Most wellbeing strategies are collections of well-intentioned activities cobbled together to get good PR or tick a box, explains Amy McKeown
Many organisations are now either doing something or want to do something around health, mental health or wellbeing: how to support and engage employees. Having a good organisational programme is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It must be a core part of any People proposition. Employees are demanding it; rates of ill health are high after the pandemic, and employee wellbeing is becoming a board agenda item. The wellbeing and health provider markets are booming, and employees are increasingly expecting apps, support and training in these areas from their employer.
Strategy vs Tactics
The big challenge for many organisations is who should write their health, mental health and wellbeing strategy and what it should contain. The ‘who’ varies dependent on the organisation, but it is not unusual for an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff to be handed the task and the responsibility for employee health and wellbeing. This can be overwhelming, as it can be hard to know where to start.
At the risk of sounding negative, many of the strategies being put in place won’t actually work. Whilst this might sound controversial, there is a really simple reason for this negativity, which is that most wellbeing strategies are not actually strategies. They are collections of well-intentioned activity cobbled together in a PowerPoint (usually) to demonstrate how seriously an organisation is taking health and mental health. They are tactics, not strategy – often thrown together to get good PR or to tick a box.
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘strategy’ as:
‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.’
Yet the overall aim of most health or mental health strategies seems to be something vague such as ‘to reduce the stigma of mental health’ or ‘to get people talking about mental health more.’
If you don’t have a clear, measurable long-term aim, then how do you know that the money and time you are investing into mental health is working or that your wellbeing strategy is successful?
What organisations then tend to do is to provide a plethora of things or activities around health and wellbeing – the list is endless! Mindfulness, fresh fruit, resilience training, Mental Health First Aid, webinars, stand-up desks, Employee Assistance Programmes, screening… These are the sorts of things needed to start to tackle health and mental health in the workplace; however, these activities alone are not a strategy. They are the pieces of the jigsaw. The strategy is the structure around them. It is this part that is usually missed and very much needed.
What Does Success Look Like?
To build a structure or a plan, you need to know what you are aiming at. What does success look like? Once you know this, and only once you know this, you can look at what you already have and what else you will need to get there. So if the long-term aim with a mental health strategy is to reduce absence, then you start with looking at what your current absence rate is, what is causing it and how this can be reduced. Then, you decide what jigsaw pieces you need to put in place to carry this out, how they will link together and how you will measure the impact of what you are doing.
All organisations have a place to build a strategy from: All have some form of data, metrics, different types of health and wellbeing provisions, and all have HR policies, processes and procedures. Thought should be put into what currently exists and how this will build into a coherent, structured, measurable strategy. This then needs to link to HR policies, processes or systems, the performance management system, Learning & Development or Reward, and any other health providers.
How to Write a Mental Health Strategy
Set your goals
Start by being honest about what you are trying to achieve in your health, mental health and wellbeing strategy. Is it SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound)? If not, then it needs to be. Starting with a fluffy or woolly intention leads to a fluffy or woolly strategy… or a list of activities.
Audit your current offerings
Next, audit what you actually have within the organisation. Look at what, if any, health and wellbeing activities you are doing already, what health providers you have, how they work, who is using them and for what. Gather together as much data as you can: absence figures, retention, engagement scores, exit interviews… Assemble any of your HR policies that you think are relevant (e.g., absence management, disability, maternity, induction, performance management…).
Choose an evidence-based structure
Once you have a handle on where you are as an organisation and what you need, you can then piece together your strategy. There are several evidence-based structures you can use – the 5 Pillars of Wellbeing, the Business in the Community Wellbeing model and so on. The point is to have some structure to begin from. You use this structure to create a plan which will enable you to achieve your SMART aim.
Map your activities to your strategy
Start to map what you have already in place onto the structure you have chosen.
- Where do the health, mental health and wellbeing activities fit?
- Where are the gaps?
- Do you have the right health providers?
- Are you using them correctly?
- Are you doing the right activities?
- Are you measuring the right things?
You can make a great start by doing the things you are already doing in a better or more structured way.
Listen and understand
Listen to and understand what your people want and need from your approach to health and wellbeing. Too many strategies (policies and processes) are written by people who don’t have the same day to day challenges and needs as the people ‘on the shop floor’ or doing the actual work of the business. If you don’t know what people need, then how are you going to support them?
Check your budget
Look at current spend on health, mental health and wellbeing. Be realistic about what you can achieve with the budget and resources you have:
- Is there any duplication in spend?
- How can you use your existing providers more effectively?
- How much more do you need to spend over time to fulfil your strategy aims?
Write a plan
Write a plan of what you are going to do now, in the months to come and over the next few years.
Measure your strategy
Create a dashboard or way of measuring your strategy. This will include some of the data you have already pulled together and some KPIs. Part of your strategy could be to measure new things or use data differently.
Seek sponsorship and support
Ensure you have the right sponsorship and support for your strategy. A comprehensive stakeholder map is needed alongside your dashboard and plan.
An End-to-End Approach
A potential model for strategies is an end-to-end approach to health and mental health. You can map all activities and measurement around these, putting different interventions into ‘buckets’ which can be clearly communicated to employees, line managers and HR.
- Education / literacy / prevention – how do you get people engaged and keep them healthy?
- Early stage – what support, policies and training need to be in place to help people who are in the early stage of an illness or problem?
- Illness – how do you look after people who are ill, ensuring they have the clinical and organisational support they need to manage their illness?
Seek Outside Help and Expertise
It is also important to bring in the right help and expertise to support you. Writing a strategy can be overwhelming at the best of times, but now there are so many health and wellbeing providers out there, each promising the earth, that it can be hard to know where to begin.
It does not need to be complicated; the best strategies are simple, structured, and thought through, with a focus on what is going to have an impact on the health, mental health or wellbeing of employees. The aim is to provide support where needed and to encourage positive small steps of healthy behaviour change. Start small and build up from there.
I post a weekly blog on LinkedIn on different areas of health, mental health and wellbeing and how to write and implement strategies. Past blogs and vlogs, split into wellbeing topics, are available on my website. Do feel free to reach out.
Amy is running a masterclass on How to write a Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy for Business on Wednesday 1st December. For more information and to book, please visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/how-to-write-a-mental-health-and-wellbeing-strategy-for-business-use-tickets-211098329787