How to get buy-in from the board for your wellbeing strategy

board room photo

Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Wellbeing Strategy – Part 3

One of the biggest determinants of whether your wellbeing strategy will be successful is if you manage to get buy-in from the board or not. The way you talk about your strategy – both informally at work and in more formal situations like presenting to senior management – will have a huge bearing on how seriously it, and you, are taken.

While the wellbeing function has undoubtedly progressed significantly in terms of its perception over the last few years, stories still unfortunately abound about wellbeing not managing to secure its rightful place at the top of the corporate agenda. This, indeed, was one of the main ‘over the watercooler’ and off-the-record conversations at our recent event (aptly called) The Watercooler (for a round-up of these topics, see this feature here).

You can learn skills to get buy-in

Luckily, getting buy-in from the board involves skills that you can learn in order that your voice gets heard.

For this article, we’ve consulted some leading experts for their advice on how to present a compelling argument that wellbeing is fundamental to business success and does deserve the budget you’re asking for.

Quick note before we get started – all the advice leading up to this 3rd part of the Beginner’s Guide is relevant to putting your case together – so be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2. As Andy Holmes former Global Head of Wellbeing at Reckitt, and now Client Partner at Korn Ferry, said in Part 1: “Whatever size of your organisation, unless wellbeing is contributing something tangible and measurable on the Profits & Loss, then the budget will get cut as soon as the business hits tough times”.

Make sure your wellbeing strategy is joined up

As we said in Part 1, wellbeing strategies are often criticised for being unrelated interventions that don’t seem to hold together neatly. This is one reason why, in the past, critics have been able to hang the ‘pink and fluffy’ tag on wellbeing, often described dismissively as the “yoga and bananas” approach to wellbeing, which Hays Head of Wellbeing Hannah Pearsall talks about in this interview.

To avoid falling into this trap, make sure there is a coherence (which you can back up) to your interventions and how and why they relate to each other. The more you can link them to business critical objectives rather than merely being “nice to have” initiatives, the better.

Questions to ask yourself

Does the intervention, for instance, tackle absenteeism? Or presenteeism, even?  Does it increase productivity? Diversity? Inclusion? Does it boost retention? Attraction? Improve employer brand?

Holmes suggests asking yourself: “What does your strategy contribute to? What business issue does your strategy plug into?”

But Dr Shaun Davis, Group Director of Safety, Health and Wellbeing at Belron, warns: “Don’t whatever you do go in and say ‘we should really do this because a lot of companies do it and it’s obviously the right thing to do!’”

Make clear how your strategy is sustainable

Outline how your interventions are sustainable and important in the longterm; they are not just one-offs. This way they can’t be seen as peripheral and easily chopped, especially in budget cuts when leaders are looking for quick wins.

Don’t be afraid, either, to point out the obvious. People in wellbeing often forget how much knowledge they’ve accumulated and that the ‘average’ employee may not have this depth of understanding.

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Meet colleagues where they are on wellbeing

So, you need to meet people where they are, which may mean making clear what is obvious to you. It may also mean you need to go back to basics even at board level with, for example, the definition of wellbeing in your company (which was covered in part 1).

And, as was discussed at The Watercooler, some of your colleagues may not have the basic knowledge about wellbeing causality; for instance they may not immediately link obesity with serious illness and time off work.

Measure measure measure!

As just touched on, another huge issue is ensuring that you can prove the impact of your interventions. This can be difficult. However, most companies already conduct staff surveys, which are a common way to measure levels of wellbeing before and after interventions are introduced.

However, there are many other ways you can get more creative with measurement and integrate it into daily working life. For example, Sean Tolram, mindfulness programme manager at HSBC has just started asking employees to rate how they feel at the beginning and end of Zoom mindfulness sessions with a view to gathering this data at scale. He also collects powerful employee testimonials to demonstrate the human impact of the work they are doing  (For more on HSBC’s award-winning programme, see this article here).

If you don’t have all the data, make the most of industry data

Tolram also suggests referring to scientific research to prove the efficacy of interventions:

“When I speak to senior management, I lean a lot on the science and the data, because that’s the kind of language that resonates. I talk about the neuroscience of mindfulness and how looking after our brains can help us to be happier, healthier, and also deliver better results for the organisation. This creates a vision that senior management can relate to, and provides a more compelling and credible business case that can drive action.”

Similarly, research in the wellbeing arena is gathering apace and there are robust, credible studies being launched now proving wellbeing’s impact, which you can integrate into your argument. For instance, in this article we covered BITC and McKinsey Health Institute’s study which shows the “size of the [wellbeing] prize” is “so much bigger than previously thought”.

At the same time, measurement tools are also evolving rapidly in sophistication, so ensure you’re abreast of the latest tools which could help you add teeth to your argument. For example, in this article we touch on the launch of GoodShape’s Absence Calculator.

Tell a story around the numbers

While data is all well and good and it’s definitely what the board wants – the trick is to tell a compelling story with the data. Don’t just unleash a barrage of numbers on them with little explanation!

This is something that was praised about the wellbeing lead at Make A Difference Award Winner Village Hotels. Lindsay Southward, Group Director of Operations and People. She has been notably successful getting buy-in from the board for several reasons. One is that she is a board member herself. Another is that she has made the ‘people story’ a constant conversation at all levels, including the board.

As her colleague Sarah Flynn, HR projects manager, Village Hotels says of her:

“Lindsay really analyses the results of what we do. But she also constantly has conversations around the results. Doing all these things is great but unless conversations about the people results take place at the board, unless they’re actively being talked about by the executive, then they are not going to shape how we make our decisions and how business strategies are put together.”

Flynn adds, though, that shifting perceptions takes time and can’t be expected to happen overnight after one conversation. So keep talking!

Make sure your wellbeing strategy is embedded

As well as ensuring there’s consistency between interventions, it’s also crucial to make sure your strategy is consistent with, and embedded in, the rest of the organisation. This means consulting with all relevant functions such as HR, DEI, finance, operations, etc.

The more you can collaborate with other functions, the more likely your strategy will achieve natural buy-in.

When you approach other functions, always bear the question in mind “what’s in it for them?” and start your pitch there (and remember, every conversation is a potential pitch or opportunity to get others thinking about the role of wellbeing in the organisation!).

Back to Holmes’s question earlier – ask yourself how your strategy contributes to their function and what business issue it plugs into; lead with that rather than what you want from them.

If your role isn’t senior, find a sponsor

As also mentioned in Part 1 and 2, with the wellbeing industry being relatively young there can be an issue with lack of seniority of roles, which can be a barrier to credibility and visibility.

If this is relevant to your situation, try finding a senior mentor or sponsor. Or find someone who is personally interested in wellbeing to advocate on your behalf – having senior leaders do this is very powerful.

HSBC’s mindfulness programme really took off, for example, when a senior leader took a personal interest in it, leading to the team securing significant budget to take it to the next level.

Argue your case logically

It’s no good having all the science, research and measurements at your finger tips if your tongue gets tied when communicating them to senior managers.

Dr Davis cites the most important skills, above qualifications, in the wellbeing industry right now are “being able to logically argue your case, through the financial, ethical and moral scenarios, wrapping these around the business case, with influence, persuasion and negotiation skills”. No pressure, then!

The good news is that if you’ve followed all our points so far, you’ll have done your planning and research and your communication skills can be practiced and rehearsed until you feel confident. Yes, we are encouraging you to talk to yourself in front of the mirror and, even better, do some practice runs with any willing colleagues.

Hold your ground

Dr Davis adds that the “ability to hold your ground” is crucial, too. You will get challenged on your argument – that’s normal – so be ready for it and “be really crisp, clear and precise when talking about the return on investment”. This means you need to speak their language and be familiar with standard business terms from Profit & Loss to analytics to KPIs. But, as well as the ‘hard’ numbers stuff, don’t shy away from showing your heart, enthusiasm and passion, too, because this will shine through and is contagious.

Dr Davis’s final top tip for going into a meeting with leaders is to “imagine you’re on Dragon’s Den!”

Luckily, most board members are human, not dragons, and they will not burn your strategy  into flames with their fire breath. Not if you’ve followed all the tips in this feature, that is!

Good luck.

See part 1 and 2 of this Beginner’s Guide below:



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