Health and Wellbeing: Achieving World Class Outcomes at Thames Water

April 2018

Soma’s previous HR innovators event hosted David Beeney who shared his inspiring and personal experiences with mental health in the workplace.


This month, a network of HR Innovators, wellbeing leaders, academics and policy makers came together to hear Karl Simons discuss the latest approaches and concrete strategies used to most effectively promote health and wellbeing in the workplace. 


Karl Simons has a 27 year career in health and safety, and has spent the last 5 years transforming Thames Water as the Head of Health, Safety, Security and Wellbeing. Thames Water is responsible for 5000 employees an many more contractors, all of whom deal with constant pressure and risk. Mistakes can result in destructive and costly flooding, and Thames Water is responsible for treating and supplying billions of litres of clean water to one third of the UK’s population each day. Health, safety and wellbeing are therefore a uniquely high priority.


When Karl first joined Thames Water the occupational health team’s strategy tended to involve intervening after injury, rather than engaging in preventative or educational roles. He created a new ‘Company Health Strategy’ in order to implement the necessary changes. This aimed at pushing forward advisory health professional roles, increasing mental health conversations and support, and breaking down the silence and associated stigma and stereotypes.

Educational content was at the heart of the psychological health strategy aimed at improving visibility, conversations and acceptance of mental ill health. This involved rolling out a holistic approach to wellbeing, targeting wellbeing with innovative approaches to mental and physical health.

Such as:

  • Mental Health First Aid Courses: Thames Water has a goal to ensure 1 in every 10 employees is trained and qualified to ensure employees are educated, prepared and comfortable discussing mental ill health
  • Virtual Reality: employees are ‘put into the shoes’ of a person who is suffering from mental ill health rather than objectively viewing this experience from a distance. This is powerful and often controversial footage, and a situation is simulated in which ‘you’ are looking down contemplating suicide. The feedback from this has been fantastic, and when the headsets come off employees naturally discuss something they might not have ever touched on – further breaking the stigma of these sorts of conversations
  • Resilience Training Courses in collaboration with MindInternally created mental health awareness videos: Staff acted in mental health videos which communicates the information in a relatable way. One fantastic example is the ‘Time to Talk: Be in your colleagues corner’ video. Karl stressed that the benefit of this sort of content should not be underestimated- and the effort and cost was minimal.

The Physical Health Strategy

  • Providing physical health assessments to all employees
  • Free physio if they injured themselves in or out of work
  • ‘Permission’ cards: to stop work when feeling unsafe or excessively fatigued
  • ‘Wellbeing Week’ in which employees ran classes, such as mindfulness and yoga.


In fact, Karl later found out that many of the Wellbeing Week classes continued on afterwards. This management of physical health also supports mental resilience.


The Consequences


The increased visibility, educational content and conversations surrounding mental health have resulted in impressive and consistent improvements in Thames Water:

  • The use of EAP services has improved as employees feel more comfortable speaking up
  • Employees directly reaching out, contacting and seeking support from occupational staff or mental health first aiders
  • 150 employees used to be off work at any point in time due to work related illnesses (including stress or workplace harassment) and this has now dropped to 18
  • In surveys, 90% of reponses agreed that Thames Water takes Health and Safety seriously


As a result of impressive and innovative results, Thames Water liaised with cabinet office members, bringing them on site in order to contribute to the large scale ‘Thriving At Work’ review of mental health in the workplace requested by Theresa May.

Thames Water was ultimately mentioned in the report, and used as an example of a leading organisation, employing new and effective strategies.

Thames Water now have an online Health and Safety Hub in which all of their resources and policies are open source, making them a uniquely transparent company. This is a great place for further research and reading:

After the talk guests completed a traditional Soma ‘Icebreaker’, writing their own ‘No Compromise’ Card. These had been handed out in Thames Water with a message directly from the CEO encouraging all employees to feel empowered to stop working if they felt unsafe or injured in any way.

Guests were asked to imagine having to write a similar card focused on mental health. What would they want employees to know?

Passionate group discussion ensued as responses had varied enormously!



This was another great event, unique in it’s in-depth description and analysis of concrete wellbeing strategies and changes being pushed forward in large scale companies.


Here are some of Soma’s main insights from the event:

  • Educational mental health content is most effective when well tailored to suit the employees receiving it
  • Company wide metrics are a powerful wellbeing tool, providing insights into the quiet voice of the majority, rather than the loud voice of a minority. They can also flag up what is working and what is not.
  • The impact of an internally made, cheap and easy to make,informative and fun video should not be underestimated
  • Well publicised mental health representatives can become a true source of support and contact for employees Breaking down the stigma has a direct effect on EAP use, helping people get help


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