Size doesn’t matter when it comes to creating a culture of care; it’s as important for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) as it is for large corporations. Yet many SMEs struggle to find the time or budget to prioritise employee wellbeing.
Add to this the disruption from the pandemic, which has left many small businesses and employees struggling emotionally, as well as financially. British telecommunications company BT’s recent research with Small Business Britain highlighted that 20% of small businesses felt they needed mental health support.
Against this backdrop, it’s inspiring to learn that DSG Group is bucking the trend. In this article, Rob Woollen, DSG Group’s Head of Wellbeing and Organisational Performance sheds light on how he has approached expanding the company’s existing employee mental health and wellbeing initiatives, including integrating a supported network of Wellbeing Champions.
First, can you tell us a bit about your company and your role at DSG Group?
DSG Group is a collective of forward-thinking brands and investments, which specialises in UK motor finance and focuses on compliant technology-driven delivery. We employ around 140 people, mostly based in our head office in the North West, with a turnover around £20M. We are currently growing and recruiting.
It may seem counter-intuitive for a technology-based organisation, but DSG has always taken great pride in being an employer of choice. We have a strong apprenticeship programme and enjoy high levels of colleague retention.
Conscious that health challenges occur regardless of the work environment, DSG began providing a suite of digital wellbeing products for all colleagues last year.
I have known a number of the senior team for around three years, and have delivered training for them in the past. When they heard that I was available for work, they asked me to pitch my vision for wellbeing to them and decided to appoint me full time.
My role encompasses many strategic aspects of HR and there is never a dull moment. An average week will see me coaching the executive team (up a mountain when COVID allows), supporting colleagues with reasonable adjustments, procuring a learning management system and ensuring a COVID-secure workplace.
Since you started at the company, what steps have you taken to determine your wellbeing strategy?
I began with what I call a grey audit – looking at our HR policies to see how we do things on paper. Next I examined the use and awareness of our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and associated wellbeing services like 24/7 GP access and our online fitness and nutrition platform. The final research stage, which will be complete early next year, involves employee interviews and focus groups.
We want more great days at work and to do this we need to understand what it is really like to work here. Whilst I am keen to understand what we could do better, I also want to know what we are doing well so that we can do more of it.
With all the information gathered, in Q1 of 2021 I will present a fully costed wellbeing strategy to the business based on my findings.
How did you decide that you wanted to put in place a mental health champions programme? Why do you want their training to be different to the usual type of 2 day course?
I believe that the option of speaking to a trained counselor 24/7 is an essential backstop in times of mental crisis. However the EAP is often a very underused resource, and whilst I am working to raise colleague’s awareness of it, this is no different at DSG Group.
It is not just awareness that prevents our people from calling their EAP. Despite the huge strides being taken for mental health equality, there is a still some degree of stigma. There is a tendency to consider EAP a “last resort” to be used in times of extreme crisis. Given that early intervention leads to substantially better outcomes, it is clear that another avenue for seeking help would be useful.
The current raft of commercially available mental health first aid courses from the likes of MHFA England, Nuco and QA have undoubtedly been a force for good in raising awareness and opening up the conversation about mental health. I feel though that the balance of practical skills training with clinical information – such as the signs and symptoms specific to various conditions – is not optimal.
Given the huge diversity in experience of mental health conditions, and the fact that almost half of mental health conditions occur in combination with others, I see little value in learning lists of diagnostic criteria and feel that it may even be dangerous. I have written in more detail about this here https://www.madworldsummit.com/news/whats-your-problem-should-we-drop-the-diagnosis
I wanted more focus on two key aspects:
• Normalisation of mental health experiences, challenging the negative language and stigma that exist
• Practical skills in creating safe spaces for mental health conversations including enhanced suicide interventions skills.
I commissioned Lee Loveless (a former local authority suicide prevention lead with whom I co-authored mental health training materials for the Royal Society for Public Health) to assist with the second aspect. I was surprised when he advised me not to roll out a fully accredited suicide intervention training course.
Lee felt this would be too involved and was more suited to people who were likely to encounter these situations regularly. To that end, he is providing a bespoke training session to ensure that our people have clear and simple steps to take if they encounter someone considering suicide.
A further concern that I have had about mental health first aiders in the workplace is their ongoing development and supervision. I can draw a direct parallel here to my own experience as a pool lifeguard in my early career. When I first qualified, your “Bronze Medallion” meant you were qualified for life. However an overhaul of the system brought a new qualification – the NPLQ.
This qualification was only valid if you attended monthly refresher training including a practical element. This was welcomed by the industry which recognised that being able to act in rare but critical situations was only possible when the learning was refreshed regularly.
In addition to ongoing training, I wanted to ensure our mental health champions – who had volunteered for this position – were protected from any adverse impact of being in post. I found the solution to both of these concerns in the MHFan platform which offers monthly clinical supervision, immediate support, and ongoing training.
How did you get buy-in from your CEO for the budget needed for training the wellbeing champions?
Having mental health champions formed part of my pitch to the Board of DSG prior to my engagement, so the training element had already been agreed. The ongoing support would require additional funding and I presented this as a clear dichotomy. If we were not prepared to fund the ongoing training, then I would not propose the level of intervention training that we had gone for.
It is my intention that my colleagues feel they always have someone they can talk to, and this programme underpins that. Fortunately, I had released some budget by streamlining our digital wellbeing offer in response to colleague feedback, so I was able to fund this without asking for additional capital.
As I have not yet completed my employee research, we do not have a specific budget allocated to wellbeing and I have presented each proposal on an ad-hoc basis to the rest of the Senior Leadership Team.
How do you plan to roll out the champions programme?
We have invited applications from across the business and I have been very pleased with the result. We have representation at all levels and locations. In my initial advert on our intranet, I asked that people gained approval from their line manager to be released for the training and the role itself. Our CEO, Richard Hoggart, responded publicly to say that anyone who applied would receive his full authority to do so. I think this strong support from the top made it very easy to find volunteers.
Applicants were asked to summarise their reason for volunteering, with the intention of creating a small barrier to entry. We only want applicants who have truly thought about the role. In addition, I asked them to consider honestly whether they had the resilience to hear stories of other people’s distress.
I am not inclined to attempt to screen people for resilience through measurement, but I think that asking the question may have resulted in some applicants self-selecting.
How will you measure the impact of this approach?
We are not seeking a financial return on investment for this programme. We will never be able to predict whether a brief interaction now prevented a suicide later, or whether signposting to professional support allowed a colleague to thrive in their role. How can you put a price on that?
However a second advantage of the MHFan platform that we are using is that it does provide a secure space to record brief, anonymised details of mental health interactions. We will therefore be able to understand to some degree the frequency of interaction.
Thank you Rob for sharing your insights.
If you work for a small business you might be interested in this toolkit:
There are more details about the MHFan platform here:
If you are thinking of setting up a champion’s network, you might be interested in this:
About Rob Woollen
Before joining DSG Group as Head of Wellbeing and Organisational Performance, Rob was Head of Wellbeing for PeoplePlus Group. He holds an MSc in Work and Wellbeing. Having left school at sixteen he understands issues faced by both manual and professional workers in high pressure environments. Rob lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School; he contributed to the pan-European Resilience Project, and assessed the Workplace Wellbeing Charter. He has trained hundreds of wellbeing champions and mental health first responders across the UK in a wide range of organisations. For many years, Rob developed health improvement qualifications for the RSPH and he is an academic reviewer for their journal Public Health