So many people in this country are affected by mental health problems every year – one in four in fact. But what’s most worrying is that a large proportion of them will suffer in silence because they are afraid of being stigmatised. As someone who suffered from mental health problems for a number of years, I know this feeling well. My illness used to make me feel frightened, alone and unsure where to turn for support.
However, help can often be found in the most unlikely of places – for me, it was through my employer, Pizza Hut restaurants. I began working for Pizza Hut restaurants in 1998, initially cleaning tables and then quickly promoted to deputy manager and trained as a restaurant manager. My area manager was keen to support my progression further but the demons that haunted me as a teenager returned and I felt completely unable to cope.
My mental health hadn’t compromised my performance at work, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before it did. I was terrified of telling anyone in case they judged me. Eventually I built up the courage to call Pizza Hut restaurants’ employee support line and they immediately put me at ease. They explained that I was entitled to counselling through the company, then organised a weekly session to start the very next morning.
This gave me the confidence to tell my managers, and I felt overwhelmed by their support. I took time off to consider my future and returned a couple of months later as a waiter to give myself a break from management. Later, with the support of my manager, I applied for the role of area trainer and was thrilled to get the job and over the years was lucky enough to help open ten new stores. I’m still here 18 years later and am proud to be one of the reasons behind Pizza Hut restaurants’ new partnership with Mental Health UK – a network of four national charities working across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to improve the lives of people with mental illness.
Through my work with Rethink Mental Illness, running a number of peer support groups in Chester and as member on the Service User Council, I realised how lucky I’d been to receive support from my employer and wanted to see if there was a way to elevate this and establish a more formal initiative. It’s important to remember that people really do have the power to drive change within an organisation. That’s what I did. I believe that if we speak out in support of mental health initiatives, we can actively encourage a culture of openness and support in the workplace.
That’s exactly what Pizza Hut restaurants is doing as the first in the hospitality sector to put mental health on their agenda. As a signatory of the Time to Change pledge they are committed to driving awareness of mental health and encouraging openness in the workplace. Then through their partnership with Mental Health UK they are able to better understand the positive steps they need to take to support employees, whether that’s through enhancing their training and development programmes, providing a 24-hour helpline for employees or by recommending local support groups.
"I believe that if we speak out in support of mental health initiatives, we can actively encourage a culture of openness and support in the workplace"
Honesty and openness
In addition, they’ve deliberately taken a more holistic approach to training and development by striking a balance between teaching high-level technical skills and encouraging employees to focus on their personal development too. For example, through their work with School of Life employees are encouraged to tackle issues such as anxiety, depression, confidence and communication. These elements combined help to promote a more supportive and open workplace culture and send a clear signal to employees that being open about their mental health will lead to support not discrimination. And it’s a win-win situation as I’m a much more loyal employee as a result of being part of such a culture.
Encouraging conversations around mental health is an important step to removing stigma and I’m proud of the work Pizza Hut restaurants is doing to tackle the taboo. So now, I want to encourage other businesses to put mental health on their agenda. The support and flexibility I got from Pizza Hut restaurants gave me the time I needed to recover but I know other people aren’t always as lucky and their job can suffer as a result. This needs to change.