Six powerful lessons for achieving ‘First Class’ mental health at work – an interview with Dr Shaun Davis

October 31, 2018

First Class mental health at work

In 2012, Dr Shaun Davis joined the Royal Mail Group, as Global Director of Safety, Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability. Upon joining, he inherited an employee assistance programme called “Help” – a programme which, amongst other things, encouraged employees to seek help by showing them a picture of a man dangling from a cliff.

Over the next six years, Dr Davis went on to transform the Royal Mail’s employee assistance programme, to deliver a ‘First Class’ selection of services for postal workers.

His story is inspiring, and as a member of the Mad World 2018 advisory board, he chaired a deep discussion about what you can do to support mental health at work. In particular, what you can do to normalise it, create a preventative approach, and encourage early intervention.

I was lucky enough to speak to Dr Davis after the event, and I drew six key lessons from his story. But first, a bit of background.

Why Dr Davis swapped “Help” for “Feeling First Class

When I first joined the Royal Mail, I inherited an employee assistance program called Help” recalls Dr Davis, thinking back to 2012. “It was a man hanging off a cliff. And we wondered why utilisation was so low!

Dr Davis explains that people often don’t think about their mental health in terms of ‘needing help’. So why would they engage with a programme called ‘Help’? He says that this is especially true of men, which was an important factor to consider, as the Royal Mail’s workforce is made up of 85% men. So he had to think about how he could help people engage more with the programmes.


I went and did a Master’s in marketing” he says “because I wanted to apply marketing principles to safety, health and wellbeing. I realised then, that I needed to rebrand our programme into something our employees would connect with. So I rebranded all our products as being “First Class” – so, now, we have a theme. First Class Fitness. First Class Lifestyle. First Class Health. You get the picture. People might not want to admit that they need help. But everybody wants to feel first class!

There’s no magic wand solution – but here are six things you can do in your organisation right now

Of course, Dr Davis tells me that there is no magic wand solution. He didn’t just rebrand their employee assistance programme, and suddenly find that everything was OK. In fact, there were a lot of smaller, moving parts involved – and he’s quick to remind me that not everything you do will have an immediate impact.

There are some areas where it is a slower burn” he says. “But during my journey with the Royal Mail, there are some things that I have learned along the way. And the very fact that we are in 1,400 units, from Lands End to John O’Groats, tells me that we are quite representative of the UK.

So, here are six important lessons that came out during my conversation with Dr Davis, which you can take with you, right now, back to your own business, to help you start your own journey of better mental health at work.

1. Create a culture where it’s OK to talk about mental health

You’re not trying to turn managers into clinical specialists” Dr Davis says. “You’re trying to build a culture where people talk about mental health, as normally as they would talk about somebody’s broken leg, or an insulin shot for diabetes.

He says that talking about mental health at work is difficult, as there is so much stigma. But sometimes, it’s the negative stigmas that help get us talking.

I’m on the Mad World advisory board” he explains “and we had a tough conversation about what to call the summit. Mad World raised a lot of eyebrows. But actually, anything that gets a discussion going, is going to help you normalise and challenge the stigma.

And actually, there is a stigma associated with postal workers having unstable mental health, which is immortalised in the phrase ‘going postal’. I asked Dr Davis how this had impacted his efforts to improve mental health for postal workers within the Royal Mail group.

There is that stigma” he says. “And I think people in the Royal Mail are a lot more aware of mental health, than in other organisations I’ve worked in. Whether it’s because of that phrase that people talk about it, I don’t know. But if it is, then that’s one positive aspect to come out of it. It’s always good to get people talking, even if that comes from something perceived as more negative.

2. If you can’t be bothered to listen, don’t bother to ask

Dr Davis says that it’s good to lead by example. And part of starting a discussion, is to simply be the person who is asking people how they are. However, he warns that at all costs, you should get out of the habit of asking how somebody is just for the sake of saying it.

My biggest bug bear, is when you see people say ‘hi, how are you’, and then just carry on walking” he explains. “What you’ve got to realise, is that when you ask that question, it might be the one time that person has during that day to say ‘I’m not doing that well, actually’. And I know we’re all busy, and we’ve all got deliverables. But we can spare 60 seconds for somebody.


Dr Davis says that if you lead by example, and show a bit of compassion, and a bit of empathy, that this will have a wonderful knock-on effect for the state of your employees’ mental health at work.

3. Consider personal check-ins at the start of every day

You can formalise the procedure of making it normal to check how everybody is, by implementing ‘personal check-ins’ before you start each day. A personal check-in, is where as a team, a department, or even as a business, you all take a few minutes at the start of the day to ask everybody how they are feeling, and what’s going on at home.

I’ve found personal check-ins to be brilliant” exclaims Dr Davis. “They take a while to get there, and people will think you’re a bit, I don’t know, non-traditional, when you try to introduce them. Because it is kind of an odd concept. But they’re really helpful!

He says that to start with, people will probably not feel like sharing anything. But over time, that trust builds and grows, to the point where you’ll find people saying “actually, I’m really tired today. The children got in late last night, and I’m only going to be at about 75% today.” And Dr Davis says that this is fantastic, because it introduces permission to talk about problems, and lets people show compassion.

4. Turn performance management into a positive thing

Something that Dr Davis raised during one of our discussions, was the issue of performance management plans. He told me that there is often an unhealthy culture within organisations, which means that performance management is seen as a tool of fear, not a positive tool for personal development.

With the Royal Mail, we had something called an IPP” he recalls. “This stands for Improving Personal Performance. But there was a point, where if you had an IPP, in real terms, it meant that you were just one step closer to the door.

He says that you must make sure that your personal improvement plans are a positive thing, designed to actually do what they say on the tin.

Of course, we have to be very grown up about it, too” he adds. “If somebody is the wrong fit for the organisation, or for a particular role, then we have to agree that it’s not going to work. But make sure that performance management is a positive thing. Not something that pushes people closer to the door.

5. Do it with, not to

During Dr Davis’s MsC in Health and Wellbeing, he was researching solar radiation and sunscreen. And he said that because the postal workers are out and about a lot, they started asking the Royal Mail to provide them with sunscreen, and then tell them when to put it on.

My response to that” says Dr Davis “was to ask them who tells them to put their sunscreen on when they go on holiday to Tenerife for two weeks – and of course, they do it themselves. You can’t babysit people, you can only work with them, and facilitate. And that’s a big part of improving mental health at work – you’ve got to work with people, but help them to help themselves.

He says that there are several levels of responsibility when it comes to supporting an employee’s mental health:

  • Organisational responsibility. These are the resources, policies, and procedures you put into place to support the mental health of your people.
  • Line manager responsibility. This is the individual responsibility of your line managers to make sure your employees are being looked out for on the front line.
  • Personal responsibility. This is the responsibility of each employee to own their own mental health, and to take positive action.

You can help people to do this, but you can’t do it for them. Of course, you need to make sure people can actually access the resources you provide, too!

For postal workers, I can’t just expect them to find help on the internet” he laughs. “Postmen don’t go on the internet. They have a pouch, and a letter! So you’ve got to share resources in a way you know they can access. That’s why, for example, we also send out traditional newsletters.

6. Don’t be concerned when your metrics seem to increase

Something Dr Davis was really keen to share with me, was the importance of not giving up, just because your metrics initially seem to spike.

When I first started the mental health strategy, absence went up, and mental health complaints went up” he says. “Our senior executives thought this was a reason to be concerned. But I had to tell them that no, that wasn’t quite right. The problem had always been there, but we had just lifted a lid on it. We haven’t created problems; we’ve just helped draw them to the surface so we can deal with them.

He says that you need to be brave, hold your nerve, and ride the initial spike. He says that after the initial spike, it levels out again – and then, through a good strategy and plan, you can focus on reducing this year on year, and putting real interventions in place.

Measure the impact in more ways than just looking at numbers on sheets

So, let’s say you take on-board all of the above advice. Let’s say you:

  1. Start a discussion
  2. Lead by example
  3. Introduce check-ins
  4. Make performance management positive
  5. Do it with, not to
  6. Ride the spike of metrics

How do you actually know if it’s working? Well, according to Dr Davis, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to one single measure.

I am a fan of triangulation concepts” he says. “So yes, I look at traditional measures like sick pay or absence. But then, I look at other things. I ask what my employee survey is telling me. I ask what the anecdotes are telling me. I look at what people are saying on social media, and I look at what people are saying on websites like Glassdoor.”

Dr Davis says that you have to be a bit forensic about it, and look a lot wider than traditional measures.

Whenever I go anywhere, people say ‘what do you do then?’ And when I tell them, I’ll often get a reply like ‘oh, my uncle is a postman’. And I take that as an opportunity. I ask what it’s like for their uncle, to work for the Royal Mail – and I’ll get ‘oh, well they love this, but they hate this’. It’s just about listening, being a good citizen, and using field intelligence along with social media, and pulling all that data together, to combine quantitative with qualitative research. It all kinda creates a bigger story, you know?

Dr Davis has a new book, inspired by the Northern attitude that ‘real men don’t cry

Dr Davis has used his experience with the Royal Mail, to co-write a book, with Andrew Kinder, called ‘Positive Male Mind’. It was inspired by the fact that men often have a tough time talking about their mental health.

Coming from up North from Sheffield, you can be conditioned to believe that real men don’t cry” he says. “As a man, you often don’t talk about your mental health condition, because it’s not seen as acceptable. I used the Royal Mail as a backdrop for my book, because the Royal Mail is 85% men.

I asked if the book was just a book for men, and Dr Davis was very quick to put me right.

Oh not at all” he said. “It’s for anybody who cares about helping men to open up more about their mental health. You might be in HR, or an employer. Or maybe you have a brother, an uncle, a husband, or a father who is suffering. This book looks especially at mental health in men. But it is for everybody who cares about mental health.

You can learn about Dr Davis and Andrew Kinder’s new book, Positive Male Mind, here.

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