Managing mental health and wellbeing in international organisations

Wellbeing was a key theme running through the CIPD’s annual conference in Manchester this year, says Ruth Holmes. It is a central issue in the workplace, encompassing employers’ duty of care, productivity and good work.

Stress and mental wellbeing are particularly relatable issues in the global mobility, business travel and relocation sphere.
Stress and mental wellbeing are particularly relatable issues in the global mobility, business travel and relocation sphere.Surveys show the high emotional toll moving across borders can take on individual employees and their family members. Social isolation is one challenge among many, as is adjusting to new ways of working and teams.Two case studies from organisations that operate with international teams – War Child UK and the British Council – delivered to delegates on National Stress Awareness Day (the first Wednesday in November) offered perspectives on how initiatives and raising awareness are beginning to lighten the load for employees, both at home and away.

Why worry about stress at work?

Introducing the session on ‘Reducing Stress and Mental Health Issues at Work – identifying and tackling the root causes’, Rachel Suff – the professional body for HR and people development’s lead on health and wellbeing – cited recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research on the subject.According to the CIPD’s 2019 Health and Wellbeing at Work survey , two of the top three main risks to health and wellbeing at work are psychological: mental health and stress. Both are increasing according to CIPD research. It also shows that most companies are taking action and want to do something.“But less than half taking steps think their efforts are effective,” said Ms Suff, explaining why this session is important. “Most organisations aren’t hitting the right spot. Partly because not thinking about root causes and underlying factors.”Two organisations that are taking steps and addressing the bigger picture are War Child UK and the British Council. Andrea Vogel, former head of people and achievement at War Child UK, the organisation that seeks to protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children caught up in war, was joined by Andrew Spells, head of wellbeing at the international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities.They offered insights into how they identified stress was an issue, why managing workplace stress was important, the practices they developed and the progress made, along with the challenges.

War Child UK: Wellbeing and creating a good place to work

Like most charities, War Child UK has an extremely engaged and motived workforce, but operates on a tight budget. As the charity’s range of initiatives and outcome shows, however, having little or no budget is not an obstacle to creating healthier workplaces. “There are always things you can do for wellbeing,” said Ms Vogel, reflecting on her time at the charity.Describing the challenges that the organisation – which operates in nine countries around the world – faced when it came to working lives, Ms Vogel explained that long hours and no overtime policy or compensation were among the pressures of the job. “People might often work weekends, especially those in fundraising, and late at night too,” she said.Yet while sickness absence was low and people were always at their desks, the turnover rate told a different story. On average people stayed six months. This, along with the growth of the charity, which saw headcount double, necessitated the creation of a head of people role and a revamp of the salary structure coherent within the new organisation and competitive with the external market.
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As can often be the case, the time of the change had a significant impact on people's health and wellbeing. A key staff member had a period of extended sick leave and was very open about how the increased workload had affected their health. Their experience helped to kick-start War Child UK’s initiatives around wellbeing.Ms Vogel and her team created a holistic workforce programme, based on the CIPD’s Wellbeing model, supported by a “really good employee assistance programme [EAP]”. War Child UK now appoints workplace wellbeing champions, included in their job descriptions, and ultimately integrate the broad principle of healthy people into every policy - from autonomy and change management, pay and rewards, values and principles, flexible working and employee voice - with the goal of collective and personal growth.The changes “included flexitime and looked at line manager training because they are the first point of contact,” said Ms Vogel. “This recognises that line managers can have a really big impact on mental health at work.“The diversity and inclusion statement is really important, too. The social committee changed their agenda to include golf and trips to the cinema, rather than pub-based, so these were more inclusive.”War Child UK also now runs an annual employee survey. “We have a lot of people with good opinions and expertise. We want to hear it and adopt a more consultative approach.”Together, these initiatives have all seen the average tenure increase from 6 months to 2-3 years; work environment perception up 12 per cent; wellbeing up 8 per cent and engagement by 4 per cent. “People also started talking about their mental health – almost a greater achievement,” said Ms Vogel. “It changed the entire atmosphere and created empathy for each other. That’s important and the part we are really proud of.”

British Council: building a resilient global workforce 

The British Council employs 10,000 staff in more than 100 countries. While it is a larger body than War Child UK, Andrew Spells agrees that budget is not the issue for corporate wellbeing programmes.“For me, it’s about buy-in. There is a lot going on in organisations. We are also quite a complex organisation. Most of our people are not UK nationals or work in the UK. Wellbeing is also fairly low down on the agenda when you are facing funding cuts and other pressures. But I think now are making some headway.”Sharing what works for the British Council with HR delegates attending the CIPD’s annual conference and exhibition, Mr Spells pointed to three key aspects on the British Council’s journey to date:
  1. Agree what you mean by wellbeing
  2. Use resources available to you and benchmark. Documents that have informed the British Council are Thriving at Work (from the Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers) and the MIND Workplace Wellbeing index.
  3. Present the findings of 1 and 2 to the senior leadership team and ask where do they want to go with this? What is your ambition for well-being?
For the British Council, their approach is responding to the realities of today’s world. “Workplace stress deserves more time,” said Mr Spells. “Life is tough and very competitive. We need to do more with less. There are things organisations can and should do.“We are helping people to recognise their personal response and be resilient. We are getting quite a lot of traction using the confidence, purposefulness, social support and adaptability approach. The key message is that this can be learned. We can develop it. We are rolling out webinars inviting people to think about themselves in this.“We are also offering an organisational response and have measures put in place. Line managers are absolutely key. They are the focal point for a lot of organisations.”Given the pressures of running an international organisation with a diverse and widely spread team, here Mr Spells placed particular emphasis on HR’s influencing role.Among the measures the British Council are either trialling or have in place are policies and support mechanisms, stress risk assessments, job design and management of change. Using HSE management standards the British Council created a proof of concept that could be sold into senior management.“Preparing the ground is very important. You need to create the demand and look for opportunities. Find the right language and approach. Patience is needed – it’s a long and winding road. Just keep at it. It’s been four years and we are about to make a significant step forward,” Mr Spells added.

For more news and features, see our Global Health & Wellness section. 

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