Setting up a wellbeing buddy network: 10 practical tips

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Wellbeing champion networks can be huge assets for employers but they can also be huge headaches.

We recently researched this article exploring the challenges that employees face at the front line of these networks and the main learnings came loud and clear: champions need structure, clarity and support in order for a network to thrive.

For more detail on the nitty gritty practical parts of setting up a successful wellbeing network we’ve put together these 10 top tips, drawing on the insights from three experts who’ve done it – Sally Evans, wellbeing lead at PwC, Glen Ridgway, who has helped Guide Dogs set up its buddy network and Sally King, wellbeing advisor, Wellcome Trust.

1. Be clear about the objective of the wellbeing network from the outset

It’s essential you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and have a way to communicate this clearly to the organisation.

PwC’s Wellbeing Champions Network, for example, which numbers over 600 people, is supported by a clear “role description”, a “Wellbeing Champions Toolkit” and a firm-wide wellbeing comms plan which make the wellbeing offer and vision crystal clear.

2. Ring-fence time for buddies/champions to work on the network

One of the big complaints from employees who set up networks is the exhaustion and stress caused when they are not given time within their day job to fulfil the role.

This leads to not only burnout but disillusionment and, potentially, resentment towards the company – which flies in the face of the entire point of wellbeing networks which is to positively influence company culture.

You can avoid champions feeling like they are being taken advantage of by agreeing regular time that they can spend during their contracted hours to do the volunteer role. For example, Guide Dogs estimates that the buddy role requires one day per month and other companies have allocated 4 hours on a weekly basis.

3. Involve line managers in the conversation

Obviously if individuals who are running networks need to take time out of their day job, it’s crucial that this is negotiated and talked through with line managers so that they are supportive. Other members of the team also need to understand the situation too.

4. Make sure you are emotionally supporting champions

Champions often put themselves forward to get involved in a wellbeing network because they have personal experience of mental ill-health, or a specific condition which adversely affects their wellbeing.

This means that they can feel potentially vulnerable at times, especially when telling their story publicly to the rest of the organisation, which is one of the most powerful things champions – especially in leadership positions – can do.

To support its advocates (who are part of the Mental Health Advocates Network) PwC holds quarterly supervision meetings facilitated by an external specialist, as well as twice-yearly skills based sessions. They also have access to expert support as needed on a 1:1 basis.

Guide Dogs, too, builds confidence by ensuring that before starting their roles buddies attend training sessions to help them get comfortable talking about mental health and get support on how to have conversations with colleagues about it. They are also offered 1:1 role play / coaching sessions to practice their skills, as well as ongoing drop-in sessions.

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Additionally, they attend a training session specifically on the importance of setting and sticking to boundaries, which the charity recognises as key to maintaining their own mental health and wellbeing as well as ensuring the network is sustainable.

5. Listen and take on learnings – don’t get defensive about criticism

Often, through wellbeing networks, employees will express their frustrations with some company policies or cultural norms that negatively impact their wellbeing.

Stay open and receptive to any criticism as these potentially contain powerful learnings for improving going forward.

6. Create a safe psychological space to speak up

One of the big worries cited by champions is the fear that speaking up honestly, especially if being critical of current practices, could work against their career.

One talked about how her mantra as founder of a network was ‘expect your P45’ and she felt like she was constantly “putting her head above the parapet”. Reassure employees that this is not the case (and ensure that it isn’t!).

7. …. And don’t just listen: do!

Wellbeing champions we spoke to said there was nothing more disheartening than sharing their true viewpoint, feeling like they’d really been listened to by an employer but then seeing no action as a result.

If you are seen to be merely paying lip service to ‘active’ listening – which has become a buzzword in the sector – then people will become disillusioned and disengaged. This means, too, that good communication, so employees hear about changes you’re making on the back of feedback, is also essential for success.

8. Get senior leadership involved in wellbeing networks

The initial inspiration and passion for wellbeing networks often comes from the grassroots of an organisation, from individuals personally interested in improving culture due to their own lived experience. However, a network can really benefit from the momentum and confidence created in it from the backing of senior leaders – see this feature to learn more about how PwC has done this effectively.

9. Make sure employees know about the wellbeing network

You can raise awareness in many ways. Here are a few: make signposting part of the onboarding process; posters; intranet; newsletter. Champions repeatedly stressed the importance of the employer backing the network publicly as a way to make it more successful and reach more employees who would benefit.

10. Recognise that – even if you take on the ‘perfect’ champion – their mental health will ebb and flow

Even if you recruit someone who nails all the appropriate attributes (see our previous feature for more on what Guide Dogs have discovered about these) there may be times when champions want to step back from the role and take time out. Build this into the network’s structure so this can be done easily with no stigma or the feeling that they are letting others down if they do this.

You might also be interested in:

Champion your wellbeing champions or they will lose their mojo & culture will suffer

#Covid19 Virtual Roundtable: Insights for Wellbeing Leaders and Champions

About the author:

Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.

She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.

When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.

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