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

The power of wellbeing buddy networks is increasingly recognised as an effective way to positively influence company culture, particularly in this new hybrid world where it’s important employees feel connected. But the need to support champions better is now coming to the fore more than ever…

We’ve heard repeated cries for help recently from employees involved in wellbeing networks, feeling the frustration of running these networks alongside their day job, often with little support.

In this article, we’ve gathered insights from the frontline into the challenges that wellbeing champion networks face and how they can be overcome.

Wellbeing champions crave more support

In a recent webinar we hosted, for example, one attendee cited a challenge being that “we lack structure and real purpose; everyone has good intentions and wants to help colleagues, but it feels like the group is always headed by me, as it was me who created it”. Another participant asked for guidance on “breathing new life into wellbeing champions so it doesn’t look like we are just ticking boxes” calling the process, at times, “soul destroying”.

This is a situation that Suzie King, wellbeing advisor at a London-based non-profit organisation, who set up the buddy network at a previous employer with a colleague, relates to deeply, describing the experience as “one of the most frustrating yet rewarding experiences of my life”. She grew the network from zero to 450 employees over 2.5 years, before being made redundant. 

Unsupported champions may step back from running the network 

At one point, after four years, King had to take three months off from running the network due to the exhaustion and pressure on her time.

“I got to the point where I thought ‘it’s too much’ and I lost my mojo. I thought ‘why am I doing this? I just couldn’t see’,” she said. “It’s because we came up against a lot of blockers and it gets frustrating and disheartening. We were either told ‘it’s not important enough to give you money or time to do this’, or ‘it’s really important, go do it yourselves’.”

A core problem was that there was no ring-fenced time allocated to running the network, despite the fact that the business wanted it to “make a splash” around key diary dates like inclusion week, or Mental Health Awareness Week or World Mental Health Day. The best the business offered King and her colleague was the ability to cite their work in their performance review, which didn’t support the pair to actually deliver the work.

Employers serious about wellbeing networks must listen to champions

More than prioritising time, however, King argues that the most supportive thing an employer can do is “listen” and gather stories from the workforce, especially among senior leaders: “It’s about actively listening to the people who have those lived experiences, giving them a safe space to tell you where it’s going wrong, so that they are not frightened that it’s going to have a knock-on effect on their careers.”

As King says, it’s important that the workforce hears from senior leadership talking honestly about their wellbeing struggles as this gives them permission to talk about theirs. PwC’s wellbeing lead Sally Evans agrees, which is why the firm has put such focus on its Mental Health Advocates Network, established in 2016. This is a group of senior leaders who either have personal lived experience of mental health challenges, or are close to people who have. 

“Their role is to listen in confidence and without judgement, and signpost to the right support.  Anyone in the firm can contact them; on video/phone call, via email or in person,” says Evans, with the network heavily advertised via its intranet, posters and other channels.

Senior leaders who are wellbeing champions influence culture

According to Evans, the advocates network has been a “key cultural statement in our organisation over many years, as the network has grown and extended”. Why? “It lets people know that speaking up and getting help is necessary, that experiencing mental health challenges does not preclude people from a successful career, and that we want to normalise conversations such as this in our organisation.”

Alongside encouraging employees to speak out openly, Evans has put training in place to support advocates via partners like the Samaritans. Advocates also liaise with an external expert before taking on the role, to ensure they are  “in the right place” and “it’s the right time” for them with regards to their own journey. 

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In a similar vein, charity Guide Dogs has brought external mental wellbeing specialist Glen Ridgway on board to ensure that the right buddies are recruited in the right way. “Our buddies are volunteers who have stepped up to promote mental health and wellbeing and help our people who may be struggling,” he says. “We have a duty to set them up for success, train, develop and support them, starting from recruitment through to training and support.”

Recruiting the right champions and setting them up for success, not burnout 

The charity used a ‘trait theory’ model that Ridway developed with a previous employer, identifying the characteristics that mean buddies are more likely to succeed in, and enjoy, the role.

These are: an outgoing attitude; enthusiasm; persistence; helpfulness; warmth/empathy; optimism; diplomacy; an interest in self-improvement; and being motivated by a cause. Traits identified as not helpful to the role include: being blunt, dogmatic, self-critical and self-sacrificing (the tendency to be overly-helpful at the expense of their own wellbeing). 

One way the charity identifies these traits is via a personal statement, which is part of the buddy application process. 

Involve line managers in wellbeing networks

Another fundamental factor in the network’s success is line manager support and involvement, which Ridgway argues is at the heart of creating long term, sustainable culture change:

“We need to allow buddies time out of their working day for initial training, further development and to carry out the role.  By making line managers part of the recruitment process they have a better understanding of what the volunteers are expected to do and commit to giving them the time to do it, estimated at about one day per month.”

Ridgway says the next evolution of the wellbeing network, already underway, is the move from buddies being seen as reactive, intervening when an employee is struggling, to being more proactive, helping to change the culture of the organisation and making an impact earlier so an individual is more likely to avoid reaching a crisis point. 

Wellbeing networks are increasingly a business asset to consult

Another evolution that PwC’s Evans is seeing is the shift towards wellbeing networks being increasingly seen as assets that the business can call on as a resource. Because the network has a clear structure – where lead champions are connected at divisional and business unit level, as well as connected to the central wellbeing team – this means that champions are aligned with the company’s overall vision and can contribute ideas, avoiding duplication, in a two-way comms channel.

In fact, like at Guide Dogs, the ingredients for success at PwC’s wellbeing network come down to structure, clarity and support at both an individual and network level, both informally and formally.

“Key for us has been finding ways to channel our people’s enthusiasm and creativity – so that innovation can happen, but the impact of our strategy and approaches does not become diluted by lots of disconnected activity going on across the business,” says Evans.

Some of the business’s best wellbeing ideas have come from the workforce, often from junior wellbeing champions, such as the ‘Green Light To Talk’ ribbon-wearing movement, which went viral.

“Where an idea that could have generic benefit across our firm is identified, we will work with those who put it forward to develop a proposition for firm-wide application,” says Evans.  “Always making sure the originators of the idea are credited and their contribution is visible.”

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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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