Spotlight Series: Insight from International SOS on tackling the GBC Pledge

The Global Business Collaboration for Better Workplace Mental Health aims to help organisations all over the world to prioritise employee mental health. As a business-led initiative, the insights and best practice that we share will be heavily informed by the visionary leaders and companies who sign our six-point Pledge.

In the article that follows, Jennifer Gibb, Group HR Director at International SOS, shares her organisation’s approach to tackling the areas outlined in the GBC Pledge.

1) Developing a solid action plan


Jennifer explains that a health-conscious culture and the promotion of workplace wellness has always been a key focus at International SOS, but that the pandemic afforded a unique opportunity to highlight the intersection of mental health and employee wellbeing.

Leveraging this momentum, International SOS created an action plan to both improve mental health and raise awareness of its impact. Jennifer believes that for this to be possible, an effective workplace mental health action plan should embrace the following three elements:

1. Leadership commitment: Mental health is not a linear problem that we can ‘solve’ and move on from. It’s a constant in our lives, and can improve or worsen depending on our environment. For any action plan to be effective, leaders must be willing to understand the intricacies of mental health, commit to creating long-term programmes, and constantly measure outcomes.

2. Employee engagement: While workplace mental health is often addressed at an organisation level, it’s a highly personal topic. Even with leadership buy-in, any action plan would be fruitless without employee involvement. The ideal is for everyone to acknowledge their own stigma, and to feel empowered enough to support their own mental health. Organisations can help to guide their people by creating safe spaces for candid conversations.

3. Respect for diversity & inclusion: Our life experiences, gender identities, personalities, upbringing and social norms have a critical impact on our mental health. We have all experienced the same pandemic, but how we feel about it and how it impacts us is different for everyone. Every action plan should have room for adaptations when it comes to implementation.

Through this approach, Jennifer talks proudly about how International SOS has been able to normalise conversations around mental health, and help employees to understand that it’s okay to not feel okay, and that there is nothing wrong with seeking support. Frequent discussions about mental health have been held at a senior executive level – causing a ripple effect through the rest of the organisation, and encouraging open conversation among

And for those companies just starting out on their journey to better workplace mental health? Jennifer strongly recommends involving your people from the outset, and listening to their experiences with an open mind. By co-creating an action plan with your employees, you’ll be able to instil a sense of ownership in them, while ensuring transparency around progress and outcomes.

2) Promoting an open culture


It can be difficult to know how to start those initial conversations around mental health. So how did International SOS approach it? Through normalising, enabling, and equipping.

Employees were left in no doubt that the senior management team was committed to pushing the mental health agenda. This was evidenced by leaders talking openly about their own mental health, sharing personal experiences, and discussing the approaches that helped them. International SOS also made efforts to normalise the mental health conversation through their global newsletter, which as well as discussing mental health openly, frequently provides relevant tips and advice.

As well as creating a culture of openness, Jennifer talks of the importance of education. Through frequent awareness webinars hosted by certified counsellors, everyone at International SOS is given training to equip them with a deeper understanding of mental health, possible triggers, and signs that co-workers might need some support.

Focused training is also given to people managers to help them pick up on cues within their teams, initiate difficult conversations, and signpost to the appropriate support. Jennifer explains that because mental health is such a big and complex topic, people often fear saying the wrong thing – which is why this level of training is so important.

3) Developing positive mental health


Through its global internal newsletter, International SOS works hard to raise awareness of everything from Zoom fatigue and mindfulness, to languishing, decluttering, and the importance of self-care.

Jennifer is particularly proud of the company’s Mental Resilience Program, which is designed to help employees unlock their productivity with better mental health. The programme focuses on common mental health struggles in the workplace, and provides practical tools on how to cope.

This 12-month programme, consisting of 6 webinars and self-paced activities, also helps to raise awareness about mental health at work, normalise the issues people may be facing, and encourage everyone to actively work on their wellbeing.

Jennifer reminds us that mental health is not solely the province of HR: it’s a complex topic that calls for joint action from medical experts, counsellors, leaders, managers and employees.

4) Empowering people to prioritise their mental health


When your people feel empowered to care for their own wellbeing, you really start to see a change. But how do you get to that point?

International SOS started with an EAP programme, providing confidential, 24/7 support for its employees. The company also partnered with medical experts to run monthly awareness sessions on the link between mental health and bodily wellness – covering topics like diet, exercise, sleep, and more specific health concerns, such as diabetes.

Recognising the shift occasioned by the pandemic, International SOS also revisited its approach to flexible working. Jennifer explains that while the company favours in-person interactions, they understand that for some employees, commuting to work or spending all day in the office no longer suits their lifestyle or family obligations; as a result, there are now policies in place to provide flexibility for employees to determine what works best for them.

Connected to this is virtual meeting etiquette:

Most of our days are spent on virtual meetings and it is tiring. While we can’t do without meetings, we have introduced a virtual meeting etiquette: a set of principles to promote balanced and healthy usage of telecommunication tools.”

To counter the anxiety caused by unverified information and fake news about COVID-19, International SOS organises a monthly COVID-19 podcast, where employees can hear the latest updates and facts directly from pandemic experts. But Jennifer recognises that it’s not one-size-fits-all:

Given the diversity of our workforce, we find that having one single solution or programme is not effective enough to meet all employees’ needs. A combination of different programmes, delivered through various channels, works well for us so far.”

One of these approaches is the use of mental health first aiders. In fact, International SOS has trained over 20 employees as mental health first aiders. Rolled out in August 2021, this allows certified support peers to guide employees towards the right professional support, and to provide help to prevent mental health issues becoming more serious.

5) Signposting to mental health support


Mental health support services are only effective if people know they exist.

To highlight the tools and resources available to them, International SOS raises awareness amongst its workforce through educational infographics on how to identify those in need, and how to signpost them to support.

In addition to the global EAP, Jennifer talks about the company’s wealth of self-help material. This is for employees who want to take on some interventions by themselves, before they’re at the point of needing a counsellor. Materials and programmes include 28 days of mindfulness, gratitude diaries, and imposter diaries.

6) Measuring the impact


Through its dedicated ‘BeWell’ survey, and direct feedback following interventions, International SOS regularly measures the state of its employees’ mental wellbeing, and the wider impact on retention, productivity and business performance.

Jennifer explains that working with medical experts has been crucial here, and recommends using universally recognised mental health screening methods, respecting employees’ rights to confidentiality and anonymity, and seeking feedback on a purely voluntary basis.

Looking back at their journey, Jennifer reflects that – had they known then what they know now – they would have got more people managers on board from the beginning:

As more people started to talk about workplace mental health, many people managers felt they were caught off-guard and didn’t know how to respond or what to do. We have since introduced a great deal of people manager-focused support, but this should have been done much earlier.”

Challenges and opportunities


Jennifer acknowledges that mental health is sometimes perceived as simply ‘another thing to do’. As with other people-centric initiatives, there is an appetite for quick wins and fast results. But workplace mental health is different: you can’t expect meaningful changes to take place overnight. Managing expectations is therefore key.

If you’re just starting out, Jennifer advises putting your assumptions aside and talking to your people:

You will be surprised with the amount of insight you can get. And always, respect those who are struggling. Having a tough time does not make someone less capable of doing their job. Give them the space to rest and the support to continue, and they will be doing just fine.”

Looking to the future, Jennifer recognises that after so much time away from the office, people are generally nervous about coming back. To help everyone ease into a new commute routine, International SOS is implementing a phased return: employees will have the option to work from the office for a few days, and work from home for the rest.

While this pandemic may have left many minds traumatised and fragile, it is a golden opportunity to raise the bar for workplace mental health support.”

If you’re yet to join our supportive community, find out more about signing the GBC Leadership Pledge today.