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September 1, 2022
Balance Festival 2022

The Workplace Revolution - Creating a Wellness Program with a Difference

The annual Balance Festival recently took place in Shoreditch, on a particularly sweltering day.

Luckily the Truman Brewery's air con made it feel like a fridge, so it was the hottest (or coolest) ticket in town for millennials and Gen Zers eager to find new ways of enhancing their wellness.

The place was packed, and there was a great line of speakers. I’ve been a fan of the Festival for a few years now and love seeing how popular it’s become.

So I was super excited to be given the chance to speak on a vital topic; ‘The Workplace Revolution - creating a wellness program with a difference’.

The panel was hosted superbly by Kelly Mulhall of The Natural Balance. Shereen Daver of 108 Ateliers & Sam Warrington of Swift FitnessGroup were the other panelists.

For a 45 min session we covered a lot of bases, and below is a transcript along with some audio clips. My hope is that the insights shared here might be put to good use by anyone responsible for employee wellbeing.

Thanks to everyone who joined on the day and resisted the lure of the pub beer garden, on a very balmy, Friday afternoon.

If you didn't manage to make it down, I hope you enjoy reading or listening to this. Here we go...

Kelly first set the scene with some statistics to understand the scale of the issue at hand here:

-      The cost to employers of poor mental health has increased, to up to £56bn in 2020-21 compared to £45bn in 2019

-      Deloitte’s 2022 mental health report found that 28% of UK employees either left their job in 2021 or they are planning to leave it in 2022, with 61% of respondents saying this was due to poor mental health

-      Young people (18-29 years old) were found to be most likely to have moved jobs or be considering a job move

-      This latest report from Deloitte suggests employers see a return of £5.30 on average for every £1 spent on employee wellbeing

-      Career Builder 2017 - The top five stress symptoms causing missed work days are constant fatigue (29%); sleeplessness(26%); aches and pains (24%); high anxiety (23%) and weight gain (18%).’ 

The first question to the panel was “based on the evidence from these facts, what tools have you personally found have benefited the physical and mental wellbeing of your corporate clients the most?”

“Totally agree with what the guys have said, I think, especially what was said about the broad range of wellness programs, you have to have a holistic offering. And there's no one size fits all. I think everyone's personal in that in that way. My particular interest is in meditation, as Kelly mentioned, I'm a big student. There's lots of studies out there that show how effective it is, especially in dealing with stress. And I think if you look upstream, where is a lot of the bad mental health at work coming from, and it's stress related, right, and in particular, the system that the body goes through when you're in a stressful situation, which is it produces cortisol, and I'm probably going down a bit of a well-trodden path here, and probably you've heard this one before, but it's always worth a bit of a recap and a refresher. But when the body is in a stressful situation it produces cortisol, and too much of it, which was quite useful when we were looking to fight off sabre toothed tigers. But it's not that useful when you're trying to get to inbox zero. You need a moderate amount of that to keep you motivated, but not so much that it floods your system and causes you real physical illness and damage. So you know, it can lead to lots of different types of illnesses, heart disease, anxiety, depression, digestion issues. The list goes on. And meditation has got lots of studies that back it for helping with stress. So there was a study that showed how just 10 minutes of meditation a day, for starters, was able to reduce the rate of response of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain which regulates your cortisol production. And that was only after a couple of weeks. So 10 minutes a day of just simple breath counting. It's not advanced meditation, it's not transcending to a different state or anything like that.It's just simple counting your breath and then starting again when you notice you if you've lost your focus. And then the interesting thing they built on that study and showed that, after eight weeks, people had the same effect in the response time with the amygdala. And that was in a baseline state. So when they weren't actually in a meditation state, so it's useful because you get those traits to help you deal with those stressful situations but you don't have to be meditating at the time. But I think one of the one of the big thingsI sort of find and I'm trying to address is that there's generally a lack of space for wellness, practicing at work, you know, be that whether you want to speak to a coach, or you want to do some physical exercise and movement, or you want to do some breath work, or whatever it is, you know, companies don't tend to put aside the physical space. And we're not at the point yet, where people can just sort of have a call with their therapist at the desk, and be okay with that, or, you know, close their eyes and meditate for 10 minutes. Because people just feel too self-conscious and self-aware for that. So hopefully, one day we will be, but at the moment, we're not. And so I think I would call people to try and make sure they make space for wellness at work as well.”

The second question was “have you found there is a disconnect between what employers are willing to provide for their staff and what the employees actually need when it comes to look after their wellbeing at work?”

“I would just echo what the guys have said and not really add too much to that, to be honest, I think as I said, before, you know, there isn't a one size fits all, it's one of the things to remember, and I suppose maybe one good starting point for people to look at is the different spheres of wellness. And there's 10,000 different versions of this, if you look up online, but, you know, broadly, it's financial, physical, emotional stress levels, relationships, quality of relationships, and so on. So, a program that ticks all those parts and aspects is going to be good for most people. But yeah, I think we've moved on as the guys alluded to, beyond the days of a free fruit bowl and wearing your own clothes on Friday. There’s got to be some more sophistication to wellness programs than that now. But there are so many good companies, teachers out there at the moment who are operating in that space in the corporate wellness space. But, just make sure that the program tries to cover as many of different spheres of people's wellness, because people are suffering from different things at different times. And provide some space for it. Just to echo what I'd said before.”

The third question was “how much resource needs to be allocated to implement a wellbeing program and do you have to have a lot of money to do it?”

“I think a couple of points have been touched on already, you know, consultation of your teams and what issues they're facing at the moment, probably going to be different for different people and work out a strategy from that. Is it stress reduction that needs to needs to be addressed? Or is it people's diet that's going to make the biggest difference. There’s so many different things that you could, potentially look at. But it doesn't have to cost a lot initially, it's a really great opportunity for people now to step up into this position of Chief Chief wellness officer. And that is going to be in every company in not too many years. So it's a great opportunity for people to actually step up and own that role. And if they wanted to get into that space, then start talking about it and doing something about it. But you know, a first step is just getting people in to talk about it. There's lots of people who will come in and do a lunch and learn on the subject. And just creating awareness and creating the conversation in work, is a really good start. And we don't have to have these apps that cost 50,000 pounds a year for your workforce. Amazing if you can afford that kind of stuff. But initially you can do stuff on a relatively low budget. And on a group scale, as well. I’m pretty sure most of the corporate wellness offerings out there at the moment, be that exercise, or coaching, you can do most stuff on a group level, it doesn’t have to be one to one as long as you're getting a variety of different people in do different things. Yeah, it doesn't have to cost a fortune.”

Question four: “for someone who is listening right now and wants their company to be a great place to work, what do you suggest should be the first practical steps a company should take to implement a well being programme into their business? What have you seen work well in the past?

“I think practical steps would be to take some ownership to start with, organise a wellbeing committee or taskforce, and then do a consultation in the workplace. I think that'd be the first step that I would take if I was starting from scratch. In terms of stuff that I've seen work really well, talking about meditation specifically, and specifically my project which is to create space for meditation. That’s mainly where I've seen results.And by making specific dedicated areas for the practice of, you know, it doesn't have to be just meditation, it can be breathwork, hypnotherapy, any sort of stress reducing activity is probably a better umbrella. I’ve seen really good uptake on that, 40%, which is pretty good for a wellness program. We've seen some interesting things like 80% of those people were trying for the first time. So as opposed to people who've got an existing wellness repertoire, in practice, this is getting new people into it and trialing it when they possibly have wouldn't have done that before. So it's working really well from a recruitment point of view. Making wellness a little bit more open to everyone and democratic in that sense. And the anecdotal feedback we get is super positive as well, you know, the study sizes that we're doing at the moment are probably a little bit too small to draw any massive statistical significance from so I'm always a bit wary about getting too much into that at the moment.But there are lots of other studies out there that show how meditation, mindfulness have transformed businesses. The insurance company in America, Aetna.Theirs is quite a good story, because their chairman, had a had a life changing accident. And he went through lots of coaching, new fitness regime, and yoga and meditation as well. And he found that tremendously helpful to get him back and resilient and performing at the top level again. So he decided that he would try and fix some of the stress problems in his business by implementing a yoga meditation program, and it had some tremendous results. They saw 69 minutes a week, extra productivity gains, you know, they lowered their healthcare costs by $3,000 per employee per year. And that's just one program. And there's lots out there like that, that showed really good results. And not just that, I think from an image point of view, they were quite a staid insurance company that wasn't interesting to people from an employer brand perspective. But through this, they sort of transformed it and then started actually getting some better talent coming through and interested in working for the company. SoI think there's the wider benefits that you get from them offering a wellness programme on that too.”

 The final question of the day was, “do you think there Is an element of social responsibility for a company of any size to look after the wellbeing of their employees? Taking into consideration they work for them 5days a week and ⅓ one third of your life is spent at work.”

[these were great questions from Kelly]

“Yep, completely agree with this. I do think it's a moral responsibility. As Sam touched on, I think it's only a matter of time before it does become a legal requirement as well. And then we've got occupational health and safety standards in the workplace at the moment for physical health. Why not mental health? What's the difference between hurting your back and not being able to work and being stressed out and burning out and not being able to work? And there's literally no difference in that. So people are people obviously catching up now and understanding that, but there's still a little way to go. There does need to be some legislation and some universal standards as well, I think around the wellness provision at work as well, because there are a lot of schemes out there at the moment, some stating maybe slightly, spurious stats, I'm not sure seems to be a lot of stats going around, I think some sort of standardisation and legalisation is definitely coming. But I think it's like the point I made in the last question which is around permissibility. And coming from the top, you know, a couple of people have been touched on it already. You really, really need to lead by example, over these kind of matters. Otherwise, it isn't going to become adopted in practice. There's one thing that we do when we launch the wellness pods, we try and make sure that we get a picture of the CEO using it, which makes quite a nice piece of content for them in their internal communications to send around. But also, you know, it gives everyone permission to do it. And a simpler version of that is the CEO leaving on a Friday on a half day and not making an excuse about anything because you don't have to do because that's the summer hours and you're allowed to do that, you know, people just feel really guilty still about actually taking some of these benefits. And hopefully that's gonna change. It is changing, but it will hopefully take another significant step change once the law catches up everything.”

Leigh Chapman

Founder at Yinshi
Read more
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