Last month saw the successful launch of our first ‘The Watercooler’ event on 25th and 26th May. Run in association with Make A Difference and the London Evening Standard, and co-located with the Evening Standard’s SME Xpo, the events attracted nearly 5,000 attendees to the National Hall at Olympia Conference and Exhibition Centre.
The groundbreaking event is called The Watercooler in recognition of the huge value in those more informal, relaxed conversations that we have at work. These are the conversations that often get to the heart of what we really care about and provide an environment where we feel comfortable to speak our minds.
The Watercooler Event’s goal was to encourage these conversations, by inspiring delegates through topical, challenging and insightful content that covered mental, physical, financial, environmental, social and inclusive wellbeing.
Given the overwhelmingly positive feedback, The Watercooler lived up to its name with visitor Josephina Smith, reward and HR thought leader and speaker, summing up the event as:
“A great turnout, lots of different energy from different suppliers. There was a buzziness. Sometimes you go to a conference and it’s a bit dull and low energy, but people here seemed to be energetic as they came out of the workshops and they’re mingling, having a conversation, and that’s what you really want from a conference.”
In this piece, we’ve rounded up some of the buzziest, most popular ‘watercooler conversations’ which were shared as a result of the speaker sessions and panels at The Watercooler Event.
The balance between personal and organisational responsibility
Many sessions reinforced the crucial role of the organisation in creating work cultures and environments where colleagues can thrive, and where work can even be good for you. At the same time, there was a recognition that, while health and wellbeing professionals can and should do their utmost to ensure psychological safety at work, responsibility for our health needs to be taken at an individual level too.
For many delegates, this message was hit home hard by keynote speaker Terry Waite CBE, who, in conversation with Dr Wolfgang Seidl, Partner & Workplace Health Consulting Leader, Mercer Marsh Benefits, talked about his experiences as a hostage living in solitary confinement. Without noise or light for 5 years, the ability to proactively manage his mind was key to his survival. “Check your responsibility,” he said at one point when explaining how he never shied away from accepting that his choices in life – namely to be a hostage negotiator – had led to being taken hostage himself.
As one visitor, Will Middleton, said:
“Terry Waite was incredible. To hear his story and then how he’s related it back to how he lives his life now was inspirational. That’s the elite of being able to control your mind and be content within yourself.”
There was also much discussion about how it’s incumbent on health and wellbeing professionals to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, particularly if they find themselves forging new ground, or in a campaigning role.
Many delegates commented on the fact that the content at The Watercooler was both personally and professionally relevant, like Alice MacHenry, engagement manager, at Pirical, who said:
“It’s been insightful from a perspective of what you can do for yourself, and your own wellbeing, but also what you can bring back for your company.”
How refreshing and motivating it was to be around like minds in person
Yes, technology has been a fantastic way to bridge the gap during the pandemic when we were unable to see each other in person. However, a constant conversation at this year’s event was the power of getting together face to face and allowing these more natural, flowing conversations to happen.
“Meeting a lot of people who I’ve only ever met on Zoom before, as this is the first big event for two years, has been brilliant,” said Amy McKeown, mental health and wellbeing consultant and one of the event’s facilitators.
Attendees picked up on the warmth, openness and willingness to learn of professionals that work in this space and recognised how energising it was to be around them.
As Alun Baker, CEO of Good Shape said:
“It’s a very inclusive audience and a warm reception. There’s a willingness to learn here and people have come to absorb stuff, which is rare, because a lot of people come to events usually thinking they know it already.”
Similarly, Susannah Burock, VP Global workplace experience, corporate real estate and services, Swiss Re, appreciated being exposed to professionals who saw issues differently to her:
“Being on the stage was brilliant. I thought the diversity of the panel I was on was brilliant; we all had different knowledge bases and perspectives. I felt that we all came at the topic from a different, complementary perspective.”
People in this industry want to make a genuine difference
Repeatedly, visitors commented on the sense that everyone who attended was here, not because they ‘had’ to be, but because they were motivated to make a difference.
“Coming together with other people has been my highlight. But it’s also coming together with a lot of likeminded people who want to drive change,” said Nick McClelland, chief growth officer, Mercer.
Baker agreed, adding: “The attendance at sessions was superb. People are here to actually make a difference in wellbeing. They want to understand how you do that.”
Wellbeing is not about being shiny, happy people all of the time
Wellbeing leads, like Rolls Royce’s senior business partner – mental health, Dr Stephanie Fitzgerald said the conversation had moved on from thinking wellbeing is about ‘making people happy all of the time’ to a recognition that employee wellbeing will inevitably fluctuate and companies need to create strategies that account for that. Expecting everyday to be a ‘good day’ when every employee can be their ‘best self’ is unrealistic and counter-productive.
“I want people to come into work on a bad day and feel supported,” she said.
Employees are more vocal than ever
Employees, especially younger employees, who are pushing for change when it comes to creating work places that are good for mental health, are more willing to voice an opinion than ever before. And Marcus Hunt, head of global health services, EMEA, Johnson & Johnson, spoke for many when he said in his panel session:
“We need to listen to them. We’ve leant into listening. It has to be in your strategy,” adding that it’s one of the pillars of his approach along with culture, engagement and leadership.
Part of listening to employees, too, is dropping the ‘parent/child’ relationship of old and ensuring that the relationship between employer and employee is ‘adult/adult’. Employers need to realise the stark reality that they can’t just pay lip service to employees today and that – especially millennials – will vote with their feet and find a new job if this is the case.
It’s a pivotal time for those interested in wellbeing at work
Mercer’s McClelland talked about feeling that 2022 is a landmark point in time for the industry and said he feels optimistic about the future, and the change that professionals can instigate.
“There is a genuine tidal shift and I can see C-Suite mentality; executive level individuals are now taking notice and recognising that people are their greatest asset, that people and purpose are right at the heart of and the new bottom line is building more purpose, protecting people and managing the risk,” he said.
And the word ‘purpose’ cropped up again and again, in sessions and panels, as well as outside them.
For many, digging into a sense of purpose at work – both for themselves and their colleagues – is a central current focus.
Chris Tomkins, head of wellbeing propositions, AXA Health said:
“I particularly enjoyed the session where Geoff McDonald [global advocate, campaigner and consultant for mental health in the workplace, Minds@Work] was talking about the importance of purpose and the way that this motivates people and gives them energy, which I think is so tremendously important. You need to find purpose and that drives energy and motivation. For me, energy is the currency of good wellbeing.”
Professionals want to go beyond the obvious and move the (watercooler) conversation on
Many of the words in health and wellbeing circles now have become buzzwords. There was often an acknowledgement of this and a real desire to go beyond the tactical and tokenistic approach to more deeply embedded, long-term strategic thinking.
“The talks have been super insightful and it’s been really nice to mix with a group of likeminded people who are interested in the same things and really advance those concepts and thoughts around wellbeing,” said Alice MacHenry, engagement manager, at Pirical. “It’s also been good understanding how you can frame conversations with literally anyone in the world.”