14th January 2020 Written by Kevin McAlister

Image: As sector leaders, what wellbeing lessons can we learn from the NHS?Kevin McAlister, Lift Your Wellbeing Founder, provides some insight into how to embed a culture of wellbeing at your workplace.

Late last year I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experiences on ‘What’s Working In Employee Wellbeing In Industries outside of the NHS’ through presenting to a room full of NHS leaders from around the UK. We all battled heavy rains in London causing plenty of train delays and people to arrive soaking wet but after some cups of coffee, we were able to settle in for what turned out to be an incredibly thought provoking and inspiring day led by Professor Sir John Burn. 

Having now taken the time to read through my numerous pages of notes from the other presenters, as well as reflecting on the great conversations I had with many of the delegates involved, I would like to share my key take home messages from the day, to help leaders in all industries implement positive change to the culture of wellbeing at their workplace.

“If we really mean it, what are we willing to sacrifice and to stop doing?”
When I think back to the conference, what stands out most was the question put forward by Dr Benedict Eccles, Head of Consultancy at Skills for Health. He asked, ‘If we really mean it, what are we willing to sacrifice and to stop doing? 

Workplace wellbeing has such a big focus on what we should start doing; from running education and training on health improvement, to offering exercise classes and flexible working. Whilst these are all very important elements, Benedict brought to our attention that we need to consider elements of our decision making and habits that are impacting individual team members health and happiness.

  • Are you willing to stop sending your team members emails late at night?
  • Are you willing to stop working through your lunch break and eating at your desk?
  • Are you willing to stop measuring success purely through the eyes of financial KPI’s?

As I type this, I think it’s all a bit negative, but it’s important, as leaders, we ask ourselves these questions.

The importance of a cup of tea

The good old cup of tea has played a big part in the lives and culture of many people in the UK but now I think of it, it has a big role to play in employee wellbeing.  Sue Dawson spoke about the Midwife wellbeing programme that she is involved with and how tea meetings were a fundamental element of bringing people together to have open and safe conversations.

Having a cup of tea with someone, breaks down some barriers and allows more open communication for people to build relationships at work and give us a platform to speak up if we need help or to offer words of support. A cup of tea (or coffee if you’re like me) with one of your colleagues may just be one of the best preventative measure for one’s mental wellbeing out there. So, why not give it a go and book in some time with your team members to share a cup of tea and genuinely ask them ‘how are you’?

We still need to talk more about nutrition

I was delighted to hear hydration being spoken about in great detail.  Each week when I’m out on client sites working directly with employees across all levels, I see common themes that sleep deprivation and dehydration are two of the biggest factors that are impacting people’s health. We can sometimes get caught up in running fancy programmes and forget the basics of human health and wellbeing. 

Jane Keep had us all laughing when she mentioned that she’s seriously concerned if she notices that her staff haven’t been for a wee all day.  So, encouraging adequate hydration of your team is a great place to start.

What I found surprising was that there was very little mention of people’s nutrition discussed all day.  The Smiles Trial and the Food and Mood Centre are leading research looking at the impact between our food decisions and our mental health.  You probably know firsthand, when you eat well, you feel more energetic, positive and focused, as opposed to days where your diet is less than optimal.

So, if we know that what we eat has a big impact on how we feel and inevitably how we perform at work, should we, as leaders, be doing more to support our staff to make healthier food decisions?

This starts with education; food and diets have become so complicated that we need to remind people of the basics of healthy eating. Could the NHS utilise their wealth of knowledge in Dietitians to help educate other staff members?

Access to healthy food options is also an important consideration.  Is there healthy food available on site, that’s affordable and within a reasonable walking distance?  It was mentioned at the conference that a hospital in the UK with one of the highest staff engagement scores had put down much their success to the recent opening of an M&S onsite, allowing people greater healthy eating options.

With the 2018 NHS staff survey telling a story of 75% of the workforce reporting that they are enthusiastic about their work but that high numbers of people feel that their work is making them sick, through stress and other wellbeing factors. Maybe it’s time we strongly consider helping our teams eat healthier diets.

Line manager training is key

Line manager training is continually being discussed as the key piece to effectively implementing sustained positive change in the wellbeing culture at work and the day-to-day employee experience. Professor Simon Gregory elaborated on this by discussing the role language plays in wellbeing leadership, how we transfer wellbeing information and what examples we are setting in regard to lunch breaks and presenteeism.  

We see that people who have line managers who don’t consider their health and what they value as individuals, are more likely to have a negative experience at work, whilst struggling to perform at their best and manage work related stress.

This is in contrast to line managers who are strong and empathetic communicators, who take the time to understand and care for the individual, who effectively resolve conflict, manage relationships and who create a flexible working environment that allows people to thrive, not just survive. 

Ask staff what they value

I shared some of Deloitte’s research on employee wellbeing, this demonstrated the big gaps between what employees’ value and what employers currently offer.  As leaders, you may have some focus areas on why you’d like to improve the wellbeing of your team. From my experience, this may include attracting and retaining the best staff, to enhance collaboration and communication amongst team members, to reduce stress related absenteeism, to improve employee performance or maybe just because enlightened leaders know, It’s the right thing to do.

These focus areas are important, but we must not forget to ask people how they are feeling and what could be improved to help them.  We develop findings reports for our clients through anonymous staff surveys and the insights are always extremely valuable, as much of the time, staff are asking for small reasonable changes that will take minimal resources to implement.

Lynn Demeda, Director of Workforce Programmes at Guys and St Thomas Trust, highlighted the importance of getting feedback from staff as well as the importance of having a welcoming onboarding and recruitment process for the large number of new staff members.  Making individuals feel valued and a part of a team helps their Trusts to be regarded as having the highest staff engagement scores In the UK and this is no surprise when you hear Lynn speak.

Treat People Well

I believe the overarching theme of employee wellbeing and the message I have built Lift Your Wellbeing around is, ‘To Treat People Well’. This was something my parents instilled into me and I was delighted when Dr Benedict Eccles referenced this message in my presentation during his talk. I strongly think that through more events like this we will continue to see greater awareness and action around employee wellbeing.

Kevin always welcomes feedback. Please get in touch with him directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or follow him for more information on his Lift Your Wellbeing Programme for your workplace on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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