What on earth is a Wellbeing Champion and what exactly is their role?
There are many more people quite rightly recognising the importance of workplace wellbeing and now championing the importance of mental health to be considered more closely in the workplace. Poor mental health or a compromised sense of wellbeing has threatened many people’s sense of capability, confidence and competence over the past few years and according to Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory, competence is one of our three most powerful needs as humans. The other two are autonomy and relatedness.
To meet these three needs, we believe at Eleos that there are three key enabling factors that people require to be able to self-determine their wellbeing: time, space and permission. At work, these are often lacking and so we need assistance in creating them, let alone using them effectively.
Actual time is a given and space is the sense of space that can be created and used effectively if time is created. Permission is often harder to come by – we can have the time and space to use but if we don’t feel we can get up in those moments, walk away, grab a drink, or change environments to refresh and reset, nothing may change. Often we need the help of others to create this sense of permission and that is where wellbeing champions come in. During the working day these three things give us the opportunity to exercise self-care: to re-orientate, clear our minds, rest, and then digest where we are and where we need to go next.
Perhaps we may need to switch focus, move to a different task or transition from doing to thinking. Often, we don’t give ourselves permission to exercise self-care and so sometimes we need that permission clearly articulated by leaders, managers, and peers around us, especially at work.
Fear of judgement can compromise this potential sense of permission, so we need people at work to provide us with evidence that they support the alternative: to champion the importance of self-care and wellbeing to develop that sense of permission. You may have come across the term ‘Wellbeing Champion’ but what on earth is a Wellbeing Champion?
Wellbeing (or sometimes Mental Health Champions) are employees within an organisation who have volunteered to support their colleagues and the evolving workplace wellbeing narrative. The general consensus and the intention of MHFA England, whose accredited course we provide is that ‘Champions’ support the narrative from more of a proactive, preventative angle, whilst Mental Health First Aiders support people responsively. Champions will have completed some training and generally lean to the preventative side of providing support.
Language can be a potential minefield in the subject of wellbeing, but language really matters; my following example highlights the importance of this language in clearly articulating support available to people. In our work we have come across organisations who call their Mental Health First Aiders ‘Wellbeing Champions’ and even as trainers we found this confusing – is this someone who provides mental health first aid or champions wellbeing?.
As a result of organisations labelling their volunteers differently, Wellbeing Champions can be many things to many people across diverse range of workforces. If someone in the workplace is in need of responsive support through mental health first aid, would they be clear that in their organisation a Wellbeing Champion has has the relevant conversational training and could provide what they need? Would a Wellbeing Champion be looking for the workplace impacts of a lack of psychological safety, excessive work demand, and work-related stress in employees and managing associated workplace risk factors or be primed to engage in a supportive conversation?
For me, on balance, a Wellbeing Champion fulfils a more preventative and proactive role than a responsive one in supporting employee wellbeing.
Wellbeing Champions – Some Considerations and Questions For You:
- Is it someone that talks about the importance of individual and workplace wellbeing?
- Is it someone who encourages performance-driven people to consider new perspectives and attitudes towards the utility of sound wellbeing in their work?
- Are they simply an enthusiastic advocate of wellbeing and its benefits?
- Are they a manager trained in basic workplace wellbeing awareness, making efforts to promote the benefits to others?
- Are they someone who in their role, already supports others?
- Are they someone who looks after themselves and communicates by example the value of wellbeing?
- Are they a wellbeing pioneer or a wellbeing thought leader?
- Is it someone who imposes their own frame of reference upon their employees?
And can someone be a Wellbeing Champion if:
- They don’t set a personal example with their own wellbeing or exercise poor self-care?
- They haven’t received any formal wellbeing training?
- They don’t champion the benefits of both physical and mental health and wellbeing?
The bottom line is that we need clarity in a workplace: from identifying employee wellbeing needs, who provides the first aid capability and what can be leveraged to promote good practice across workforces.
Existing people structures and communication channels can be leveraged and that most obviously offers managers as ideal conduits.
On paper, managers are potentially the best positioned to be Wellbeing Champions because they have formally recognised responsibility for team welfare and wellbeing, have a good awareness of all team members’ strengths and challenges and have influence with team members and on behalf of their teams.
Yet I believe that a Wellbeing Champion is more than someone who conveys a sense of permission and promotes the benefits of investing in individual and collective wellbeing. I think for a Wellbeing Champion to be credible; they need to be invested in their employees not only by design and personal connection, but understand the requirement for psychological safety in teams and be in a position to appreciate the factors and risks that can contribute to work-related stress. In other words, they need to be managers who authentically demonstrate an evident sense of responsibility and ownership, translated through applied knowledge and with the confidence to communicate the benefits clearly with their teams.
That is what genuinely generates permission for others.
The research organisation Gallup recently observed that with more and more management tasks becoming automated, managers may increasingly have more capacity to naturally evolve into human-centric mentors. This means they can invest more of this free capacity to support their people and help them meet their own individual needs by providing support and mentoring.
I’ll let you form your own view, but allow me to draw a line under a working definition of a Wellbeing Champion for now; let’s consider a Wellbeing Champion as: a manager who authentically demonstrates and communicates the benefits of good self-care and wellbeing in their conduct and work.
How these champions operate needs to have a potentially positive, inspirational and relatable impact upon others, so context is king here and the credibility and consistency of that manager will be key foundational elements. The stages of psychological safety tell us that in order to feel safe to learn, employees need to first feel included (and by association respected and valued).
Managers with a clear sense of responsibility for contributing to team wellbeing will at the very least understand psychological safety. Their actions should set the conditions for it, sustain it and they should be self-aware enough to recognise if they are ever compromising it themselves. If managers are to expect their teams to remain well, they must also strive to look after themselves, set that example and maintain those standards of self-care to promote the benefits and that sense of permission for others.
Setting the Example
I’d argue that a Wellbeing Champion must be a manager who sets the example and in doing so provides permission, inspiration, and opportunities for people to experiment themselves, make efforts to imitate their ‘good practice’ and learn from them.
Wellbeing Champions should be empathising with others and not expressing a singular solution for investing in and protecting wellbeing (i.e. “What you need to do is X”). They cannot afford to judge in the short-term, but be people who can help generate options, explore ideas with others, share ideas, share the benefits of their own experimentation. If someone wobbles, managers should be there to support, to guide and perhaps to mentor. Understanding individual employee challenges and those barriers to them living a healthy, productive life at work is a key element of what a manager should do.
Leveraging Learner Safety
Having struggled myself with the impacts of trauma, chronic stress, depression, anxiety and alcohol dependency, I recognise how easy it can take wellbeing for granted, lose control of it and fall from the pedestal, and as a manager its very easy for compromised self-care to affect others around you.
It’s not lost on me how hard it can be to get back on track and take control of one’s health again. We must also recognise that many people live with both physical and mental health challenges that they cannot necessarily control, yet only manage to some extent. It’s not always as simple as just making a few changes to ‘sort yourself out’, though small changes do have the potential to make a big difference over time.
The creation of the requisite time, space and permission to invest in and protect one’s own wellbeing with guidance and mentorship from others could perhaps be a new normal in workplaces over time. It is also simply the right thing to do and should I believe be considered good practice for managers and leaders.
The other element to consider here is that technology does not create time, space and permission – people do. Apps don’t inspire people and set the example. People do.
Clarity and Consistency
Some evidence from low level military studies suggest that two of the most valued qualities of a good leader or manager are clarity and consistency, which are fundamental for psychological safety: ultimately people know where they stand.
So perhaps being a Wellbeing Champion is just about being a good leader or manager, who beyond their own effective self-care actively sets the example through their own wellbeing as well as through their productivity and performance.
Being clear, consistent and fair as a leader or manager is key, and holding the team to account on your expectations whilst remaining supportive should nurture resilient team cultures which are built upon individual consideration, empathy and trust.
Authenticity and Honesty
Psychological safety is not about being nice and I’ve had to learn from team feedback myself. When I have struggled with my own self-care, my team have felt safe to share if and how it affects them (often upon invitation and sometimes not) – for them, not feeling settled, not knowing how to show up each day or communicate with me was derailing for them and was compromising their own sense of wellbeing.
It was never deliberate, but rather a reflection of how I often poorly managed ‘my own stuff’ as a manager, allowing myself to overwork, blur boundaries and a reliance on depleting, unhealthy habits.
As Adam Grant recently said, “it’s ironic that the people who need tough advice the most, are the least willing to hear it, but the truth is the only way to heal”. We can have the best intentions but demonstrating them is what matters and identifying as not unhealthy is not the same as being healthy.
The result of some of the honesty in my own team was me testing with a kinesiologist, discovering I was devoid of tryptophan, high on adrenaline and low on dopamine: as such I had no real natural stress reduction function, made worse by an alcohol dependency. Corrective action has allowed me to now re-evaluate and prioritise how I get further ahead with positive wellbeing and deal with challenges, ensuring I can be a more consistent example to those around me.
As much as the top-down requirement for example-setting is key i.e. by leaders and managers, supporting up the company structure is real – team members without management responsibility have a critical part to play in supporting their managers, with empathy, support or sometimes hard truths. This is where a cohort of relatable Wellbeing Champions who may not be managers can bear influence – they can positively influence up the structure and the people to the left and right of them.
This is a powerful element of a team dynamic as managers will often be the first to not give themselves the time, space and permission to properly invest in self-care and protect their wellbeing. In doing so, these team members become being champions themselves, contributing to evolving narratives and helping to support their colleagues as equals for better connected and healthier workplace cultures. A team member turning to a manager and saying “you do a great job, and can be kinder to yourself” is a great indication of psychological safety in teams.
In framing your own view of who and what a Wellbeing Champion should be, and how they contribute to your evolving workplace narrative, consider what qualities and capabilities they should possess or simply who energises those around them. Who already fits that profile and who is evidently doing it already? What do you need to do differently to be that champion and inspire the people around you?
Look out for next month’s thought leadership article where we’ll be focusing on what you can do to develop Wellbeing Champions in the workplace.
If you would like support in developing Wellbeing Champions in your organisation, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
We can provide you with strategy support and content for managers to engage their teams or a range of resources and courses to assist in that capability development. You can find out more about our line manager courses here.