The Deep is an aquarium based in Hull, welcoming half a million visitors through its doors annually.

The nature of working in an aquarium comes with several challenges to employee wellbeing. The Deep employs around 150 people whose job roles are hugely diverse, ranging from marine biologists to café staff. 

Employees who work directly with the animals take part in a high-risk activity daily, which contributes to stress levels in a unique way. The aquarium hosts events every day and is staffed around the clock, requiring employees to adapt to the challenges that both busier and quieter days bring and be on top form throughout.

In such a dynamic workplace, regular communication between colleagues can be difficult and poses a challenge to the monitoring of employee wellbeing.

The Deep signed the Time to Change Employer Pledge in July 2019. It soon began recruiting Workplace Champions, with individuals who reflected a range of departments and diversity of employees volunteering themselves for the roles.

Building on the momentum generated by The Deep’s pledge signing event, these Champions collaborated in creating an event to mark World Mental Health Day in October 2019, with the aim of showing that The Deep was not merely an employer, but also a resource for mental health.

For this event, The Deep opened one of its classrooms to all of its employees, offering a space to learn about mental health, contribute suggestions for improving mental health in the workplace to an ‘ideas board’, pick up leaflets with signposts to local support services, and indulge in coffee and cake. There was also the chance to make eco-Christmas decorations, do some mindful colouring, pick up a reusable mug and sign up for a mini tour of the aquarium.

Champions made use of resources provided by Hull and East Yorkshire Local Mind and took the initiative to share biographies of themselves as a fun conversation starter. The presence of these Champions enabled conversations about mental health to happen organically between colleagues in a way that would not have been possible through more formal HR processes.

Colleagues seemed more at ease about talking through ideas for improving their workplace while having these peer-to-peer conversations, particularly given that the space had an “exhibition feel” that allowed people to settle into the environment and participate on their own terms.

The Deep has continued to be responsive to its employees since the event, taking on board the suggestion of giving employees ‘behind the scenes’ tours of the aquarium. This has made employees more familiar with their workplace, as well as boosting their feeling of belonging in the workplace.

The Deep has also implemented suggestions to provide more quiet space for breaks- an important factor in a workplace that is supervised around the clock, and to create a physical space for communications between colleagues- a necessity in a workplace where shift patterns align in a way that makes online communication less useful.

Prior to participating in Time to Change activities, The Deep were already striving to bring wellbeing to the forefront of the agenda by offering employees a holistic range of wellbeing activities and support systems. These included yoga sessions in front of the tanks, a step challenge to encourage employees to get active, mindfulness sessions, and more formal modes of support including financial support, an employee helpline and Occupational Health services.

The Deep’s openness to improving employee wellbeing made for a workplace in which there was little noticeable stigma surrounding mental health; employees who were clearly experiencing mental health challenges were largely not stigmatised or discriminated against and were offered support.

However, there did seem to be some uncertainty around reporting sickness absences in cases where mental health problems seemed to have been misreported as sickness. There also seemed to be some silo-working in the handling of health and wellbeing issues.

The Deep were forward-thinking in their approach, yet the mechanisms available to support their staff were not especially preventative.

For example, The Deep had recruited a dedicated team of Mental Health First Aiders, but the reactive nature of the First Aider role meant employees would be unlikely to approach a First Aider until their mental wellbeing worsened to become a matter of urgency.

The Time to Change Employer Pledge offered a structure for making improvements to mental health support and a method of embedding these improvements in organisational culture.

The structure offered by the Workplace Champion roles helped to consolidate the positive steps already being taken at The Deep by embedding the expectations these changes in the workplace culture between colleagues.

Many individuals who felt passionate about improving support for mental health but felt uneasy about tackling the topic of mental health informally with other colleagues were given more legitimacy and agency in their more formalised roles of Champions.

The badge of Champion made it possible for individuals to have informal conversations about mental health with colleagues, but to do so with professionalism and with the support of Time to Change’s resources. This has complemented the existing Mental Health First Aider roles by offering a more proactive approach to conversations around mental health.

The main benefit The Deep has experienced from being involved in the Time to Change campaign has been the public commitment to supporting the wellbeing of employees, which came as a result of publicly signing the Time to Change Pledge.

A number of disclosures and requests for additional help regarding mental health were made by employees shortly after the pledge signing event, suggesting that signing the pledge may have contributed to a more open and trusting environment.

The Deep have also been able to take a more sustained approach to dealing with sickness absence, since a shift in workplace culture has made it more acceptable to disclose mental health-related reasons for absence. Being able to identify the genuine reasons for sickness absence not only makes for a more open workplace, but also has a commercial benefit.

Moving forward, The Deep is planning more exciting events for upcoming dates in the mental health calendar, such as Mental Health Awareness Week, to continue the conversation about mental health with its employees. It does so with renewed confidence that the organisation is doing right by its employees in striving to be a supportive community and a positive place to work.