The atmosphere was buzzing at The Watercooler Event, with many of the sessions full to bursting and animated conversations happening amongst the exhibitor aisles within the National Hall of Olympia’s conference and exhibition centre.
Here are some highlights:
1. Terry Waite CBE sharing his extreme story of isolation, uncertainty and stress, after being taken hostage in Beirut, and what we can learn from it to apply to the workplace and the challenges we are facing today.
As Waite said, during his onstage conversation with Dr Wolfgang Seidl, Partner & Workplace Health Consulting Leader UK and Europe with Mercer Marsh Benefits, there may not initially seem like there is much common ground between his story and what’s currently going on in the corporate world, but it’s at the extremes where we can learn the most.
Yes, thankfully, the vast majority of us will never experience the physical brutality, demeaning conditions, five years in solitary confinement and torturous uncertainty about whether we will live or die as Waite – but we have all experienced the trauma of a pandemic (which we are still processing) and are still dealing with constant change and uncertainty.
His key message about how and why he survived when others didn’t?
While he didn’t feel physically or psychologically safe in his actual environment, he created a level of psychological safety, or “inner harmony” as he calls it, in his head.
He did this through managing his anger so it didn’t eat him up inside, writing books and poetry in his head to give him a purpose and developing an inner capacity and identity through really “getting on” with himself – getting to know himself deeply, both strengths and weaknesses.
As he said: “I’m using extreme examples here but you can take understandings from them.” He added: “The problem with modern life is many people are out of harmony with themselves, their neighbours and the environment, and we’re paying a terrible price for it.”
2. Paralympic powerlifter Ali Jawad’s inspirational story of competing at the Paralympics against the odds and battling Crohn’s disease.
A key recurring theme in his story is the power of expectations; his parents gave him a strong foundation to achieve by not setting limits on him, whereas society, and companies, focus on what disabled people can’t do, rather than what they can, he argued.
As one woman in the audience said, workplaces often hold damaging expectations of disabled people and need to make more effort to see their strengths, as is now happening with employees who are neurodiverse; increasingly there is recognition that neurodiversity brings huge benefits, and a new way of thinking, to companies.
3. Hearing from DFS about how changing the narrative around employee wellbeing has been so game-changing
Employee wellbeing came to the fore at DFS during the pandemic due to the huge disruption and increase in workload arising from a surge in orders in lockdown.
“People weren’t comfy at home. They needed a new sofa,” said Matt Burton, head of leadership and talent at DFS. “The home retail market exploded beyond anything we could have comprehended and caused massive disruption. Our teams have been knackered for the last 18 months.”
Hence bringing a digital solution on board to work with the company to improve its “mental fitness”. This way of talking about mental health – putting it in the context of fitness and drawing parallels with physical health – has been a “game changer”.
He added: “Our leaders had shied away from mental health conversations. Just introducing the term ‘mental fitness’, that little change in narrative, has the capacity to make a world of difference. That little narrative shift has upped the confidence of leaders to talk about it and has unlocked more benefits for us.”
4. Gleaning the learnings from Sarah Churchman OBE, chief inclusion, community and wellbeing officer, PwC, about how to boost employee wellbeing
Churchman shared why the pandemic has been such a seismic learning opportunity for the consulting firm and what she’s learnt about better supporting employee wellbeing. She also shared honestly why having a workforce full of type A overachievers “creates a whole load of challenges in its own right” when it comes to mental health.
“They are very talented but are sometimes their own worst enemies when it comes to their own wellbeing. They push themselves hard. They are incredibly ambitious. They never say no to opportunities. So our shift has been to be proactive and preventative,” she said.
These challenges were sharpened into focus during the pandemic and lockdowns with the firm concentrating its efforts on effecting behavioural change so employees looked after their health better. As she noted, attitudes to work are often habitual so it takes time to adopt new, healthy ways of operating.
A few areas she covered that have made a difference include the cultivation of compassionate leadership and “empowered employees”, the development of networks of employees who champion mental health and wellbeing and the power of storytelling. When senior leaders are prepared to be brave and share their first-hand experience of mental ill-health, this is particularly powerful, she said.
5. When wellbeing leads challenged us to challenge our wellbeing providers more
Traditionally there’s been a sigh of relief (from some) when there’s a low take up of wellbeing provision within an organisation – that must mean that all the staff are fighting fit, right?
Wrong, said one panel discussing this topic. It’s actually a strong sign that you’ve potentially got the wrong policy/product solution in place with the wrong provider.
Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald, senior business partner – mental health, group business services, Rolls Royce, talked about how she is proudly a “challenging” client when it comes to considering wellbeing providers, solutions and policies. Referencing the brand’s recent struggles and the subsequent tightening of purse strings, she said this has only made her more challenging and intent on pairing only with those providers which can create “meaningful change” for her money.
Marcus Hunt, head of global health services – EMEA, Johnson & Johnson, urged the audience to ask their potential providers lots of questions, from whether they have the capacity to innovate with you, and how, to whether their ethos and strategy fits with yours. “Never rely on a provider to solve your issues or your challenges,” warned Hunt.
Meanwhile the third panellist Peter Kelly, senior psychologist, Health and Safety Executive (HSE), argued that companies need to think systemically and not individually.
The message was loud and clear: ask lots of questions of your provider, especially tricky ones, and be wary if your provider doesn’t challenge you, too. As facilitator and mental health and wellbeing consultant Amy McKeown said: “What’s the point in paying for a provider no one uses?”
6. Health and wellbeing is put on the government agenda like never before
The day before the Watercooler started (17th May), the Health and Safety Executive released its latest strategy report, ‘Protecting People and Places’, setting out its plan for 2022 – 2032.
This report marks a “step change to managing wellbeing on a systemic level” said Kelly, adding: “This is a huge deal. In 23 years of being in the field, this is the first time we’ve ever outright put it in our strategy like this, at an organisational, strategic level, which commits HSE to working with industry to reduce workplace stress.”
This means that tackling employee wellbeing, to reduce mental ill health and stress, on a systemic level is now a priority for the regulator and the government in a way it hasn’t been before.
The Watercooler conference and exhibition took place at Olympia in London on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th May. It was FREE TO ATTEND and relevant for all employers who want to understand how they can best support employees in the new world of work, with a joined-up approach to workplace wellbeing.
The event was packed with content from 100+ speakers including keynotes, case studies, panel sessions, workshop, roundtables, fast pitch sessions and 75+ exhibitors.