Building a holistic wellbeing strategy


It is great to see people talking about handling stress at work and looking at their home life as well as work life, but may I suggest that it is a shame that the aspect of physical health and ...

Read More Dominic Owens
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There are many factors that add up to a holistic H&W strategy, including mental and financial health

To some a wellbeing programme means just discounted gym memberships and free fruit. However, many of the UK’s top firms know that wellbeing runs much deeper than small steps to aid physical health. A holistic approach, treating employees as multi-faceted individuals, can reap far greater rewards.

So HR magazine teamed up with the chartered accountants’ wellbeing charity CABA to bring together some top HR professionals, and explore the challenges of building holistic wellbeing strategies.

Stress and pressure

Lucy Whitehall, wellbeing consultant at CABA, suggested that organisations should rethink their attitudes towards stress and pressure at work and stop seeing them as an automatically negative thing.

“We hear in the media about ‘happyology’; how everybody should be happy and we should be aiming for this nirvana of happiness,” she said. “But the reality, for a lot of people, is that they thrive under pressure.

“The actual evidence is showing that there are a lot of people who find pressure really energising, and they can perform at their best when experiencing it,” she added. “As long as they are equipped with the skills to manage it they can thrive and flourish in that environment.”

Sally Hemming, associate director of ER and talent at EY, agreed that a controlled amount of pressure can help employees do good work. “We know our people are at their best under pressure and at their best when they are slightly on the edge of their comfort zone,” she said. “We want them to know they are capable of doing extraordinary things, but only when they are in a situation in which they are [out of their comfort zone].

“If they look after themselves, which is what we help them to do, they can do some of their best work.”

However, Michelle Billington, head of transformation and culture at Veolia, warned that if firms choose to take this approach they must allow employees a degree of control over stress. “It is critical to allow them [the employees] some recovery time,” she said. “They need control over how they use that time to balance out the stress they are under.”

The language businesses use when discussing pressure is key, according to Jennifer Healy, chief talent officer at Mindshare. “The problem is we describe things as ‘stressful’ and ‘pressurised’, but if we think of these situations as ‘challenging’ or as part of someone’s development that changes things.”

Mental health

The panel also highlighted the need to provide good mental health support for those in high-pressure roles, and to end the stigma around discussing mental health.

“If your environment is stressful are your people comfortable talking about that?” asked Chadi Moussa, head of talent for Wealmoor. “If they are struggling to cope, on any level, you need to think about how that will be dealt with by managers. There is a perception that struggling is a weakness in a person, as opposed to it being a result of the organisation.”

Shakil Butt, former HRD at Islamic Relief Worldwide, agreed. “While some people thrive under pressure, a lot of people don’t,” he said. “Everyone is different, and the amount of time it can take someone to recover and recharge will vary.”

A tendency to see work and home as separate areas can be a challenge, warned Andy Dodman, COO at The University of Sheffield. “Once you make that distinction that’s where your problems begin,” he said. “You don’t have a working life that is completely separate from your mental health. They blend. When you see a person as an individual you can start to work with them.”

Darren Minshall, chief talent officer at Havas Media Group, said that his business runs a programme that considers the employees’ personal lives and not just their work time. “We know that your life is filled with peaks and troughs, and they can be affected by things such as marriages, bereavements, or other life events,” he said. “Our personal coaching doesn’t focus on just work because it could be that their work life is fine, but they might be in a difficult personal relationship that is having an impact. We try to look at this wider perspective, and help them to draw on the benefits they need.”

Financial wellbeing

Another taboo subject that HR must address is the impact of financial wellbeing. Keith Gregson, project lead for health and wellbeing at BAE Systems, said it can be hard to discuss this highly personal matter. “The concern we have is how much this crosses over into financial advice,” he said. “How much ownership should we take?”

Tanya Gerrard-White, group HR and talent development director at Markerstudy Group, said her firm uses an external company. “We were surprised by the uptake of the reasonable loans they provide,” she said. “We expected the main demographic taking them up would be our lower earners, but that wasn’t the case. It could be that there is pressure in life to spend more if you earn more.”

Whitehall agreed. “We work with accountants, so you would expect them to be really good at handling their money,” she said. “But that might not be true. They are human beings just like the rest of us. They are under the same sort of pressures, and the same sorts of needs and desires.”

“Our financial institutions have taken a bit of a battering in terms of trust in the past few years,” added Dodman. “We’re finding more and more that employees are turning to their employer for help, in the role that banks and financial advisers would have formerly filled. We’re in a situation now where we have the opportunity to offer support where we haven’t been asked to before.”

Gaining buy-in

Minshall said the strongest way to prove the merit of a strategy is to let employees do it for you. “As a profession we do a lot of really great work, but we don’t tell everyone about it,” he said.

“What you don’t want, when it comes to marketing your strategy, is a HR person saying ‘look what we’ve done’. You want people coming forward saying how fantastic it was for them, because having that people perspective is really engaging.”

Encouraging senior leaders to take part and experience the benefits for themselves is also powerful, Dodman added. “My trick was to get our senior leaders to participate,” he said. “Thankfully they enjoyed it!”

Healy agreed: “Ensuring they get that personal connection to your strategy is really helpful,” she said. “You then get a sense that you are all in this together.”

This roundtable was kindly sponsored by the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA)


It is great to see people talking about handling stress at work and looking at their home life as well as work life, but may I suggest that it is a shame that the aspect of physical health and inactivity was not discussed? There is a huge body of medical evidence that shows long periods of inactivity, such as sitting down most of the day, are bad for both physical and mental health. A working environment that encourages regular movement has been proven to help with long term health and also dealing with immediate stress levels. This is becoming more common in the US where healthcare costs have been brought down by dealing with inactivity, but is increasingly being discussed here.


Hi Dominic, fully agree. Sadly we are a nation of couch potatoes and even as I write this I am sat down tapping away on my laptop. I know some larger forward thinking organisations have introduced stand up desks and even walking treadmill desks in an effort to promote healthier lifestyle choices. Having stand up meetings also helps to keep people more focused and upright so important for posture. One colleague would have his meetings on the go, meaning he would opt to leave the building and walk and talk all the way to a local park especially when the weather was nice. It changed the dynamic of the conversation immediately. Getting out and seeing greenery and having natural sunlight, breathing in oxygen and changing the setting has made these lasting memories of those meetings.

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