#Covid19 Virtual Roundtable: Insights for Wellbeing Leaders and Champions


The barrage of information, concerns over engaging isolated colleagues and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of those on furlough. These are some of the challenges that mental health and wellbeing leaders told us they’re tackling.

But in many cases, challenges are also leading to creative solutions.

Wellbeing leaders with perspectives from large corporates (Unilever, Google, BMW UK and John Lewis Partnership), as well as smaller companies (luxury travel company Secret Escapes and specialist safety and sustainability recruitment firm Acre) shared thoughts at the virtual roundtable hosted by MAD World.

Two weeks into lockdown, each of these organisations is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in different ways. Yet they have much common ground.

Cut through the noise

Clear communication and continued connection are more important than ever. But information overload is threatening to undermine good intentions. It’s key to recognise the real danger that employees will disengage from communications about mental health and wellbeing if they are bombarded.

To overcome this problem, as a first step it’s being clearly communicated that everyone could be experiencing a range of emotions during this unprecedented time. These can change from week to week, day to day, or even several times across a day.

To make it easier for colleagues to access approved wellbeing support, COVID-19 resources are being centralised in a single share point. When possible, a holistic approach is being taken that addresses mental, physical, financial, social and family wellbeing. Guidance is also being provided on creating the right workplace environment at home.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

As well as recognising shorter-term issues such as home-schooling and caring challenges, the support colleagues will need in the long run is being recognised (potentially around bereavement if they lose family or friends for instance).

Colleagues are also being reminded that when you work and live in the same place, it’s harder to switch off. We’re in this for the long haul and there is a real risk of people burning out if they don’t take time away from their work.

Out of site but not out of mind

Many teams are naturally rising to the challenge of supporting one another. However, there was unanimous concern that some harder to reach employees – particularly those living on their own – are more at risk of feeling isolated.

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In these cases, it was suggested that it’s key to work with HR to identify and locate these colleagues. The essential role of line managers was also reinforced. Line managers are being encouraged to connect with all of their team members, check-in on the wellbeing of individual staff and spot subtle changes in behaviour that could be significant.

The importance of listening was stressed. It was suggested that the best a line manager can do to support a colleague’s mental health is to ask a team member how they are doing and be attentive to their response.

Fathoming furlough

Not all of the employers represented have people on furlough. However, for those that do, concerns were voiced around how best to support colleagues in this situation, whose wellbeing can be impacted by the loss of work routines and connections, coupled with anxieties over future job prospects.

In particular, it was highlighted that supporting these colleagues and helping them to retain social interaction is going to be harder when they no longer log-in to their work laptop.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) should be able to advise on how support can be offered to those on furlough leave. According to the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) statement in response to COVID-19 many services traditionally provided face-to-face, such as in-depth counselling, are being adapted for use via remote technologies such as online, video and telephone.

The power of peer networks

All agreed that internal peer-to-peer networks are a great way to ensure employees feel supported and don’t become isolated. But not everyone wants to be part of a work peer network. It was suggested that as well as offering work networks, employees can be encouraged to connect with their local community and like-minded people who are in the same situation as them.

For instance, they might consider using social media or another platform to connect with people that live on their road or in their block of flats. Or there might be a virtual peer group for gaming, gardening or whatever they do in their free time.

When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, we were reminded that people’s needs are different, so a range of support options should be made available. Older employees, some of whom may be struggling with remote technology, seem to appreciate peer-to-peer input by phone. On the other hand, younger people might prefer to communicate by text. For these, a listening service that offers texting or messaging on a range of platforms might be more appropriate.

Leverage your leaders

Periods of uncertainty are the litmus test of leaders. People are looking for a glimmer of hope but at the same time they want transparency. It was stressed that leaders need to give relevant messages that recognise the difficulties the organisation is facing, with an honest appraisal of the situation that also looks to a brighter future.

By highlighting successes in the face of adversity, board-level leaders are doing much to help their people shift from a doom and gloom “can’t do” negative frame of mind. We were reminded that leaders speaking out honestly about their own mental health and wellbeing can also help to get people’s attention and remind them of the support that’s on offer.

It was also suggested that this could be a good opportunity to nurture the next generation of leaders, with proactive learning and development work that looks to the future.

Freedom within a framework

In many cases teams have their own micro-cultures and are finding what works for themselves. These are some of the innovative approaches mentioned that teams have developed to lift spirits, stay connected and support colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing remotely:

  • A morning Talk Radio show created with a collaboration tool, that includes quizzes, lifestyle hacks and chat
  • End the week on a positive note with teams sharing successes and a round of applause – bringing in international team members if appropriate
  • A weekly virtual coronavirus coffee club, where the only rule is that you can’t talk about the coronavirus
  • Team work-outs and challenges such as ‘who has the tidiest fridge?’

A huge thank you to our virtual roundtable participants: Nikki Kirbell, UK&I Health & Wellbeing Lead, Unilever; Andra Stefanescu, Strategy & Operations Manager, UKI & Mental Health Lead, Google; Sharmila Kupfuwa, Head of Health Management, BMW UK; Yulia O’Mahony, former Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing, John Lewis Partnership; Laura Pearce, HR Business Partner, Secret Escapes; Kendelle Tekstar, Senior Product Manager & Development Coach, Acre Frameworks and Marteka Swaby, Founder, Benevolent Health.

The virtual roundtable was a great opportunity to brainstorm ideas and approaches with a group of wellbeing leaders from a cross-section of employers. If you have other suggestions for virtual roundtables we’d love to hear them. You can contact me directly at [email protected].


About the Author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Mad World News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times.



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