What makes a wellbeing winner at The Watercooler?

Watercooler awards pic

The Make a Difference Awards returned with a vengeance at this year’s The Watercooler Event, which has just come to a close today, after two bustling, knowledge-packed days at Excel London.

As Jonny Jacobs, Financial Director at Starbucks – Award winner of the category of ‘True Leader’ – commented during the Awards ceremony:

“The energy here is absolutely brilliant, the movement, you can just feel what is happening here”.

Similarly, Javier Echave, Chief Finance Officer, Heathrow Airport, who was highly commended in the ‘True Leader’ category, urged the audience in his session on redefining success to:

“Join our movement! Join the revolution!”

Indeed, the Awards shone a spotlight on the key themes that really matter in the industry at the moment, as well as what makes a wellbeing winner, in terms of both individuals and organisations.

These key themes among the winners included:


This topic was mentioned continually and those organisations really making a difference are the ones putting meaningful measurement of interventions at the heart of their business strategies in order to prove impact. As Peter Kelly, head of programme at Mates in Mind, one of the judges, said: “We have to measure what’s successful and what’s not. For me, this has to be the future of interventions.”

The judging panel identified “a clear shift from things being done quite tactically to people actually starting to imbed wellbeing approaches using data to measure what’s working and what isn’t.”

Raising the wellbeing agenda so it’s taken seriously by the board, networks and employees

Closely related to measurement, is the topic of taking meaningful metrics to the board, and senior management in general, in order to drive cultural change.

This theme came through strongly in the Award for the ‘best culture of psychological safety’ which was won by Something Big. In this company, for instance, the CEO takes a very visible interest in the wellbeing of its employees by ensuring he meets with every single employee on joining.

The power of senior leaders who genuinely take wellbeing seriously was underlined throughout the awards and the event, with the “inspirational” Jacobs honoured with his ‘True Leader’ award for doing just this.

 As the judges noted, you don’t have to be a wellbeing specialist to lead the agenda and make it visible; in fact there’s real power in another specialist doing so, particularly  a senior one who has a love of data, like Jacobs does. This not only gets buy-in from the board, but also from the employees who see the issue taken seriously outside the wellbeing function.

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The power of listening

There were noticeably more practitioners at this year’s event talking about the role of actively listening to employees when it comes to shaping wellbeing strategies, beyond the standard annual staff survey.

For instance, listening skills were flagged as one of the reasons that Poundland attained a highly commended mention in the Retail category. Listening was a subject that came up over and over in sessions, too, such as one featuring Dhavani Bishop, Group Head of Colleague Health and Wellbeing, Tesco, as a panellist talking about Women’s Health.

“Everything we do is down to what our colleagues tell us is important,” she said.

Encouraging employees to take more responsibility for their own wellbeing

One of the advantages of employees feeling genuinely listened to by their employers is that they are more likely to engage with wellbeing interventions when they are introduced on the back of staff research and opinion.

Ann Summers, which received highly commended Awards in two categories, in particular “blew away” the judges on this front.

“All its interventions were so clearly linked to their position as a champion of diversity and inclusion,” said the judging panel

Many sessions touched on this theme too, with Dame Carol Black talking in her session about the need for people to stop expecting to turn up on the over-burdened NHS’s doorstep and be “fixed” because this is breaking the service; individuals must start taking more responsibility for their own wellness, and businesses can play a vital role in driving this shift in mindsets.

Personal stories can inspire change in individuals

Similarly, the power of personal stories to inspire people to make changes in themselves was underlined repeatedly, and was the golden thread running through former professional footballer and mental health campaigners Clark and Carrie Carlisle’s inspirational, humourous keynote session.

Natalie Beresford’s panel appearance was also especially impactful due to the fact she addressed her crippling menopause symptoms while in a senior role (Detective Inspector) at Thames Valley Police.

She revealed that, after being honest about this while doing the job, this gave many other women, often in more junior positions, the permission to open up themselves. This kickstarted conversations with their line managers about how to adjust jobs so these women, and their experience, didn’t leave the workforce.

Psychological safety

Referred to repeatedly as “the” buzzword of the moment, psychological safety – and how to create it so individuals do speak up – is undoubtedly one of the most important themes currently.

Judge Louise Aston Wellbeing Director at Business in the Community, praised the great strides made by many businesses in opening up the conversation around women’s health in particular, especially the highly commended Ann Summers and Burberry and overall winner Buckinghamshire Council.

“The overall standard was excellent and it was great to see so many initiatives break down the stigma associated with the menopause,” she said, but added more needed to be done around psychological safety when it comes to issues like domestic and financial abuse.

The importance of focusing on line managers because of their impact on employee wellbeing

Again, another hot potato.

Judge Charles Alberts, Global Head of Wellbeing and Employee Experience at lawfirm Clifford Chance, talked about the fact that “line managers’ confidence, competence and compassion to support individual health and wellbeing is such a key determinant of workplace health and wellbeing outcomes”.

He praised winner NHS England’s “bold ambition” that every employee should have a health and wellbeing conversation with their line manager, and its training to support line managers to initiate this.

Aldi’s prioritisation of line managers was one of the reasons it won the award for Best Retailer.

The judging panel said: “We were impressed by Aldi’s big investment around junior line managers and training them up to make sure that they have the right skills to create safe psychological spaces and have the right discussions”.

Commitment to scaling up and rolling out tools and programmes

The key idea being talked about here was more than purely rolling out programmes. What caught the judges’ eyes, as well as audience attention in panels, was how organisation did this amid the complexity that comes with scaling interventions across multiple countries.

The highly commended Checkout.com, led on this count. The judging panel said of this entry that it: “demonstrated a clear strategic approach to wellbeing spending over a year testing and designing, before moving to implementation, with a real recognition of cultural differences”.

You can find out more about the Awards and see who was shortlisted, who was highly commended and who all the winners were here.

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