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Does your organisation need dedicated health and wellbeing roles?

As workplaces expand the scope of their health and wellbeing strategies there has been a rise in roles dedicated to taking care of specific aspects of them, including as fertility officers and mental health leads. The roles have the potential to reinforce accountability, but also create silos.

From fertility officer at legal firm Burgess Mee, to cost of living champion at Positive Wealth Creation, to inclusion coordinator at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, a glance at the job market shows dedicated health and wellbeing roles are on the up.

But how do these positions contribute to wider company culture?

At hormone and fertility testing company Hertility, people manager Ali Hutcheson reports seeing more and more ‘champions’ and employee resource groups (ERGs) among clients: “Whether that be across sustainability, women’s health, LGBT+, black professionals or accessibility to name but a few.”

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Research from employee benefits platform Zest meanwhile reveals seven in 10 companies now have a head of wellbeing to ensure they are effectively supporting employees.

This could be well-timed as Richard Holmes, director of wellbeing at Westfield Health, reports nearly a third (30%) of people feel their mental health has worsened over the past year yet less than half (49%) of UK employees feel their manager is available for wellbeing support.

“Dedicated mental health or wellbeing roles ensure there’s an ongoing focus on employee wellbeing and provides employees with a go-to person for any queries or help they may need,” explains Holmes.

Beyond this, it demonstrates long-term commitment and investment from the business as a whole – provided it starts from the very top and trickles through the entire organisation.

Hutcheson agrees: “The key questions are what are their roles? Who do they serve? And what does success look like?

These roles can and should create more accountability, and often do. When ERGs are ineffective, it often has the complete opposite effect in that employees feel excluded.”

Already reporting success, Natalie Sutherland became a fertility officer – reportedly the first role of its kind in the UK – alongside her legal work at Burgess Mee.

She says: “Creating a culture where staff can openly talk about their family building plans and any fertility challenges without fear of negative career consequences has had a massive impact on culture and staff wellbeing.

“Our staff have told us this and even in interviews, the candidates know about the fertility officer role. It’s having a positive impact on recruitment and retention.”

At husband-and-wife-led Excel TM Group, appointing a mental health first-aider has had an overwhelmingly positive effect. “We have a happier and healthier workforce, which has led to an increase in job satisfaction and – possibly – lower staff turnover,” says director Sian Dunn.

“I also believe we have been able to reduce the costs of long-term absenteeism and burnout by providing support to those in need of a listening ear.”

She took on the responsibility alongside her main job to support her husband (who has an open history of mental health struggles) and their staff.

She says: “It comes with pros and cons, and you have to be prepared to give commitment and time beyond your day job. In terms of the bigger picture, I’m helping raise awareness about mental health and reducing the associated stigma.

“On an individual level I know I’m making a difference by helping someone in distress and positively impacting their wellbeing. Personally, I’ve developed skills in empathy, active listening and communication, and built connections with others doing the same role. is network helps my learning and growth – and my own mental health.”

In Zest’s findings, heads of wellbeing were a combination of dedicated, full-time positions and those where responsibility is added to an existing employee’s day-to-day role.

“I don’t think it matters whether it is a full-time or part-time role, or whether it’s a standalone role or something someone does as part of their wider role,” says Sutherland. “It just matters that there is a role and the person undertaking it understands the importance.”

Full-time positions can be particularly helpful for organisations looking to launch programmes quickly, but they also risk the post-holder being siloed.

Sutherland adds: “In terms of a potential silo, I’m a big believer that this should be a company-wide culture shift; not just left to one person and seen as a tick-box exercise.

"Change needs to come from the top and be modelled by the senior staff. This creates the safe space for others to get on board with any changes.”

At Ford, mental health lead Mark Wilson has first-hand experience of this. “The key has been building a strategy that helps individuals to cope and encouraging leaders to lead by example,” he says.

“Having a company that says ‘we’ve got you’ is my aspiration. I have strong support – a wellbeing committee with key board members that meets regularly, the chief people officer, the chief medical officer and my executive sponsor for mental health and wellbeing. I was honoured early on to be able to share my vision with all the leaders in the company and got universal support and a huge round of applause as I pitched with my sponsor.”

Wilson stepped into the full-time, dedicated position after 27 years in IT-related roles at Ford – and his own personal struggles. He explains: “In 2018, Ford got on board with the mental health first aid campaign and when I volunteered to help the HR partner leading it. It was as if a light had been switched on.

"I combined my IT, communication and strategy skills with my personal experience to help Ford get really serious about wellbeing. In early 2022 when the HR partner moved on, I suggested giving up my IT role and taking the reins. It had become a real purpose for me and now I pinch myself every morning thinking ‘I do this for a living.’”

"I know I’m making a difference by helping someone in distress"

Another challenge is the increased exposure to potentially triggering topics. “We have to look after ourselves. I am certainly mindful of the things that trigger my own traumatic miscarriage experience,” says Sutherland, while Dunn recommends acknowledging your own wellbeing when supporting staff in distress.

“If I already have a lot going on myself, I may not be in a position to take on someone else’s struggles,” she admits. This is where boundaries come into play – and recognising your limitations. “Mental health first aid training only equips me with foundation knowledge,” she adds. “I’m not a fully trained professional – but I can signpost and I’ve helped some of our people find outside support they may not have accessed on their own.”

So, are these roles here for good? “It’s safe to assume that these roles are going to stay around as businesses continue to focus on wellbeing,” confirms Holmes. “Our research has found businesses are increasing wellbeing budgets with almost half wanting to increase spending on wellbeing in 2023 compared to 2022.”

HR teams should be aware, though, that they may be forced to justify their spend during this period of economic turmoil. Holmes advises ensuring the role (and any other wellbeing benefits) are part of a wider strategy: “HR professionals need to look at employee engagement initially to find out what will have the most impact on workers’ wellbeing. Any measures put in place should be benchmarked and reviewed based on their impact.”

This article was first published in the July/August 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.