The value of investing in initiatives that support the physical and mental health of staff is well documented, both in terms of attracting and retaining great people as well as improving productivity. But the changes in work practices forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the goalposts. Many of the softer support initiatives we’d taken for granted were lost overnight, just as we all had to grapple with a significant threat to our wellbeing.
At NHS Arden & GEM CSU, we had a People Plan in place prior to COVID-19, with an associated health and wellbeing strategy to support our staff based across 15 office locations. But it hadn’t been designed with over 900 different work locations in mind, all with varying levels of IT infrastructure, and little or no ‘in person’ interaction. Alongside employers across the globe, we had to act quickly to support our staff through such an unprecedented challenge – many of whom were working long hours on emergency response projects, while isolated from friends, family and colleagues.
Five elements of a successful wellbeing strategy
Arden & GEM has been on a steep but successful learning curve, reengineering some aspects of our strategy to meet the challenges of lockdown. In doing so, we have found the following aspects to be key in supporting staff through change and maintaining social connections amid remote working.
1. Take a holistic approach. Building a wellbeing strategy is about more than physical and mental health. In the past year in particular, the lines between home and work have become increasingly blurred, and financial and social pressures have impacted day-to-day work and home life. For wellbeing support to be successful, it needs to reflect this range of needs and support employees through every aspect of their lives, encompassing physical, financial, emotional, social and psychological needs. We have found that some of the simpler initiatives such as staff newsletters and competitive health challenges have proved as valuable as more structured initiatives such as access to counselling or financial advice.
2. Build in flexibility. A diverse workforce inevitably means there will be some initiatives that appeal more to some than others. Likewise, some people will be more inclined to engage with initiatives than their colleagues. A multi-layered approach, where some activities, such as homeworking assessments, are mandatory; some are centrally-led but optional; and some are staff-led and socially focused; gives enough scope to enable your entire team to get involved in some way. Building in regular opportunities for staff to recognise and log how they feel also provides multiple opportunities to check-in with team wellbeing and signpost staff to specific areas of support when they are most needed.
3. Recognise and plan for technology limitations. The pandemic has given us little choice but to rely on technology to communicate with colleagues. However, as with any new initiative, it’s important to make time to ensure people know how to use it and to flesh out any issues that may prevent people from accessing the information and support they need. Regularly reviewing IT infrastructure, providing quick access to technical support and offering alternatives such as phone-based services can all help reduce barriers.
4. Listen, learn and adapt. Engaging with staff and seeking input on different initiatives has perhaps never been more important. Staff surveys have always been a key part of our people strategy, but both formal and anecdotal feedback has proved invaluable as we’ve implemented new ideas. For example, the value of giving people time and space to join non-work-related discussions via our community chat channel has proved extremely popular, with 95% staff saying the channel had made them smile. By contrast, setting up virtual informal catchups at lunchtime didn’t work for our staff, despite the social focus. With people adjusting to spending most of their day at a screen, lunchtimes have become a vital opportunity to step away from the computer and do something different.
5. Lead by example. Working remotely can make it harder to spot when people may be struggling and need support. Leaders have an important role to play in creating a safe space for colleagues to share their experiences – good and bad – and ask for help when they need it. This is partly about creating opportunities to engage with different leaders – our regular virtual ‘coffee with directors’ sessions have given staff at all levels the chance to raise issues and catch up with colleagues in a semi-structured but informal setting. But it’s also about leaders getting involved with the initiatives they have helped to create, whether that’s joining in with a physical challenge or adding to the social discourse on the community chat channel.
Supporting staff is an ongoing priority. Whether frontline or back office, NHS staff work incredibly hard to do their bit to support excellent patient care. As human beings, we can achieve so much more when we are healthy, active and engaged, so it is in everyone’s interests for organisations to continue to invest in initiatives that give teams the tools and guidance they need to achieve their goals.
Arden & GEM recently achieved gold award level in the ‘We invest in wellbeing’ accreditation – part of the internationally recognised Investors in People framework.
This article was originally written for National Health Executive and you can read the full piece here.