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How Camelot Group tackled the stigma around mental ill-health

9 Apr 2021 By Jyoti Rambhai

A personal experience of psychological illness led to the organisation driving a better understanding of its employees’ wellbeing 

For many organisations, Covid has been a catalyst for bringing discussions about mental wellbeing in the workplace to the fore. But for Rachel King, group HR director at Camelot Group –  the firm behind the National Lottery, which raises £30m every week for good causes – encouraging conversations about mental health among colleagues began long before the pandemic.

King first became an advocate for destigmatising mental ill-health after her daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder. “As a parent, discovering that was really tough,” she says. “It made me realise how many of us are struggling with poor mental health, and often those closest to you may have no idea and also no idea how best to support you.”

As a result, King joined the board of Mental Health First Aiders England in June 2018 and became a trained first aider. Through this experience, she realised how little people knew or felt comfortable talking about mental health. “There was such embarrassment and stigma around something that many of us will experience at some point in our lives,” she explains. “The training gave me knowledge and more confidence, and suddenly opened my eyes – I realised how judgemental I had been, and that talking about mental health was a positive thing.”

King’s experience led her to develop a mental health initiative at Watford-based Camelot, first telling the CEO about her family’s experiences and then her team, which she admits was “not easy at first”, but felt it was important to do as a leader. “Talking about something you are dealing with that is raw shows your vulnerability more than you would normally let people see at work,” she adds. “But if I couldn’t do that, how could we expect anyone else working at Camelot to be able to talk openly about their own challenges?”

And in 2019, Camelot launched its ‘A place to be you’ campaign. The initiative, King explains, is about bringing your whole self to work, and is based on the idea that “if you can’t be yourself at work and you don’t feel like you belong, then you can’t do your best work”. As part of the campaign, staff at Camelot were offered the opportunity to be trained as mental health first aiders, and the company received more than 70 applications for just 15 places on the course – showing there was “real positivity” about the initiative, says King.

One of the project’s main challenges, she says, was balancing those at the top driving and supporting the project with making sure it was lived and believed in by the entire workforce. “It’s no good if it’s just an ‘HR initiative’ or something that people do because they think they have to,” King explains. “So our approach was more around saying ‘this is our belief and it’s fundamental to your working experience at Camelot’.”

But the true success of the campaign, says King, has been thanks to Camelot’s culture. Following its launch, momentum has been maintained by staff across the company through its various employee networks, including those for LGBT+ staff, women and working parents, as well as a culture network and mental health network, which became incredibly valuable when the pandemic hit – particularly when Camelot saw a case of Covid among its workforce before the first lockdown had even been introduced. “We had to adapt really quickly and make some key decisions as a senior team,” King says. “Right from the beginning we made the health, safety and wellbeing of our people our number one priority.” 

A large part of this change was simply talking about mental health. For the first time, King and her executive colleagues were asking each other how they were in virtual meetings – something they would never have done pre-pandemic, she admits. “It really highlighted to us the anxiety people would be feeling,” she adds. “After all, we were suddenly in a global pandemic that no one had anticipated.” 

And as the Covid situation developed, the company continued to work closely with its employees to bolster their wellbeing while working remotely. “We recognised that people adapted in different ways,” she explains. “For some, we know it’s been particularly tough, so we’ve done a lot of work throughout the year on communicating how to look after yourself, which has involved ripping up the rule book on structuring your working day.” Alongside offering flexible working, Camelot recognised some of the other ways the restrictions throughout the last year have impacted staff. The company brought in other initiatives such as ‘Giving you time back’, which followed discussions with the working parents network group, offering virtual classes and entertainment for children to give parents a break.

But little did King know how important the firm’s focus on mental health would become when the pandemic started. “When we launched ‘A place to be you’, we had no idea those foundations – a supportive culture and staying connected – would become vital for helping people with their mental health.”

And the success of its work during the last two years is reflected in its staff feedback. As well as boasting an engagement score of 92 per cent, the same proportion of workers say they feel they can be themselves at Camelot, and 89 per cent agree their manager does enough to support their health and wellbeing – a figure King says she is “particularly proud of”.

With the Covid crisis hopefully beginning to taper off over the coming months, next on King’s to-do list is to determine new ways of working: “We’ll be looking at how we can take all the good stuff we’ve learned and adapt our business, as well as considering the purpose of the office and how we collaborate – that’s what we’re looking at in the near future.”

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