How John Lewis engaged ethnic minorities at risk in its diabetes campaign


Companies are increasingly looking at how they collect specific health related data for their ethnic minority employee groups in order to better connect them with wellbeing messages. 

Similarly, the NHS is stepping up its data collection efforts, with the creation of a new hub last year – the NHS Race & Health Observatory – to identify and tackle ethnic inequalities in health and care, which will also help companies to tailor their wellbeing proposition for these groups more effectively.

This topic is close to the heart of former head of wellbeing at John Lewis Partnership, now wellbeing strategist, Nick Davison who ran a campaign to raise awareness of diabetes during the pandemic – and the specific higher risk to ethnic minorities – especially those who contract COVID-19. He believes that developing relevance for ethnic minority employees with more specific wellbeing messages will become much more common in future as a result of better data collection which seeks to highlight the very real health inequalities that already exist:

Companies and the NHS are now collecting more granular health data on ethnic minorities

“Companies, as well as the NHS, haven’t historically measured the different risks and outcomes affecting different communities particularly well. There are some data protection sensitivities and requirements that have to be met. But if we are truly serious about starting to deal with the very real health inequalities being experienced by members of our ethnic minority communities then the focus and approach has to change.

That’s now starting to become more evident and companies will need to look at how they collect, use and report on data because the more granular information and insight you have, the better equipped you are to help people from the communities that need it the most,” says Davison.

It was the data collected by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) report  produced in June 2020, which really shone a light on the health inequalities relating to COVID-19 and ethnic minorities, which kickstarted the John Lewis Partnership’s strategy to reach out to specific ethnic groups. The broad range of health inequalities experienced are serious: pregnancy, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, Covid and Type 2 Diabetes being the most significant.

Black/Asian people with diabetes are twice as likely to die

One of the biggest issues to emerge from this report was surrounding Type 2 Diabetes: if you are Black or Asian and have diabetes, astonishingly, the chance of dying is twice that of somebody who is White.

“There’s lots of different reasons for this,” says Davison. “Education and self awareness is important. Language may be a barrier to accessing healthcare. Some of it’s cultural or relates to diet, exercise or non-engagement. But it cannot be OK to just walk past such different outcomes for key parts of our society without trying to raise awareness and do something about it.”

To raise awareness of the very real and often tragic risks, Davison arranged a series of diabetes screening centres in London at its Waitrose and John Lewis shops to act as education hubs. These were run by the company’s in-house occupational nurses and enabled employees to have their diabetes risk assessed and have their weight and BMI measured, as well as a discussion about healthier lifestyle choices.

John Lewis Chairman involved in the diabetes campaign

“To promote it, our Chairman volunteered to be screened and shared her results publicly, which was fantastic and made a huge impact. We were very explicit in promoting this to our Black and Asian Partners,” he explains. “We said everyone’s welcome to come but priority will be given to black and Asian partners because of the greater impact that COVID is having on people with diabetes from those communities.”

While there is often nervousness from employers at specifically reaching out to ethnic minorities, with leaders wary of saying the ‘wrong’ thing or using the ‘wrong’ terminology, Davison believes that “you need to not be afraid to talk directly to those communities”. In his view, health and wellbeing is the ultimate in personalisation and who we are and which communities we represent is a key part of that. Consequently,  generic campaigns risk not reaching the intended audience as effectively nor having the same impact.

Campaign found 43% were high or moderate risk

As a result of the initiative, John Lewis discovered that 13% of all those who were screened for diabetes were at high risk. A further 30% was at moderate risk. 

These screening centres were only just the “starting block” . To build on the awareness and momentum created around these, the company then launched a nutrition campaign ‘Eat Well, Live Well’. 

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The campaign gave employees loads of inspiration around healthy meal choices and the positive impact of activity. It  was well received with high engagement from participants. However, one of the take-aways for Davison working on this campaign was that you can provide all the educational opportunities and information as you can but there “is also a point where we all, as individuals, need to own it for ourselves. Enabling behavioural change sits at the heart of making a sustainable difference – and that takes time and persistence”. 

Nick Davison’s 7 top tips on engaging specific ethnic minority groups:

1. If you don’t have one already, think about establishing an informal network group for ethnic minority communities. Ensure they have a group in which they can talk safely with other people that work for the same business that share the same type of challenges and concerns. Encourage members to be part of the solution. You’ll find that people care passionately and will provide a lot of input and become advocates for what you’re trying to do, rather than not engage or become detractors.

2. Use the resources already out there from the likes of health charities like Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation etc. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; make use of what resource is already there.

3. Capture and report what data you can. Doing this digitally makes it easier and scalable and there’s lots more options than there used to be.

4. Don’t be afraid to speak directly to those communities that are affected by the inequalities. Many employees from ethnic minorities were unaware of the specific risks potentially affecting them and our diabetes campaign set out to raise the profile of this disease and how it affected them and members of their community. That’s why we were very clear in our promotion of the campaign, that it was primarily aimed at our Black and Asian colleagues, even though everyone was welcome to attend the screening sessions we set up. A general campaign doesn’t have the impact on those that are most at risk as those most at risk may assume it  doesn’t apply to them.

5. If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing when it comes to ethnic minorities health issues and the existing inequalities, relate your communications back to the evidence and facts from the public domain. You are trying to help  and as an example the diabetes challenges are clearly demonstrating that the disease disproportionately affects Black and ethnic minority communities.

6. Language can be a barrier. Make sure you translate the information into different languages relevant to your workforce.

7. Treat people as adults and give them information, provide opportunities to find out more and encourage them. But, ultimately, it it’s their responsibility to change behaviours but that shouldn’t stop you encouraging them; People learn about their own risks then choose or not choose to make positive lifestyle choices.

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