Workforce wellbeing: not just another tickbox

Source: NHE July/August 2018

Gillian Felton, head of people development, engagement and wellbeing at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network, on the process of appointing Wellbeing Warriors in order to boost workplace health.

I’d like to take you back to 1836 to a Quaker family in York. In particular, Joseph Rowntree. Joseph left the family’s grocer business to run a small and struggling cocoa factory with his brother. He was always determined to produce top-quality cocoa, chocolate and confectionary. He was equally determined to ensure fair wages were paid and a high level of welfare achieved for the workforce. Joseph Rowntree was an industrialist who cared passionately about his workforce.

So in 1896, Rowntree’s appointed its first welfare officer, Mary Wood. Mary was appointed to act as a social worker for the factory, with responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of women and children in the workforce.

People like Rowntree, Fry, Cadbury and Lever recognised the importance of providing their staff with good working conditions because they had already realised that this would help them flourish as individuals and would be good for business. They believed that if they left the human factor out of their business calculations, they would fail every time.

So you can see that wellbeing isn’t a new concept, though the way we approach it can be.

Fast-forward to 2018 and it’s fair to say times have changed since the days of Mary Wood. The modern workplace can be stressful. Our ‘always on’ society means it can be hard for people to switch off – even when at home. This means it’s more important than ever that we look after ourselves and lead fulfilling lives.

The Mental Health Foundation estimates that 70 million work days are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, costing employers approximately £2.4bn annually. So in the face of increasing numbers of UK workers experiencing mental health problems, there is a growing awareness of the importance of good workplace mental health and wellbeing. This is not simply because it’s the ‘right thing to do,’ but because recognising, valuing, improving and protecting mental and physical wellbeing in the workplace makes good business sense.

So what are we doing here at the NIHR Clinical Research Network? Well, I can tell you what we are not doing: we are not focusing on wellbeing because it’s the ‘on-trend’ thing to do, a ‘nice-to-have,’ or a box to be ticked.

The focus on wellbeing in the workplace has never been more important as the environment we operate in is ever-changing, unpredictable and complex. The way we work    is evolving as digital technologies enable a more flexible approach, where people are integrating their work and home lives.

We know that our staff play a pivotal role in our success as a network. For them to perform to the best of their ability, we need to create the conditions that pay attention to their wellbeing and contribute to a fulfilling employee experience. So, here’s what we’ve done to date.

First of all, we wanted to build a common understanding of what wellbeing means to our staff. We believe that any kind of people intervention should be representative of what our people want, need and believe. We follow an approach of ‘designed by us, for us,’ in which we listen to and act upon the views and suggestions of our people. That’s how we approached writing the wellbeing strategy.

We gathered our wellbeing data through a series of cross-site forums, a survey, face-to-face interviews with the executive team, and a session with some members of the senior management team to describe the behavioural expectations of leaders and managers in relation to wellbeing.

We asked our people two questions: what makes a good day at work, and who has responsibility for wellbeing?

By approaching it this way, people were able to get involved in a way that suited them. What our staff told us helped us understand what wellbeing means to them and gave us the narrative to write our wellbeing strategy. The next step was to lift the words off the page and make them a reality. This had the potential to be the most challenging part of the process, as one person alone couldn’t implement the strategy on behalf of so many people.

One of the things I like most about the NIHR Clinical Research Network is people’s willingness to get involved. With this in mind, I put a call out for people to help me implement our wellbeing strategy. I was looking for colleagues who, like me, believe that if  we create the conditions that make  it easier for people to come to work, then it will be a happier and more productive place to be.

That said, I was depending on people volunteering to get involved on top of their ‘day job.’ I had no need to worry though; people filled in the application form, described why they wanted to get involved and, before I knew it, I had a team of Wellbeing Warriors.

They are a group of colleagues from across the network, from different teams, roles and grades. The one thing that unites them is a deep-seated belief that we all have an individual responsibility to take care of ourselves and our own wellbeing. It’s important to remember that how I take care of myself and my wellbeing will be different to how you look out for yourself – and that’s ok.

Defining their purpose and role was really important to the warriors. They knew that the most effective thing they could do was to role model the behaviours which they believe would influence a positive, healthy work environment. They knew they could signpost colleagues to services offered by our employers and the NIHR, and events and development sessions that were taking place which relate to wellbeing in the workplace. They also knew that whilst they wanted to hear what their colleagues have to say, they may not be appropriately placed to deal with those particular issues, but they would be able to pass them onto a more suitable service.

Our intention in the first year was to do no more than respond to what our people had told us makes a good day at work. That list became our ‘shopping list.’ Warriors took it in turn to take something off the list, write a blog about it and signpost to all the resources we already have in place. We collectively decided that our first year would be best spent reminding each other about what’s already available to us. And that’s how the Wellbeing Watch, our monthly online publication, came about.

Now, you might be thinking what’s in it for the warriors. This is what they said:

  • We’ve established our own community;
  • We’ve learnt together;
  • We are self-organising;
  • We’ve stuck at it;
  • We’ve opened up conversations and awareness;
  • As warriors, we have developed as individuals and as a group – writing blogs, chairing meetings, and hosting events. And it’s also great for our CVs;
  • We’ve made sure wellbeing runs through all our staff events.

And now, using the feedback our people provided in our annual employee engagement health check, we are delving deeper into some of the wellbeing and mental health themes.

Wellbeing belongs to all of us at the NIHR; we’ve started the conversation, and it is our collective responsibility to carry on that conversation that will see us continuing to grow as individuals, as teams and as an organisation. NIHR is already a great place to work and, together, we can make it even better.


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