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Zara Ross, Ben chief executive, on mental health and wellbeing in motor retail

Zara Ross, Ben's chief executive

What’s your background?

I have worked in the care industry for more than 30 years particularly in the charity sector. I am unashamedly committed to the world of charity. I worked for the local authority in social work, digressed into HR management for 15 years, where I was particularly interested in organisational change. I crossed back from HR director to care director before Ben.

What was the attraction of Ben?

I believe at Ben I have a fantastic opportunity, it’s been around for a long time and is ripe for renewal and refocusing. I see my role as involved in shaping what the charity’s all about.

How do you see Ben’s role in the sector?

Ben’s purpose is to be a support for life for people who work in the automotive industry. Transformation is happening very quickly and it’s quite exciting to run alongside it, but also reflect on all of that as it’s happening. I believe Ben can add value and partner with the industry during this time of change. I don’t think that’s how the charity has positioned itself previously.

What can Ben offer the automotive workforce of today?

A helpline, a website which is evolving and about to expand, as well as professionally trained advisers and trainers. The growth in online chat has been considerable in the past 12 months. We really believe we can become a more integrated part of what companies are doing. We can offer practical workplace programmes and we are working hard on a new package, Ben4Business. We provide health and well-being training for employers around mental health in particular. Part of raising awareness is having something to offer, so we provide a personalised health check, which involves assessing blood pressure, heart and body-mass index and follow up with practical advice to improve physical fitness. It’s free to employees. It was launched at the end of summer 2017.

Is mental health the biggest issue?

The four big areas that impact any organisation are mental health, physical health, financial well-being and social well-being. These four pillars underpin what we do. We have had 25,000 hits to our mental health pages on our website in the past year and we expect that number to go up as more people are talking about mental health. Mental health has been a consistent enquiry over the past 12 months. The previous 12 months we had more enquiries about financial support although that can sometimes be bound up with mental health. Often these can be inseparable.

Does the nature of automotive retail – high staff turnover, low basic salaries, sales targets, etc. – exacerbate financial and mental health issues?

Things are tough in every industry, but there are real dilemmas for those folks at the frontline trying to close sales in extremely hard circumstances. Yet the challenge to change that model for organisations is very difficult. People at all levels are working under incredible stress. This is not something that will change dramatically overnight. In my view, the next five to 10 years will see very significant transformation in the sector and I think the mental health support needs that come with that will be a reality.

What has contributed to the increase of mental health issues in the workplace?

There’s a range of factors, things are never one-dimensional. Until the Brexit negotiations become clear, there’s a big uncertainty factor tied up with the economic one. Raising the profile of mental health in itself has contributed hugely to people having the courage to say ‘I’m struggling and I need some help’, but some folk find that difficult.

A male-dominated industry is another factor, it’s always going to be difficult for some of our male colleagues . Having mental health difficulties does not make you a weak person – that’s an important message. The honesty in facing up to a problem is the first step to getting help.

What practical help can Ben provide?

We have partnerships with 700 other support organisations, which can provide guidance and advice about specific issues that could be the reason why people develop mental health issues.

We can give guidance on debt counselling and we can put people in where there’s a family crisis or bereavement. We visit people in their own homes and make sure they get after-care support. We respond to people online, by email or engage via web chat, whatever works for the individual.

How are you measuring your impact?

I believe we are making great strides, but it is not enough to just say that. We carry out an impact report every quarter and feedback has been exceptionally positive. We have a fantastic repertoire of stories and practical information on how people have moved forward with the support of Ben.

It has helped people achieve more than £1 million of benefits that they were entitled to, but not claiming. We have helped people who were homeless and guided them through getting a new tenancy and we have helped negotiate payment of bills or even had debt written off. It may seem small, but it’s very

practical and it’s hard to make some of this tangible. We are working on how to record this on our website, you will see more of this in the next 12 months, and we will be able to share more data on how we are improving people’s lives.

Will Ben continue to provide care homes, which it is probably best known for?

Ben has been providing social care in care centres (in Berwick, Coventry and Berkshire) for almost 60 years. Those services give priority to people who work or have worked in the industry or have a close relative who has worked in the industry. It has been a fantastic area of work for Ben. We want our legacy care centres to be the very best they can.

Have the care homes hampered Ben’s appeal to current industry employees?

I think that’s absolutely the case. That’s why it’s important that we can show there is a clear connection between what they contribute today and what they see people get, and so it becomes a virtuous circle. To run professional care services with the support of the local authority and from health funding as well as the financial support of those who can afford to pay is a financial mix which is different from how Ben was run in the past. There has to be a logic for people who are under financial pressures to give to any charity. The reason people do that is because they can see a link with themselves or someone they know.

Has this new strategy resulted in increased fundraising and giving from the industry?

We recognise that this will take time. We still value all sources of income, some of which have been coming through for several years. We could not manage without the large contributions of large corporate organisations as well as fundraising events. We are starting to see a direct link between higher awareness of Ben and increased giving. Awareness-raising and fundraising go hand in hand. We are seeing people really responding and prepared to give. We expect that to increase over the next financial year and following years.  

What does your five-year plan consist of?

The five-year plan starts in our new financial year on April 1, 2018. The focus is on the health and well-being , to make our care centres as efficient and effective as possible.

For health and well-being, we are focusing on three areas – awareness, engagement and intervention. We provide not just crisis help, but regular opportunities to support employees.

We want to build on other ways to support companies and training is a big part of that. We have 40 companies interested in our training programmes in 2018 where we go into workplaces to talk not just about Ben, but mental health, how to recognise mental health and the practical things that can be done to support that. We want to be ambitious about the number of people we will be supporting, we have thousands and thousands of people in our minds as we go into the next five years.

Is there anything you would want to say to people in the sector?

Thank you. For those who are in the industry, the money they give, they will see an impact in the workplace and see that we can improve people’s lives. About 80% of the calls we take are from people in the industry today and yet there are still so many people who have not heard about Ben. If you have an experience of Ben, let us know and let other people know.

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