The the second in a series of blogs from Becky Thoseby, Group Head of Wellbeing at the Department for Transport. These highlight people putting wellbeing evidence into action in their work. Becky shares the experience of starting her role earlier this year and the realities of championing wellbeing in a large organisation. You can read Becky’s first blog here.

As I write this, I’m experiencing that feeling many of you will recognise after delivering a successful project, that is a mixture of exhaustion, relief, exhilaration and satisfaction.  This is because last week I launched a new product within my organisation, the Wellbeing Action Plan, that has been a key focus of my activity since I last blogged.

The Wellbeing Action Plan is a management tool in the form of a suite of documents, which is intended to support both line managers and employees in starting and continuing a wellbeing conversation. So how did the project start?  As I settled into my new role, one of the things I observed was that when it came to talking about wellbeing with their team members, line managers fell into roughly three camps. At one end of the spectrum were those already doing it as part of their normal course of business, and at the other, those who thought wellbeing was not something they should be talking about at work. Clearly the first group didn’t need any help from me, and trying to bring the haters round to my way of thinking looked like an excellent way to sap my will to live. However I noticed there was a significant third group in the middle who thought that talking to their team members about their wellbeing was a good idea, but didn’t really know where to start.  This group worried about saying the wrong thing, crossing boundaries, and didn’t know what a good wellbeing conversation would look like. I could see that if I gave this group a helping hand, it would be the best way to leverage some real gains in the quality of conversations happening around my organisation.

It had to be action focused, with both the employee and line manager taking away things that they could do to improve the employee’s wellbeing.  So I decided to call it the Wellbeing Action Plan. And I beavered away in splendid isolation producing pages of beautifully worded guidance and a form on which to record the outcomes – because all civil servants love a good form, don’t they? Well apparently not… thank goodness I had a moment of sanity and decided to test my assumptions by running a pilot before launch.

I kept the pilot simple, asking a group of employees and a group of line managers to use the guidance and form in a trial wellbeing conversation, and give me feedback about how they felt to use. I ran a few drop in sessions so that employees and managers (separately) could come along and tell me what they thought.  I was very impressed by the quality of feedback people gave which was thoughtful, specific and actionable. The main themes that emerged from feedback were:

  • everyone (and I mean, really everyone) hated the form
  • the guidance was too long
  • people wanted the guidance to be more visually appealing
  • how the conversation is handled is really important, and managers wanted more pointers on this
  • people liked the questions about one thing employees could ask for, and one thing they could do themselves.

Based on this, the end product ended up quite different.  The form went in the bin and my lengthy guidance morphed into a suite of four products targeted at different audiences:

  1. A quick guide in colourful format for the busy person, or someone who wants a reference document during the meeting itself.
  2. A guide for employees which prompts them to think about different areas of their wellbeing and what they might want to ask for, and do themselves, to make a positive change in their wellbeing.
  3. A guide for line managers including tips on having a good conversation, and guidance on managing expectations.
  4. More detailed guidance on possible questions to ask and areas to explore, for colleagues who feel they need a bit more help.

Each of the products signpost to the sources of support the Department offers on wellbeing, and managers who still feel daunted can call our HR Advice Service for informal coaching on how to have the wellbeing conversation.

It’s too early for feedback yet, but on mentioning the product in conversations I’ve had around the organisation before launch, colleagues have been pretty positive and welcomed the idea.

The greatest lesson I learned from the process is that piloting a new product like this is absolutely essential. Much as you might think you know what your employees want and need, you probably don’t, and who better to tell you than the employees themselves. Better to learn this through a pilot than through feedback once the thing is out there! It was also powerful to be able to use some positive quotes from pilot participants in the launch communications.

However there’s no rest for the wicked. Last November it was Wellbeing Week, and in early December I launched a new Mental Health First Aid service to complement our longer term sources of support. I look forward to sharing my reflections on these with you soon.