Workplace Wellbeing: Positive role models at work 

Workplace wellbeing champions are on the rise. It’s a win-win-win for employers who see greater productivity, fewer sick days and lower staff turnover
Workplace Wellbeing: Positive role models at work 

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Stephanie Brady is adamant her daughter would not have been born if it were not for the support she received from her bosses when she worked at Dixons Retail.

“I got married at 32, and we started trying for a family when I was 35 but we ran into problems,” she says.

 “We went through miscarriages and multiple failed rounds of IVF. But thanks to our families, the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG) and my bosses at the time, we finally had Sophie, who is now 11.”

Brady doesn’t think she would have persevered were it not for her managers being so understanding. “They were so easy to talk to and so kind,” she says. 

“At one point, my immune system had to be suppressed for a month and they insisted I work from home. This was long before working from home was a thing, but they wanted to maximise my chances of getting pregnant.”

They also took a long-term view of Brady’s performance. “They knew I performed well overall, so they ignored the days when my performance mightn’t have been great — those days of the month when I would learn that another IVF cycle hadn’t worked, for example,” she says. “Had I had different bosses who weren’t as supportive, I might have given up before we had Sophie.”

She is aware that not everyone has the same experience. “Plenty of women worry about telling their boss they are having fertility treatment because they don’t know how their boss will react,” she says.

The 50-year-old from Newbridge, Co Kildare, is now head of HR at Dublin-based Retail inMotion.

She says she knows of employers who would like to support their employees but don’t know how. “As a result, employees end up going through it alone, which doesn’t need to happen. That’s why I volunteered to help NISIG create a workplace fertility policy that has since been used by more than 100 organisations nationwide. It outlines exactly what employers can do to help.”

As well as creating that workplace fertility policy, Brady has also become a champion for fertility issues in her workplace. “I encourage people to come to me with their problems and point them towards supports that are available,” she says.

Healthy and happy staff

While her focus is on fertility issues, Brady is representative of a broader trend in Irish workplaces. More and more of them are introducing champions, particularly wellbeing champions.

“These are employees who take charge of advocating for and supporting the health and wellbeing of other employees,” says Steven Kilroy, associate professor in human resource management at Trinity College Dublin. “Through their endeavours, champions can exert a positive influence on those around them by passing on their motivation and enthusiasm for wellbeing.”

Why are employers eager to introduce such champions? Kilroy explains that worker wellbeing influences a business’s performance because higher levels of wellbeing lead to higher output levels, lower absence rates, and lower staff turnover.

A 2022 report from the International Labour Organisation demonstrated that employee wellbeing is strongly associated with increased performance. “It’s a central priority for many progressive organisations to ensure their staff are healthy and happy,” says Kilroy.

Brian Crooke is the founder of the Work Well Institute, which offers a course in wellness champion training. A common misconception he has encountered is that workplace champions are a point of contact for employee complaints.

“This is not their role and there are other avenues employees can go through for that,” he says. “Instead, champions should be used to help facilitate the company’s health and wellbeing programmes.”

He gives examples of ways in which they can do this. Champions can encourage coworkers to attend wellbeing events and programmes by promoting them through word of mouth. They can become role models by demonstrating healthy behaviours.

“They should also be approachable and build colleagues’ trust by communicating openly and actively listening,” says Crooke. “They need to be knowledgeable about the resources and supports available within the company such as employee assistance programmes and they should provide feedback to the wellbeing leader for further improvement and development.”

Kilroy lists the different types of initiatives that workplace wellbeing champions might promote. “They could be involved in organising workshops, seminars and distributing information about wellbeing practices such as stress management, healthy lunches or physical activity,” he says.

Having these champions embedded in the workforce shows that wellbeing is a priority within the organisation, says Crooke. 

“If employees feel wellbeing is just another management or HR initiative, they are often reluctant to engage,” he says. “Creating a network of champions across the organisation can empower employees to get involved and to have a voice in the wellbeing programme at their workplace. It helps to make the wellbeing programme theirs, not just their organisation’s.”

Help from management

For champions to be successful, it’s vital the right people are chosen for the job. Champions should be passionate about wellbeing. “They should practice what they preach,” says Kilroy.

Because the role involves influencing and motivating others, leadership skills are helpful. “People with desirable leadership characteristics, including strong communication skills and emotional intelligence, would be an ideal fit,” says Kilroy. “It’s also imperative that they have good social standing with their colleagues.”

Champions need to be supported by management and the HR department. “Frequent communication is essential to ensure information is fed back to management in a timely manner,” says Kilroy. “While champions may be passionate about wellbeing, they may not always have the necessary tools to navigate the complex situations that can arise, so they should be encouraged to attend continuous professional development courses.”

They should also be allowed time away from regular work to devote to their extra-curricular duties as wellbeing promoters, says Kilroy, who adds it’s unfair to expect champions to continue to deliver to the same level if more demands are being made on their time.

Once adequately supported, champions can make a huge difference in their workplace. As department head, Brady has that support, and she works hard to improve employee wellbeing across her organisation.

“My aim is for everyone who works at Retail inMotion to feel like they belong, and they matter,” she says.

“There’s nothing worse than feeling alone and struggling by yourself. I see it as my job to start conversations about topics like infertility and to show others that they are welcome to join in, share their experiences and avail of the services and supports that we have to offer. Help is available. We have to let people know that all they need to do is ask for it.”

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