Wellbeing Champions: Worthwhile or just another tick box exercise?
Health and Wellbeing Champions, Wellbeing Advocates, Wellness Coordinators… If you are part of a large organisation, you probably have one, and if you are reading this, you may even be one. But what do they actually do, does it help, and what does it take to do the role well?
In this article we take a deep dive into the role, break down the aspirations and apply a little reality. In part 2 we look at what we think it would take to do the role to various standards, and in part 3 we look at how a little tech and shared responsibility can make the role much simpler and significantly reduce the time it takes to be an outstanding champion for your team.
The views below come from our team of experienced front-line clinicians, as well as those of NHS staff that we have supported in the role. We have based this article on the role as set out in the NHS People Plan, but the principals translate across sectors and similar roles.
A health and wellbeing champion (HWBC) is someone who promotes and advocates for healthy habits and practices in a workplace, community, or social setting. It is often a voluntary responsibility performed in addition to someone’s day-to-day role.
As the world’s fifth largest employer (with a 10% vacancy rate), the NHS has embraced the creation of HWBC as part of the NHS People Plan and it’s not hard to see when you read the specification on the NHS employers’ website - if implemented well it has the potential to solve a lot of problems.
The theory goes something like this:
- The NHS is struggling with staff retention and is spending lots of money on wellbeing initiatives that are ignored by a large proportion of staff.
- A trusted team member is best placed to enable a positive workplace culture in each location (a pre-requisite for a wellbeing programme to have any meaningful impact).
- As they interact with their team daily, they are more likely to recognise issues early when intervention is often more effective.
- By encouraging colleagues to act, they can increase uptake of support services – improving the resulting impact (and subsequent return on investment).
- The headline cost is low because the role is voluntary. The time taken by the volunteer should be made up through productivity gains and reduced sick leave.
- In providing a title and a formal programme, you give people (and their managers) permission to take time to attend training and perform the role.
- As most people in the healthcare sector are at least somewhat altruistic, it should be possible to find someone within a team that will (if pushed) take on the role.
In practice, there are multiple points of failure in this plan. Providing support to colleagues can be complicated and it requires a level of consistency to ensure meaningful results. There are some legal and HR issues that those who step forward need to be aware of as well.
Potential problems include:
- Lack of ‘genuine’ volunteers – This role needs someone to take it on whole heartedly and to perform it well to be effective. In many places the role has been assigned or fell to a volunteer who felt they were expected to step up, not a good start.
- Voluntary = low priority – Unfortunately, as a voluntary role it will be low priority. You are unlikely to get into trouble for not checking in with colleagues. This is a role that is appreciated when it is done well but is easily dismissed as a meaningless label when not.
- Vocation/Seniority mismatch – the relative level of the HWBC in relation to a team member matters; a junior receptionist might struggle to get a senior GP to open up, and vica versa. Those who are highly trained and well place to advise are unlikely to be able to spare the time for the role.
- Boundary issues – If you volunteer at the local soup kitchen and work in an office in the next town your boundaries are clear. One is work and the other is charity. If you are the fire warden at work, this has some blurred lines as it’s not a primary role but there is a clear definition of when you are performing your duties. As a HWBC is ‘always on’, it is difficult to define when you are a HWBC and when you are ‘just a colleague’.
- Low engagement – people often fail to recognise that they need support until they near crisis. Those in demanding roles, and therefore at most risk of burnout, are often inaccessible (either physically or emotionally) to the champion. The role requires some time investment from the team, difficult if they don’t see it as a priority.
- Lack of protected time – We have seen this many times: keen staff members sign up to be a champion and attend training with genuine enthusiasm. However, when they get back to the day job, they struggle to translate the role into consistent action for their team due workload constraints.
- Management issues – putting a HWBC in place can be seen as absolving managers from responsibility with HR issues related to staff wellbeing: it does not.Employers and by extension managers are required to manage staff morale and wellbeing and can be held to account if they do not. A HWBC in a voluntary role is neither required to act nor accountable. This can create an uncomfortable dynamic and lead to staff receiving less support rather than more as people get missed.
- Signposting or Advice? – This is a grey area and in reality, signposting is a form of advice. It is the personal touch and experience that the Champion brings that makes the role so valuable. A friendly chat is much more likely to get to the root of the problem, formalising this too much risks making the role much less effective.
For these reasons and more the uptake of the role has not met expectations, and in many places, the role has become just another tick box exercise. This risks having quite the opposite effect to that intended, and reducing staff engagement and morale over time.
In reality, asking someone to take time out from their role working on an overwhelmed, busy frontline team to put energy into a voluntary position is difficult. For those in the teams it can feel a bit like the captain of the Titanic asking one of the lifeboat commanders to stop loading people onto the lifeboats and join the band to play soothing music; a meaningless distraction that is taking a valuable person out of play when every pair of hands counts.
So - should your team make time for a HWBC?
In short, yes, but with structure, boundaries, and support in place. There is a large volume of evidence to support improving morale in the workplace. Happy staff are generally more engaged, more productive and in the case of clinical teams have been shown to provide better care.
If done well the benefits of the role to individuals, the team and management are clear, measurable and should more than pay back the resources invested. The concerns listed above can be mitigated with an appropriate structure in place, a clear definition of responsibilities within each team and good communication.
Should I take this on – or recommend it to a colleague?
Though the reservations above make the role sound unappealing there are some clear benefits for those who step forward:
It’s good for your mental health:
Giving time by volunteering to support others has been shown to be rewarding, both psychologically and even at a physiological level. As social animals, our bodies are wired to reward actions that help our ‘tribe’. There is evidence that the act of helping someone provides a boost in dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in pleasure, motivation, and learning. This elevates your mood and contributes to a sense of purpose; especially important for those of a ‘giving’ disposition, a personality trait that is overrepresented in healthcare workers.
There is evidence to suggest that it is not volume of work that appears to affect people the most, but rather it is lack of visible impact and feedback that increases the risk of burnout. Unfortunately, working in the NHS in its current state can be draining, and many staff find that the social rewards expected from doing a caring job are diminishing.
Taking on extra responsibility when you are struggling can seem counterintuitive but taking the time to support colleagues has a high chance of visible, positive feedback.The resulting dopamine boost can help to rejuvenate and reset so that the rest of the working week is more manageable.
It’s good for your career
Soft skills are essential if you are looking to grow your career in any field. How you interact with others has at least as much bearing on how you are perceived as your professional knowledge or skills. People remember those who help them, and this can pay dividends over time as you progress within an organisation or in your wider career.
This role helps to develop active listening skills, the ability to gain and maintain trust and requires you to consider other perspectives. Whatever stage of your career, this role present significant opportunity for active career development in leadership, people management and mentoring.
You get to work somewhere great
We all want to work in a nice place, be treated well and have a team that can cope with the workload they are given. By taking on a role that embodies active listening, feedback and support you have real opportunity to shape that vision and help to make it a reality.
The case to make time for a HWBC in your team is strong, and for those taking the role on the benefits are clear. However, it does come with a significant health warning: Do it well or don’t do it at all. Careful implementation with the right structure and support is key to making this work for the whole team.
We hope this makes a compelling case for HWBC in the workplace. In part 2 we look at the details of the role and what it would take to do it well.