It’s good to talk: mental health in waste & resources management


frontline worker

Looking after your colleagues’ mental health has never been more important, and it all starts with talking and listening, Circular magazine’s editor Ian Farrell writes.

Waste and resource management is traditionally seen as a male-dominated industry – especially when it comes to frontline workers. While there is a lot of effort going into remedying this, the predominance of men in the sector brings up another serious issue – mental health and suicide.

Here are some sobering statistics: suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 50, and around three-quarters of deaths from suicides each year are men. The charity Samaritans answers a call for help every 10 seconds and, on average, tragically, someone in the UK dies from suicide every 90 minutes.

This is not, of course, to say that women don’t also experience serious mental health issues. But the waste and resources sector faces a more-than-average risk that employees will face serious mental health issues.

frontline workerRussell Turner is head of health and wellbeing at Biffa and recognises the challenges ahead: “A lot of the men who work in our sector are from a background where they were never encouraged to talk about their feelings. In fact, my own dad would say ‘get in that boxing ring and sort yourself out’.

“When I joined Biffa, it was a huge shock to realise this was the mentality we were dealing with in parts of our workforce: don’t show your feelings; don’t own up to your mistakes; they’ll tape your conversations and use them against you. So of course, worries get bottled up and grow out of all proportion.”

These worries can take many forms: an injury at work can lead to time off ill; family problems at home can weigh heavy on the mind at work; in a cost-of-living crisis, being behind on the rent can drive people into the hands of loan sharks.

“I think, for most people who are having some mental health problems, it’s not one thing, but many. There is often a straw that breaks the camel’s back,” says Turner.

I think, for most people who are having some mental health problems, it’s not one thing, but many.

Sometimes, however, it’s a completely unforeseen incident that creates a lasting psychological problem for collection crews. It could be a road traffic accident that injures or even kills a colleague or member of the public. In some exceptional and tragic circumstances, a collection crew may even discover the body of a homeless person – refuse bins are common rough-sleeping spots.

“The fallout for an incident like that is huge,” Turner says. “Everyone on that wagon will have seen something. They probably would have tried to help in some way, and members of the public would have gotten involved, too.

“The depot staff will hear about it, and the management team. Lots of people can feel unwarranted guilt and responsibility, which can lead to problems such as depression and even PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] further down the line.”

Lots of people can feel unwarranted guilt and responsibility, which can lead to problems such as depression and even PTSD.

Spotting when colleagues are in difficulty, and helping them early on, is key to stopping mental health issues from escalating. Warning signs can vary considerably from person to person – everyone is different, after all – but being on the lookout for changes in mood or personality is a good place to start. If someone suddenly becomes withdrawn, distracted or aggressive, it can be a sign something is wrong. Absence from work can also be a key indicator.

The stigma behind mental health not only stops people from talking about their feelings, but it can also make it hard to approach colleagues who look like they are in trouble – but this is exactly what’s needed in the first instance. “Just saying “are you OK?” or “is there anything wrong?” can be a huge help to someone who’s not feeling great,’ a spokesperson from Samaritans says. 

Mental health“You don’t have to be a source of information or know all the answers – just being a sounding board so someone can hear their thoughts outside of their own mind is extremely valuable. Talking is so valuable and, as a friend or colleague, simply listening is an amazing thing to do.”

Some organisations have even formalised this listening role in the form of mental health first aiders – staff members who are trained to listen to colleagues if they need to talk to someone and signpost them to sources of help.

Turner says there are 56 mental health first aiders at Biffa, who are distributed carefully throughout the workforce. “We took the decision to not just blanket deploy mental health first aiders,” he says.

“Imagine you are a senior manager, and the mental health first aider is an office junior; you’re not going to feel comfortable talking to them. It will be the same the other way around. If you’re a loader, you might not want to talk about your feelings to the site manager. You want to talk to a peer – someone who is like you.”

You want to talk to a peer – someone who is like you.

At Biffa, Turner and his team have put in systems that truly prioritise the mental health of the workforce. An employee assistance programme offers free and confidential access to trained counsellors and psychotherapists, who not only support workers going through tough times but also help people come back to the workplace after a period of absence because of mental ill health – after an accident, for example. 

Looking out for a colleague is actively promoted, with poster campaigns and managers who are trained to look out for the warning signs of PTSD and depression.

“A really powerful tool is using real-life stories from people who are willing to open up about their experiences – producing a two-minute video-log type thing, where someone can say ‘yes, I had depression, this is what I felt like and this is how it affected me’.

“They are very impactful, especially with frontline people who can say ‘oh, he does a job just like me’. After all, we are all human, and all susceptible to the same things. We are all in it together.”

Struggling to cope and need someone to talk to? Call Samaritans on 116 123. No judgement, no pressure – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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