01May

Why wellbeing programmes often fail

One of the most obvious outcomes of the COVID pandemic has been that mental health has risen up the national agenda, as we have all found ourselves a little lower down the scale than we might be used to when it comes to our wellbeing.

So, as a society we find ourselves in a position where there is a clear need for increased awareness and education to deal with this both proactively and responsively, but that need is not necessarily matched by time and money being made available to achieve the requirement.

There is a bewildering array of options available to individuals and organisations when seeking to meet this requirement; from live, face to face training to smartphone apps and everything in between. This choice can lead to a sense of analysis paralysis, where an organisation is conscious of the impact of getting things wrong to such an extent that they end up doing very little while the risk factors continue to pile up.

Having been on the delivery end of a number of wellbeing programmes, we have seen first-hand how good intentions and scarce budgets can lead to little genuine, lasting impact for an organisation and its people.

Our response is a new approach, what we have termed the Enable The Trainer (ETT) system.

So what goes wrong?

Another outcome of the pandemic is that everything has been thrown up in the air and we now get a chance to influence where they land. So many fundamental assumptions have been challenged that we now get a rare opportunity to influence the future as we may it to be.

Having looked at ourselves in the mirror and had several awkward internal conversations, these are five of our reflections on why lasting change may be hard to come across and an admission of why we may have been part of the problem.

    1. Organisational culture is water-boarding the concept of wellbeing. The iceberg model of company culture suggests that the majority of what makes an organisation work (or not) sits below the surface and is made up of how we collectively think, feel and behave (which we can also view as mental health or wellbeing). To consciously change this, it needs to be brought deliberately into the collective consciousness for prolonged, consistent periods with meaningful engagement to facilitate a positive change in attitudes. Many organisations have begun to make in-roads to this but, perhaps counter-intuitively, by promoting the concept of mental health on a particular day or week, and ignoring it the rest of the year, we risk a situation that doesn’t allow the concept of wellbeing long enough to breathe, flourish and ultimately embed in the culture. Once the concept of wellbeing has been brought above the waterline for long enough and the desired changes have been made, it can be allowed to submerge again.
    2. Unrealistic expectations of impact. Understandably, a lot of our clients are keen to be reassured that our work with them will make the changes they seek. When combined with the other factors listed here, it is difficult to look those decision-makers in the eye and tell them that we can work magic. We do offer a market leading platform that can help individuals and organisations to measure, understand and improve levels of mental fitness. However, to be effective, humans have to engage with and use the system. Beyond that, we can simply suggest that it is likely that, if people regularly use the tools and techniques that we teach, we can suggest that wellbeing will improve. But not overnight. We actually don’t believe that it’s worth trying to measure the impact unless an organisation has actively engaged with a process or system for a year, with the expectation that over three years, associated practices are given a genuine opportunity to establish, embed and optimise.
    3. Live training is often a flash in the pan. Or call it a sheep-dip if you prefer. Either way, we all get overwhelmed with large amounts of information in one go. We then forget about it or don’t understand how we can build it into our busy lives, professional or personal. Unless we are drip-fed information, it goes to the back of our minds and we forget about these potentially impactful tools that we have been introduced to.
    4. Lack of leadership engagement. Senior leaders are often hesitant to fully engage with the concept of mental, usually for understandable reasons; these may be fear of getting things wrong or maybe lack of personal experience. It can also be simply that they haven’t appreciated that investment in such programmes can unlock potential and boost performance in their people. Either way, we know that while it is entirely appropriate that Wellbeing or HR teams coordinate and promote programme such as ours, without buy-in from leaders at all levels, the outcome is often low impact and unsustained. We are adamant that wellbeing is a key function of leadership and our experience suggests that most leaders agree but don’t feel empowered to positively achieve change.
    5. Individual learning doesn’t translate into collective culture change. Our perspective is that for our society and organisations to evolve positive or even tolerant attitudes to mental health, both individual and collective change is vital. Training individuals as, for example, Mental Health First Aiders is something that we would recommend (and indeed something we do) but by training individuals and not teams, we risk stove-piping knowledge and skills. Without a common language across an organisation, there is a danger that the positive effects won’t spread. Our experience tells us that unless organisations learn together, they are unlikely to grow together.

What’s the solution?

Alongside many of our clients, we have been forced to reassess how we do things. We adapted quickly to virtual delivery but, whilst it has its place, we have come to realise that we had become part of the problem.

Feedback on content and facilitators continued to be positive but experiences around length of sessions and time away from desks often negated any beneficial impacts.

Having reflected on how we could genuinely respond to this feedback, our revised Enable The Trainer (ETT) approach gives leaders the resources, the structure, the motivation and the confidence to bring wellbeing into daily business, resulting in a low-cost, low maintenance but high-impact and enduring capability. It also gives those charged with coordinating wellbeing activity the confidence that their efforts are likely to be sustained and impactful.