The once-in-a-generation challenge of COVID-19 has shone a light on the importance of employee wellbeing. Our measures ensured everyone at Newham had the support they needed and deserved.

Our holistic wellbeing programme had been a core part of our portfolio of services for a few years. As well as our own initiatives, it was built on best practices developed by organisations as diverse as: NHS and Public Health organisations, Deloitte and our own Health Champions Network.

Importantly, we looked at the issue from every angle – we built awareness, turned understanding into action, and provided support and flexibility. We laid the path for a wellbeing journey.

COVID-19

As the pandemic evolved, we didn’t need to read the endless newspaper articles to know the people in our care would likely need the programme in greater numbers. We saw how stressful it was navigating through such uncertain times: fatigue, fear, the repetitiveness of Zoom call after Zoom call, and the gap between logging off and logging on feeling shorter by the day.

So, rather than reacting as events progressed, we set about learning how we could help Newham’s people through the crisis.

Responding at speed

Our first act was to set up a Wellbeing Subgroup of our most respected professionals. They looked at Newham’s wellbeing services, and what people would need during the pandemic – and highlighted the gaps.

Throughout, the team was mindful of the practicalities. Was a solution worthwhile? Is it being delivered in the right from? Would it be useful for people working from home, on critical frontline services, continuing in their normal place of work and those needing to shield?

A comprehensive approach

Naturally, mental health support was a key priority. We created the Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) support network, made up of employees who could be ‘booked’ for 30-minute private chats. We also added extra layers to the existing Employee Assistance Programme, including Group Resilience – helping entire families – and Bereavement Support.

All the details were on the intranet, and we drip fed communications, so everyone knew there was help if they needed it.

As time went on, specific services got in touch for advice. One conversation led to our ‘Wellbeing Conversations – A conversation worth having’ training module for Newham’s Children Social Work managers.

And taking a step further, we went on to work with CMT and psychologist and restorative wellbeing specialists to create our ‘Time to Talk’ initiative, where internal volunteers support colleagues by making the time to sit down with them and have honest wellbeing conversations.

Elsewhere, we delivered targeted sessions for Hub Managers feeling the strain of having such a responsibility for their community. We created and ran wellbeing other audience-specific workshops in person and over Zoom – sometimes for hundreds of people at a time, at other times for small leadership teams.

Keeping things normal

The annual staff survey in June 2020 was the perfect opportunity for us to understand how people were coping, what support was working, and what services were still perhaps missing.

One thing became abundantly clear: people needed hope. Everyone took great pride in supporting councils, communities and residents. But they needed to know there was a long-term plan, and that there were still things to celebrate.

This tied in well with our work on the Council’s staff benefits site, which also launched that June. While it was held virtually, Newham’s staff awards were also a roaring success. And to prove the new normal was a lot like the old normal, we brought to life an initiative we floated in 2019 – a cross-Council Wellbeing Week, with events ranging from Dealing with Stress and Anxiety in Difficult Times, to Let’s Talk About Menopause.

Building wellbeing that lasts

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that organisations with innovative and creative HR &OD teams have created stronger bonds with their people.

With a detailed and targeted approach to wellbeing, we ramped up Newham’s wellbeing strategy to deliver good value, cost-effective initiatives in trying circumstances. And these initiatives are going further than simply solving practical symptoms of any issues.

They’re giving people the opportunity to have real conversations about topics that used to be taboo, such as mental health. They’re helping us connect virtually and metaphorically more than ever. And they’re strengthening people’s resilience and agility – to everyone’s benefit.