Government Digital Service Podcast

Government Digital Service Podcast #13: Mental wellbeing at GDS

November 27, 2019

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re speaking about mental wellbeing at GDS. We’ve chosen to highlight this now as November is Men’s Mental Health Month. But we will be talking about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace more generally today. 

And to tell me more is Ben Carpenter. So please can you introduce yourself and what you do here at GDS, and your role in supporting mental wellbeing here.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Hello. Yeah, I’m Ben Carpenter. I’m Inclusive Services Lead in the Service Design and Assurances Programme. And I co-lead the Wellbeing Working Group, and I was, before we kind of rebranded as the Wellbeing Working Group, I was lead of the Mental Health Network.

 

Laura Stevens:

So can you tell me a bit about the GDS Mental Health Network and where it fits into the Wellbeing Group here at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well the Mental Health Network used to be kind of everything in the mental wellbeing space. Now that we’re expanding things to try and incorporate all aspects of wellbeing, physical and mental, the Mental Health Network in that name, really comprises basically of a Slack channel and a newsletter and of the people within the Slack channel.

 

That’s not to trivialise it ‘cause those things are really important, and a lot of work goes into those things, so the Q&As etc. But whereas we used to refer to GDS’s mental, GDS’s Mental Health Network as being all things mental wellbeing, I’d now say that’s more falls under the whole wellbeing banner.

 

Laura Stevens:

So, these Q&As. These are regular anonymous peer-led mental wellbeing Q&As on Slack. And can you describe some of the topics that come up? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

We organise those around topics that staff nominate and then vote for their preference. And so the topics can just vary all the time, from Imposter Syndrome to general anxiety to dealing with heavy workloads to dealing with a lack of a heavy workload, having had you know changes in, fluctuations in workload, that’s what you say. Bereavement and loss, you know, just the full range of emotional challenges. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you found people have responded to the Network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So it’s not my day job at all. It’s like, it should be a fraction of my time and often it takes up a big fraction of my time. But it’s a funny area to work in and on, because it’s hard to get feedback on success. So the nature of the topic, the nature of the beast is, you might not hear from people even if something’s going really well.

 

A good example would be the Q&As that we hold on Slack each month. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you have an anonymous route through, in those Q&As, to ask questions or answer questions. And you never know how many people are watching and reading, you never know how many people read the transcripts for information afterwards. So it can be very, it can be a very kind of quiet space to work in. You can, I sometimes think ‘oh god, is this work, is it worth it?’.

 

But when you do get feedback, it’s very very positive and. But yeah, it’s often hard to put something more tangible on that, to sort of prove value. 

 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s just, yeah. It’s hard to know exactly what is most valuable to users but I think it’s really…by users, I always talk about us. I talk about the Network as, and the Wellbeing Group, as a service and we should think of staff here as our users. Because I firmly believe we should be a user-centred service so…

 

Laura Stevens:

Sort of like doing the GDS principles in all aspects.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Absolutely, yeah. I mean this more than anything right, is a, if you’re going to try and help people with their wellbeing, you should be doing it in a way that you believe to be organised around what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so yeah, a sort of more general question. Why, which might sound obvious but I think it’s good to ask it anyway, is why is it important to have a Mental Health Network and Wellbeing Group at all? What does it bring to the workplace?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m not sure. You tell me.

 

I mean so, that was a facetious question as in ‘you tell me’. Because I always think I want the GDS staff and colleagues to say why they appreciate the network’s efforts or presence.

 

But we know that people with healthy wellbeing are generally more productive in their work. So on a boring sort of corporate side, you know people work better. But we’re also a human-centred organisation, I think we are. I’m a human-centred person. So I take on this work because I care about people here. 

 

And so there’s no, to me there shouldn’t have to be any metric in terms of productivity or sort of value, ‘cause it’s just the right thing to do. I mean imagine, flip that round. Imagine a workplace where nobody thought, or took the time to organise around their staff’s wellbeing. 

 

Now that we’re doing this work and we have things like the ‘Time to Change’ pledges and commitments that we’ve made as an organisation, and we have a bunch of people in a working group saying, “hang on, lets try and provide things that the staff need to improve their wellbeing”, it seems perverse to everything, you wouldn’t do that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you talk a bit about the ‘Time to Change’ pledge that you’ve mentioned?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I can a little bit.

 

Laura Stevens:

Ok.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yep, so Alison, Director General, signed the pledge last month or the month before. So Time to Change is a charity and they help organisations like us, companies, organisations to make a stack of commitments. 

 

So we’ve got 7 commitments under the Time to Change pledge. It covers things like, encouraging staff to be able to be frank about their mental health, training line managers to have conversations with staff about mental wellbeing, and broader wellbeing. 

 

All Senior Civil Servants here are going to undergo, go through some training on wellbeing awareness and support. Commitments in there as well around mental health first aid.

 

Laura Stevens:

I mean I was really interested when I was researching this to hear about the mental health first aiders. And when did they get brought in at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well so they, they exist in...some people brought those skills with them to GDS. Some people were able to go on mental health first aid training courses while they were here.

 

But what we’re doing at the moment is trying to organise that group of people, because again they’re just volunteers. These are not paid, there’s not a paid role, these are people who are volunteering to be mental health first aiders for their colleagues.

 

So what we’re trying to do is move away perhaps from a sort of set-up that we might have had before. It was like ‘oh, you know, that bloke over there happens to have been trained as a first aider, everyone go talk to him if they’re miserable’. And instead we’re trying to say ‘hang on, there are 800 staff here. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter: 

Right, how many mental health first aiders do we need to be able to look after, or provide that kind of support, to that number of staff?’. And what we’re aiming for is 1 in 50. So for every 50 members of staff, there’s a mental health first aider. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What are they qualified to do, what are they not qualified to do and why would you go to them?

 

Ben Carpenter:

They’re not practitioners. They are listeners, they’re confidential listeners and signposters. And as simple as that sounds, to do that in a robust and reliable way without yourself struggling too much perhaps with what you might be talking to people about, takes a couple of days training.

 

But yes, I think it’s really important to run that as a service, not as a thing that just happens. By which I mean, base it on what we believe that users need. Make sure it’s run in a sustainable way, you wouldn’t want to have 15 first aiders now and then you talk to me in a year, and we’ve suddenly only got 3. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you’ve got to know how many we need, we’ve got to have funding for that, we’ve got to be constantly making sure that we’ve got volunteers to take on those roles if needed and so on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you think, how long have you been at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

2013...six years. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you seen support for mental health change since 2013?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well...do you know when I was first here I probably wasn’t thinking about it very much. It was much more a sort of start-up feel, very whirlwind.

 

I’ve been more and more open about my own mental health as well in recent years. I mean I’ve always been pretty open about it, ‘cause I’ll talk to anyone about anything. But..

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s how you’re on this podcast.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, right. But I think I’ve also more, proudly is the wrong word, less self-consciously happy to be known for having some mental health challenges while in the workplace with my colleagues. That was probably something I would have felt less comfortable doing even in the early days at GDS. And definitely at previous organisations that I’ve worked for. 

 

I would always have shared that sort of thing with line management or friends, but I don’t think I would have sat on a podcast saying, ‘I lead this network as best I can and I also have mental health challenges and occasionally, I’ll write about that on Slack or a blog post or something’. 

 

So that’s something that has changed for me but I wouldn’t...I think the signing of the ‘Time to Change’ pledge is a big deal for GDS. It’s a public statement under those 7 areas. And so in terms of policy, you know the mental health first aid commitments within that are, they’re really good and they’re really big.

 

So it’s up to us all to actually make sure they happen.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would there be any other things you’d like to see change here at GDS, oh, and good practices, or that you’ve seen elsewhere that you might want to bring in here?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m really pleased with the direction things are going. It would, it really does just come down to people and time.

 

I’d say that fully user-centred approach to what we provide is something that I would like to see really properly embedded across all of our wellbeing mental health work.

 

And personally, I’m much less interested on working on something that I don’t know, or have good confidence, to be useful for people, my colleagues that I work with in terms of their mental health. 

 

So I don’t want to just tick any boxes. And I don’t want to make us look nice within the Civil Service. I don’t, I’m not interested in any of that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

You don’t want to pay lip service to something.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right. It can sound repetitive but I think it’s really the thing that matters. So for me with wellbeing, it might be that the very best thing this organisation can do for its staff is to continue to provide places for them to talk, continue to train line managers, continue to train mental health first aiders, continue to run things like the Q&As and speaking events and make people feel, even if they never speak up and say ‘oh that was brilliant, I loved that talk’, you know, even if they’re very quiet about it or silent about it, we know that it’s valuable to staff for these things to take place. 

 

So we don’t have to be coming up with new things.

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Might just keep doing simple, quiet, useful things. Which isn’t always cool and isn’t always popular. But that’s what I like.

 

Laura Stevens:

How would you say the mental health sort of practices here, employee wellbeing, compares to other workplaces? Or have you’ve spoken, in your work with this network, have you spoken to the other people from other workplaces and have they brought in ideas or you’ve shared ideas there?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Lots of people are really impressed and pleased to see what GDS has set up by the way of this open spaces to be able to talk about this. And the network and the community around to support people. But the most, lots of people who come into GDS say, ‘gosh this is, this is new to me’

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

‘This is remarkable in that, just that it exists’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think if there’s, if people are finding best practice here at GDS, is there potential for it to be shared across other government departments? Obviously if you’re involved and you go elsewhere, you can take that...

 

Ben Carpenter:

There is a cross-government network. People do try and share ideas and approaches. We did try and pool approaches to mental health first aid provision and training and business cases to support the recruitment of people to do that, for example.

 

Laura Stevens:

So there’s that opportunity for if stuff has been learnt here and tried and it’s found to work.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. We need to get better at blogging about what we do and what works. You know we’ve done a couple of blog posts but not enough really. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, I saw your Slack Q&A one and...

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, wrote up that. And that was good. So I did a blog post about the Q&As that I’ve been talking about. And I’ve had 3 or 4 organisations, I’ve had meetings with since then to show them how we do, and they’ve gone off and run their own.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that make you feel? Like sort of, it’s sort of out in the open now, it’s sort of being spread.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. Yeah it’s good. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. It seems such a simple idea but it’s, behind the scenes it’s surprisingly sort of complicated to make sure you’re trying to ask, field questions in a sensitive way really keep on top of them. The last thing you would want would be to miss, miss questions coming in or feel like peo-- I wouldn’t want staff here to thi--, I’d be mortified if I thought staff felt it was sort of poorly curated or was not sensitive to their needs or feelings. So.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think things like the Network, the Wellbeing Group, are sort of helping encouraging people at GDS to say that’s ok to say that I have mental health, have you seen that as a response in your, anecdotally or? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Anecdotally, yeah. Definitely anecdotally. I know that many of the comments that we see on the Slack channel, either through the Q&A sessions or just spontaneously, are people saying you know, ‘I feel so glad this network exists, I feel so glad this is something that people talk about here, I feel supported by the existence of this channel and that you guys are here piping up with this stuff and it’s not taboo, or it’s not taboo here.

 

Our Slack channel, I know it’s Slack it’s just Slack, but it’s the second most, it’s got the second most number of people in it of all the channels on GDS’s Slack after the community. So you know, and that’s nobody’s been forced onto there so people come in to read and listen.

 

Yeah, so we get...it’s another very hard thing to measure.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can anyone on that Slack channel, if you’re part of the Slack channel, can anybody respond to anybody else or is it just if you’re part, if you’re a mental health first aider or is it just open to all?

 

Ben Carpenter:

No, no. It’s just an open forum. So that’s why I think the anonymity of the Q&As is so valuable. So what we do with the Q&As is a 2 hour session every month. And you can post questions through an anonymous Google form in advance which I, or whoever is coordinating the session that month, would get and copy and paste them in Slack basically. Just say here’s a question and then people reply as a thread within Slack. And if they don’t want to answer the question publically either. 

 

So we get, last time out I think there were a dozen questions, none of them posted live. So nobody wanted to ask what they wanted to ask straight into Slack with their name next to it. Maybe some of them would have if there hadn’t been an anonymous route. But if it didn’t matter, they would have done it. What’s the opposite of anonymous? Nonymous? Nonymous? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Identifiable? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, right. They would have identified, they would be happy to be identified so. So if 12 people ask 12 questions anonymously, to me that’s a massive indicator in itself, that out of an organisation of 800 of a Slack channel of three or four hundred people, you get a dozen you know…I don’t know what, you imagine there are a dozen who do dare to ask an anonymous question.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course, yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

There must be a whole stack more who are finding it hard.

 

Laura Stevens:

A tip of the iceberg.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, yeah. It might not be a massive iceberg but it’s still an indicator. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do people, how do people respond like do you have to monitor the responses or do you just let people respond how they would like?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I keep an eye on them for worrying signs, but nothing else. We never claim for it to be something of experts, it’s a peer-to-peer support thing.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

It was only, actually a couple of months ago, as a confession, running the Q&As and I thought it’s always been in the back of my mind, worrying that I would get a really scary message anonymously.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And you think, ‘oh my god, there’s somebody here who’s gonna hurt themselves or hurt someone else, or sounds really on the brink’. I’d always thought that felt like a risk of doing the Q&As. But to be honest, actually it’s only a risk of hearing about those thoughts, not a risk of creating those thoughts necessarily.

 

So it was only then that we suddenly jumped up and said we need to have a statement ready. So I do have, while I’m running the Q&As I’m ready with a document if I get something like that. I would copy and paste my message, this agreed comms message that we’ve agreed with comms and senior management, across all staff as an email and across all the Slack channels as a message, not just the Q&A, to say ‘if you sent this message containing this word’, so we wouldn’t share all of it just to make sure they knew we were talking to them, ‘then please contact one’, and we’d lead with 999.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Or talk to a first aider. You know we’d give them contact options.

 

I mean it’s an odd, yeah it’s an odd leading a network like this and getting involved in this kind of work, I do feel a massive sense of responsibility.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And in a way that’s one of the things that makes me want us to do less, really well rather than take on too much. So sometimes in the network, it can be hard in the working group for all of us to find the time just to meet and just organise ourselves just to provide a few events and speakers, and get posters and you know, sell some pin badges and coffee mornings. That can be hard just...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Even to get to that level. So I feel like whatever we do, I want us to do it well rather than lots of things averagely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how are you, you said about feeling this responsibility particularly for a network that deals with things like this, how are you supported in running this?

 

Ben Carpenter:

David Dilley is our mental health champion at GDS, a Senior Civil Service, Senior Civil Servant. Fiona James is the wellbeing champion. So I can talk to either of them whenever I like. Abby Peel co-leads the Wellbeing Working Group with me. So we work really nicely together, Abby’s brilliant. And there’s actually much more of like tour de force behind the stuff that does get done in the working group.

 

So I mean I’ve got my line manager, and I’ve got the first aiders and I’ve got the Q&As. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So...

 

Ben Carpenter:

This whole thing is just therapeutic for me right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

That’s why I’m doing this ‘cause it gives me, it’s my own private brilliant therapy network.

 

All the anonymous questions on the Q&As I just, are mine for example. I make them all up myself.

 

That’s not true, that’s not true.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you are supported and?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, of course, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you, you were saying, so mental health is part of the wellbeing group, can you talk a bit more about the wellbeing group, and the wellbeing, and its aims?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So yeah, so we had the Mental Health Network which was, as the title suggests quite focused just on mental health. And I think quite rightly, particularly when Fiona joined GDS and is the senior wellbeing champion for GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this Fiona James? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Sorry, yes. You know, it’s correct I think to pull everything together in terms of wellbeing and say, because we know there’s such strong links between physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing for starters. And if we’re trying to say you know, a bit of a common tropey type phrase about mental health is, ‘well if you broke your arm you go and see the doctor, so when you’re feeling down why don’t you go…’.

 

You know which is a bit of an ugly comparison made in those, because they’re not comparable really but, we should be trying to bring them together so to totally normalise mental health. We’re not, nobody’s got any qualms about physical health or moaning about physical health, so lets moan about our mental health. Let's be honest about it. Let’s ask for help.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So that’s the evolution of that, and I really welcome it. In many ways the discrepancy, bothering to split these things up is really just a semantic exercise a lot of the time. Ditto for, so there’s a daily meditation session, 10 minute session, happens every day anyone can go 10 minutes of peaceful reflection. That’s meditation, it’s not, it doesn’t happen on my watch right, we don’t talk about it in the Wellbeing Peer Group. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

But it’s everything to do, there’s a running club that takes place every, every well at least every week. I’m not sure how often they run.

 

Laura Stevens:

No, I can’t say that I’m part of that so I don’t know.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Mental health doesn’t all have to be about crisis. It’s just about ongoing care. Yeah, looking after yourself. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Are there any sort of tips you can give me to create a better workplace for mental health, for employee wellbeing?

 

Ben Carpenter:

If you’re looking to provide this for staff rather than you’re somebody yourself who has mental health challenges and you’re thinking, ‘what can I do, I’m at work what can I do?’. I think it’s the openness of the topic is primary. So be bold and be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘here’s what I struggle with’. And you know talk to people, give that message out loud, ask people to reflect back to you how they feel, does it ring any bells with them.

 

So I think there’s been, so Helen Nickols, who ran the Mental Health Network before I joined it as well, I feel like she really led by example you know. She wasn’t afraid, still isn't afraid to stand up and say ‘this is what I struggle with, this is how I deal with it’, you know. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And I think if you can’t do that then it’s gonna be hard to expect other people to sort of come out of their shells and start to talk about things that might help them, in a way that might help them, sorry.

 

So, yeah, it really helps to have champions, people who will treat this seriously and not as a taboo. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So be open, be bold, be honest, and have champions.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes, keep talking.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would be your sort of, yeah. And…

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And make sure that you, there’s a space as well I guess for people to be able to have these open conversations. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

I think we have to be really aware in organisations that it’s a massive luxury and privilege to be able to be frank about your mental health. It can take a massive amount of privilege. So I’m a white middle aged man with every privilege really. So, and career wise, I’m probably pretty robust. I don’t mean in GDS, ‘cause they could sack me tomorrow, but I just mean I have the luxury of being able to stand up and say you know, the reason I couldn’t come to work last week for a couple of days, was you know, mental health.

 

To expect that of everybody is not fair. So I think it falls upon people who do have those privileges just to use that capital a bit and try and break those taboos, ‘cause it’s massively biased towards people like me.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you get in touch with the mental, how do I join the wellbeing group?

 

Ben Carpenter:

You go on the Slack channel, you listen, you ask questions. It’s not something you can join, it’s just there for you. It’s not a club. The only aspect of it which is a club is that you need to join the Slack channel if you want to read what people are asking or saying, but even within there for a few days at a time, it may only be little nice bits of chat and people asking questions or sharing things they’ve read. So it’s not intense. 

 

If you want to get involved, if you want to give help you might want to train to be a first aider. If you want to give help you might want to put the Q&As in your diary, last Friday of every month 10 to 12 in the morning. And listen to people and offer them your support, if not expertise.

 

Sometimes people just want to be heard. Now certainly the Q&A, some of the feedback I’ve had is, ‘it’s so good just to be able to write this down and be heard, even if people didn’t know it was me who said it’. And people just say, ‘I hear you, it’s valid, you’re fine, it’s ok to think that and feel that’. So you don’t have to be like I say you know a therapist going on there with amazing clinical advice. So if you want to give help those are good ways to do that. Or you could offer to, you could think about what you could talk about if you’ve had challenges of your own, anything.

 

If you want to receive help, so if you need help, then there’s a mental health first aiders. Look on the wiki, search for mental health support, look at all, look at the wellbeing pages on there, see what activities and timetables there are for you to get involved with.

 

Go to the yoga sessions, go on the lunchtime walks, go to Abby’s crafting sessions, dial in to the Q&As, call the Cabinet Office listening service, call, go and see your GP. You know whatever you think works for you. The most important thing is to do something, it can be anything. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So if I’m listening and I’m not at GDS so I can’t join the Slack, how would be a good way to get in touch with you if I want to find out more about setting up a Slack channel at my own organisation or running this sort of network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Totally happy to be emailed, Ben.Carpenter@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk. That sounds right, is that right?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, that’s right.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah. I can’t give mental health advice but I will talk to you about what we do as per this podcast. 

 

And so I often talk about leaning forward, and I think this was actually the name of the Facebook CEO’s book wasn’t it recently? And I think she stole it from me.

 

The analogy being if you want to jump off a really high diving board and you’re terrified of it, don’t go up to the top of the diving board and think ‘now I’m going to jump 200 feet into this cold water’. Just go to the top of the diving board and lean forward a little bit and think, ‘I know what I’m going to do, I’m just going to lean forward’. And before you know it you’ll be in the water swimming around. Right? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

So I think, as with any life's big challenges, take the first step and then just try and let the other steps follow. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to Ben to talking to us today about mental health and employee wellbeing. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on PodBean. 

 

Again, thank you very much to Ben for joining.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

Goodbye.