BBC: the power (and competitive advantage) of having a doctor inhouse

Clare Fernandes (1)

Dr Clare Fernandes is Chief Medical Officer at the BBC and she’s on a mission to go beyond the wellbeing industry spin and create a culture that genuinely cares, believing her background as a clinician gives her a distinct competitive advantage.

As she says in this interview, role-modelling and prioritising face to face interactions in order to foster relationships are crucial to her. They’re also crucial to getting across the idea that wellbeing is a “two way street” where both the employee and the organisation take responsibility; this is the topic that she’s speaking about at our sister event The Watercooler on 25 & 26 April at Excel London.

We started off by asking her about the shift we’ve seen in recent years from the responsibility for wellbeing lying solely with the individual to the organisation…

We are talking more about our health and challenges at work. But some people believe we’ve gone too far the other way now. What do you think?

Overall, I think over-talking about wellbeing challenges in the workplace is much better than not having these conversations because work is such a huge part of people’s lives.

Having said that, we have to also acknowledge that there are some things that are not in an organisation’s power to control – including the individual responsibility we all have to look after our own health.

Also, we have to acknowledge that over-talking puts a lot of pressure on line managers and an organisation to respond to wellbeing challenges that may not be work-related or within an organisation’s control, such as problems in an employee’s home life.

What is the biggest issue you encounter when trying to encourage employees to take ownership themselves?

There’s a lot of buzz, razzamatazz and spin around wellbeing currently, which can lead to information overload and employees not always getting quality information coming through from outside sources.

For instance, outside commentators might be saying employers ‘need’ to do ‘this’ or ‘that’ but this can detract from employee responsibility, and the fact that wellbeing is a two-way street.

For me, this means it’s important to lean away from the buzzwords: instead, talk about what it actually means and ensuring it resonates with people.

It’s also important to me that, if I talk about something, I have tried it myself (where possible). For example, we have a wellbeing app which I subscribe and listen to myself to lead by example, empowering others to do the same and take the lead when it comes to their health.

As the only doctor in your organisation, what do you think you bring to the wellbeing agenda?

A doctor brings clinical acumen and an eye for an evidence base, and the tendency to ask: how do these problems manifest in an individual and progress to ill health? How do we know that a wellbeing initiative works? This way of thinking may be different to how other organisations approach wellbeing.

Some commentators we’ve interviewed believe that occupational health is best placed to lead the wellbeing agenda. What do you think?

I think that driving the wellbeing agenda is best approached by different stakeholders, including OH, working collectively.

In a lot of companies, occupational health fulfils a very traditional role, like assessing fitness for work; many companies outsource this function to a third-party OH company. (For an article on the pros and cons of outsourcing, see here).

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Personally, I don’t believe outsourcing this provision is the best way to drive wellbeing forward because third parties won’t know the culture and nuances. There’s something really powerful about being within an organisation.

However, even with an inhouse clinician, like myself, wellbeing  is not my responsibility or area of specialisation alone. This means my team cannot undertake such a holistic role successfully without other key stakeholders within the organisation, like HR. It’s impossible to drive the wellbeing agenda singlehandedly – I need a workplace of colleagues that support the policy and practice, and have a greater understanding of the other important aspects of wellbeing, such as financial wellbeing.

I hear a lot about the challenge of overcoming silos. Any thoughts on that?

Yes, this can be a challenge that effects many organisations, especially large ones.

One particular challenge for us is that we are located all over the world. For instance, my HR colleagues are in Birmingham and I’m in London.

Another is that the wellbeing agenda falls into so many different department’s roles and responsibilities, including HR, Health and Safety and those responsible for the physical environment in which we work in.   

But I’m a big believer in being able to sit down collectively and talking things through, By prioritising and fostering these relationships with colleagues in different departments and geographical locations, we have this shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve together and how we can all use our skills to do this in the best way. It’s not about one person, or even one team.

You’re working from home today. Do you do that a lot now?

I do it when it suits. For example, if I’m dropping my daughter off to nursery or if I’m picking her up, and I don’t have a lot that I need to be in the office for. This flexibility does help facilitate good work-life balance, a key component of workplace wellbeing.

But, actually, I acknowledge that it’s not very good for my wellbeing to be at home all the time. Also – at times I find it boring! So I go in as much as I can and I’ll also specifically make appointments to have lunch and coffee with colleagues to help foster my wellbeing. I think there is a balance to be struck with agile working to assist employee wellbeing.

(For an article on how working from home has been linked with higher diabetes risk, see here).

You have a very diverse workforce. What has worked particularly well for you on the wellbeing front to bring people together?

A key example of a wellbeing initiative relevant to all our employees, regardless of job role or location has been our internal peer support network. We’re actually relaunching it at the moment, to build on what’s worked well. It is particularly successful because who better to empathise with someone than a colleague, who really understands the types of demands specific to the organisation? This understanding and role of helping each other to thrive builds the caring workplace culture that we all want to work within.

Other than that, often it’s the simple things – like having constructive conversations – that also fosters a caring workplace culture. It’s about small changes that ultimately change culture and make wellbeing sustainable.

(For tips on setting up a network, see this article).

We’ve written about creating a culture of caring without being seen as overly paternalistic. How do you think you do that?

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?!

You have to strike a balance between providing empathy and support, while acknowledging that the individual needs to take ownership for their actions as well, and empowering them to do so. We do that through our peer support networks by providing a listening ear but then signposting people to support, which could be occupational health or our EAP, or our resources around self-care to enable employees to care for themselves, assisted by trained professionals.

To meet Clare in person, and to contribute to the conversation, come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023. 

The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.

Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.

For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here

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