We chat to Steve Sneddon, senior manager, crew experience, and Sarah Brakewell, cabin service supervisor, to discover more about the programme, how it came about and why it’s so important.
Steve’s career has taken him from the tenements of Glasgow where he grew up, to training as a nurse and a short ‘riotous time’ working in Glasgow city-centre bar. But everything changed for him in 1999 when he spotted an advert for Virgin Atlantic cabin crew. Since then, Steve has travelled the world, taught aviation medicine to our pilots and cabin crew, worked in our internal communications team and moved into our cabin crew management team. “I came into Virgin Atlantic having had experience doing one thing, well two, if you count working in a bar,” said Steve. “And Virgin has given me the opportunity to do all of this. I am truly grateful”. Steve is now responsible for all non-safety/non-medical crew procedures, so he was very interested when two crew members told him about a mental health first aid programme they’d attended. Having dealt with some serious mental health issues during his time as a nurse and in his own family, Steve was only too aware that this was a problem that could fly under the radar and that the consequences could be devastating. Steve immediately recognised that this was something that could make a real and lasting difference to our people.
Steve knew from personal experience that having someone acting as a sounding board during a mental health crisis was important. So armed with all the facts, Steve and his manager booked themselves onto the two-day Mental Health First Aid course. The programme gives people the confidence and skills to talk to and support colleagues experiencing mental health issues. It’s not about treating poor mental health. Instead, it teaches them to identify the warning signs and direct people to the relevant help.
They both saw the tremendous value in bringing mental health first aiders into our crew community. They also realised that this wasn’t for everyone, so called for volunteers to train. They were overwhelmed with the response. “We took over 400 of our cabin crew through the 2 day first aider programme and gave all our onboard managers and supervisors a half day familiarisation session too.” That’s a significant investment in time, but well worth it with 1 in 5 of our crew community now trained in mental health first aid.
“As a crew community, we are very good at treating all kinds of physical conditions from a heart attack onboard to a customer with a complicated history of diabetes,” said Steve. “But taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical health. There are many upsides to working as cabin crew, travelling the world, staying in nice hotels, and with a real camaraderie. It’s one of the most sociable, amazing, wonderful jobs you can do,” Steve continued. “But it can also be an isolating job, especially if you’re feeling vulnerable or low. You can be in another country alone in your room. It can be tough on people’s mental health, especially in the current climate.”
“The fact that I’ve experienced panic attacks and lived with anxiety disorder myself and cared for somebody who suffers from poor mental health means this is personally close to me,” said Steve. “I really passionately want to take the stigma out of it because I know if people were truly honest and open, they’d say either they or someone close to them had experienced mental health issues. It might be that you don’t want to seek help, perhaps because you’re male or in a senior role, and you’re worried about how it makes you look. There’s a perception that admitting you are struggling makes you look weak, but I think it is quite the opposite. If you can be open and talk about how you’ve dealt with it, you can help give others the reassurance and confidence to know that they’re not alone or weak and that there is real help available.”
So what makes a good mental health first aider? “Empathy,” says Steve. “Cabin crew by their very nature are very caring people. They have an innate ability to understand what people are going through and have embraced the whole program”.
Although the scheme started as a cabin crew peer support group, it quickly grew into a company-wide programme with first aiders in all departments. When we placed our people on the course we never envisaged a global pandemic was about to hit. COVID-19 wasn’t on anybody’s radar but it would go on to have a massive impact not only on peoples physical health but their mental health too. “With a large-scale redundancy program underway, the management team were having weekly calls with the mental health first aiders. These calls were an opportunity for us to offer each other support and talk about the key themes that they were dealing with”, said Steve. “What it also ended up doing was giving the leadership team a real insight into what the key anxieties were, and it allowed us to target and support them.”
During the pandemic, we also partnered with Cognacity, a team of expert psychologists who ran a series of brilliant webinars just for Virgin Atlantic employees to manage uncertainty, handle anxiety, build strength and resilience, and use the free counselling service available to all Virgin Atlantic people.
Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offers six free counselling sessions to anyone in need and is one of the channels recommended by our mental health first aiders. During the pandemic there was a significant increase in our people seeking help and the support offered has been invaluable.
Asked what he would say to someone who was dismissive of mental health issues, Steve is clear “I would say to someone like that, they should consider themselves blessed that they’ve not had to experience that personally, or have somebody that they love or is personally close them, deal with it. No one is immune to experiencing mental health issues. In fact, we know that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health issue each year.
As well as being one of our cabin service supervisors, Sarah is a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and teaches the two-day full adult course, half-day awareness course and refresher MHFA training to our cabin crew team, pilots and some cabin crew managers.
“Everyone has mental health. Sometimes our mental health can be impacted negatively and can cause a whole host of problems, it can impact all areas of a person’s life and lead to the worst-case scenario of a suicidal crisis point. Spreading the word that it’s ok to talk about your mental health and arming people with the tools to spot the signs when someone is suffering can make all the difference. There is always hope for recovery” said Sarah. “Our crew community help each other so much on flights and down route so training up mental health first aiders enables a much deeper level of support to anyone suffering or vulnerable. It is an in-depth look into mental health conditions and how to be confident in offering help to anyone suffering. Much like general first aiders, we train up our mental health first aiders to be able to respond immediately to get help to people.”
Modern life has become fast-paced, constantly connected, and full-on. All of which can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. Thankfully our understanding of mental health issues has also grown in recent years, and we now recognise how these issues can adversely affect our lives. Mental health issues cover a broad spectrum of different conditions, ranging from depression, anxiety and stress to addiction issues or problems arising from abuse, trauma or bereavement. And although our work life might not be the root of mental health problems, it can exacerbate them.
Having so many trained and compassionate mental health first aiders scattered throughout our airline means that our people know that they are never far from someone they can talk to. This scheme is one part of a wider package of benefits that we have in place that cares for our people’s mental, physical and financial wellbeing.
For anyone that is worried about someone’s mental health Sarah recommends simply asking ‘are you ok?’ Then ask again. “We are very quick to say yes when really we are suffering in some way. Being genuine, calm and caring in your approach, picking the right time to ask, giving some privacy, being non-judgemental (not as easy as you’d think) and keeping it confidential,” said Sarah. “If you notice someone behaving differently or something seems not quite right, trust your instincts and ask them if they are ok. You could be the person to make a difference. I always let people know they are loved, they are important and they are a thousand times enough”.
To find out more about mental health awareness week and the resources available visit the Mental Health Foundation website or look for the #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek hashtag