Dame Carol Black Interview: Working Towards a Healthier Tomorrow

Professor Dame Carol Black photographed for the RSA, commissioned by Wardour

We sat down with Dame Carol Black ahead of the return of Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace to discuss everything from building back better after the pandemic to measuring data and delivering ROI.

Still pursuing a busy portfolio career, Professor Dame Carol Black provides first-hand proof that work can indeed be good for health – a central theme of her 2008 landmark report Working for a healthier tomorrow. Fortunately for Vitality, these current activities include chairing it’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey.

Here, the distinguished medical practitioner, who advised the government on the relationship between health and work between 2006 and 2016, sheds light on what national progress she feels has resulted from her recommendations and on what she has gained from her involvement with the UK’s largest workplace wellbeing survey.

How do you feel the pandemic has impacted on the key challenge of fostering wellbeing in the workplace?

Dame Carol Black: “Trends like homeworking and working across boundaries were being written about a good decade before the pandemic. For example, Richard Donkin was already highlighting the importance of emotional intelligence and understanding the individual. But I think Covid has brought to the fore things that were there before but needed accentuating.

Know your data and measure it. If you don’t know your population and its problems, then you can’t be intelligent about trying to solve them.”

“Mental health is now top of the agenda, and personalised health and wellbeing is very visible. Lockdown saw more people beginning to question who they wanted to work for, so there is now great emphasis on quality leadership and on its ability to adapt, and companies are having to ensure they get middle managers trained to support people in the new hybrid working patterns.”

How do you feel employers have risen to the challenge of improving health, work and wellbeing since your 2008 Working for a healthier tomorrow paper?

Dame Carol Black: “On the whole quite well, but not with the speed and depth I would have liked in some places. Some people think a singular intervention like mindfulness will tick the box, but they need a multi-dimensional approach. It has taken longer than I would have wished to get employers to understand organisational culture and to get middle managers to be people managers.

“There’s still quite a long way to go but it’s got better and has been helped by lockdown, which has made managers have to cope in different ways.”

If you had to single out one key message from all the work you’ve done on health and work, what would it be?

Dame Carol Black: “Know your data and measure it. If you don’t know your population and its problems, then you can’t be intelligent about trying to solve them.

“For example, we have seen through Britain’s Healthiest Workplace that young people in some years have had poorer mental health than older people. So, as young people like their apps and phones, you may be better targeting them via a digital service rather than via an employee assistance programme (EAP).”

How do you envisage progress continuing going forward? 

Dame Carol Black: “We are now in a period of uncertainty, and it’s very hard to predict where we are going to land. The 50-to-64-year-olds who have left the workforce don’t seem to be looking for new jobs, and this is a problem that needs addressing. This age group adds experience, mentorship and training of the young, together with a lot of skills.

“I don’t buy the argument that as you get older you can’t adapt and get more digitally competent. But you must receive the right training to do so, and companies can be reluctant to provide this as they don’t see the return on investment from older people.”

What are the other major barriers that employers need to overcome?

Dame Carol Black: “I still wonder how many employers truly believe there is a clear business case for health and wellbeing, and there is still a shortage of the sort of figures needed to impress finance directors. It’s all about getting the resources to deliver health and wellbeing for smaller companies, and I don’t think we’ve cracked that at all.”

What have you enjoyed most about being involved with Britain’s Healthiest Workplace?

Dame Carol Black: “Having been chair of the advisory group right from the beginning, I’ve enjoyed seeing the survey growing and providing the power of having something that looks at the health of an organisation and of its employees, and feeds back to both, giving direction for making improvements and the ability to see change on a year-on-year basis.

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“I’ve also really enjoyed interacting with Vitality itself and with RAND Europe, working with people on the advisory board and attending those gatherings to celebrate the successes of the winners, which will hopefully now be returning post-Covid.”

What qualities do you feel you have brought as Britain’s Healthiest Workplace chair?

Dame Carol Black: “I know something about the area and have a real passion and interest in improving wellbeing in the workplace. I also have staying power, so it’s not just been a nice intervention but a long-lasting process.

“I’ve got the contacts and am very well networked, and I am quite good at bringing people together and making them work together. This has been the case throughout my life. I always listen very carefully and get the best out of people, even if they don’t agree with each other.”

What do you feel have been Britain’s Healthiest Workplace’s main benefits to employers so far?

Dame Carol Black: “It gives them a fantastic baseline for the health of their organisation and, anonymously, of the health of their employees, so they can decide what to target and what interventions to implement and measure. The depth of the survey gives you a map of where you are as an organisation with wellness, so you can have a plan of action.

“But I think it’s really important that employers see this as something they have to embed within their organisation, and not just as an add-on. It must be seen as being at least as important as health and safety, and it must be woven into the fabric and be sustainable. This is a real challenge for smaller businesses as they must find a way of it not being too onerous.”

Since 2012, 520 organisations and 185,000 employees have taken part in Britain’s Healthiest Workplace. Any organisation in the UK with 20 or more employees can take part and winners will be announced in November across three organisational size categories. Find out more and sign up for the survey here.

You might also be interested in the recording of our Mental Health Awareness Week keynote webinar, which featured insights from Dame Carol Black:

Keynote Mental Health Awareness Week Webinar: Turning Talk into Action – How to Achieve Real Impact

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