have recently been exposed to poor mental health. It ignores seniority and current workload, it knows no boundaries and doesn’t only affect us, but also our friends and family. So many physical ailments come with the unwelcome gift of added stress, often leading to depression and anxiety. The diagnoses or fear of a life-threatening or changing condition not only affects the patient but can equally manifest itself within friends and loved ones.

There is no incremental scale to measure the level of depression. The loss of a most cherished friendship can be for some as debilitating as a bereavement. A high-performing colleague, while seen as a business asset, could be using that project or increased workload as a way to avoid acknowledging the need for help.

Reflecting on this, I thought that if I shared my own very personal story with people and my feelings, I might actually help many people. I booked a 15-minute meeting with all of my colleagues, asked them to bring a cup of tea and brought broken biscuits with me as a conversation starter – after all, a broken biscuit is still a great one.

Very quickly, others started to share their own stories with me, and I discovered how big an issue presenteeism is within our industry. People just continue working like nothing happened when they are struggling with real issues, and I wanted to find a way to help support them and reduce stress. This is how CARE was born.

CARE is an acronym of its four fundamental principles:

  1. Confidentiality
  2. Awareness
  3. Respect
  4. Encouragement.
Southampton Airport

Southampton Airport is focused on caring for its staff as much as it cares for its passengers

It was initially designed to turn the formal, sterile back-to-work interview into a compassionate, constructive conversation which ensured staff felt supported and created a favourable climate.

Managers often are promoted or recruited based on their technical skills and value to an organisation and consequently manage a team without receiving any specific training in people management. This leaves them both ill-equipped and quite possibly uncomfortable in dealing with some personal issues.

While poor physical health can be understood and effectively managed, poor mental health is a more challenging conversation and warrants specific training to ensure colleagues receive competent and compassionate support when it is required.

The training was designed to equip all managers with the skills to identify the signs and symptoms of poor mental health; to understand the interdependencies between physical and psychological health; how to listen without judgement and manage disclosure ensuring their colleagues felt safe and supported. It can also help an individual to seek support before looking to take leave. Sometimes all we need is for someone to start the conversation, to feel the confidence to talk openly about the issues we are experiencing and trust our employer to do the right thing.

Believing this vital training could only be delivered by a subject matter expert, I was thrilled to be able to work with mental health trainer – Lee Loveless. Lee expertly translated what I wanted to deliver and provided context and examples from his vast experience to increase knowledge, skills and confidence around the subject. He provided information and guidance to managers to support colleagues who may be experiencing mental health issues and helped develop strategies and tools for managing mental health in the workplace and, as equally important, looking after their own mental health.

The post-training feedback was hugely positive with two clear messages: A thank you for addressing this sensitive subject so well, and that the training should be open to a wider audience. Which is why we embarked on creating a bespoke training session called ‘CARE for Everyone’.

We harnessed the knowledge that employees tend to foster closer relations with their peer group rather than with their manager. Friendships such as this lead to greater disclosure regarding personal matters, and through targeted training CARE for Everyone can support all employees by helping them understand how to respond and provide real value. Giving empowerment to all employees and signposting where help or advice is freely available we hope to provide positive support before any period of absence.

While it is too early to adequately measure the impact of CARE, we already see tangible benefits such as a marked decrease in absences and most important in addressing the stigma and perceived discrimination. In an industry where the focus is on providing travel, we at Southampton Airport have started the journey to understand mental health and to battle the stigma. We have simply started the conversation.

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