Inspiring a wellbeing culture through disruptive leadership challenge

Beth Ryder M&S - small

As a leading employer we have a significant responsibility to support our people’s wellbeing and to foster a culture where people can be themselves and flourish in and out of work. Plus, it’s no longer a secret that stronger levels of employee wellbeing and engagement are inextricably linked to business success and growth.

In my role as an M&S Wellbeing manager I am lucky to have a brilliant backdrop to draw inspiration from. Beginning with Flora Solomon pioneering for our employee’s welfare in the 30’s, to Cycling Sam, an enthusiastic M&S warehouse operative and our first Wellbeing challenger who cycled 7,173 miles to all of our stores in 1955. Also, we’ve all heard about when M&S used to have in-house hairdressers and chiropodists. In recent years we’ve been working hard to develop a programme of campaigns, initiatives, support tools and benefits based on the current physical and mental needs of our people.

For example: our annual ‘Weight Loss Challenge’ where we’ve lost 4 tonnes of weight safely to date (my favorite stat); our ‘Bike 24’ challenge; and, our charity linked initiatives, such as ‘Dementia Friends’ training, and ‘Breast Cancer Now’ campaign.

But like many employers right now, mental health in particular is one of the biggest threats to UK business and our communities, with mental ill health costing businesses over £1,000 each year for every employee, while the cost to the individual and their families and friends is immeasurable.

“mental ill health costing businesses over £1,000 each year for every employee”

We employ over 83,000 people in the UK in a range of roles across Retail, Office and Distribution and our challenge lies in driving a high performance culture to transform M&S into a stronger, more agile business –living our values in every part of the organization.

There are proven benefits from embedding a focus on employee engagement and physical wellbeing in M&S, and we recognize that strong mental wellbeing of our people is at the foundation of driving a high performance culture and sustainable growth within our business. This sort of change, however, cannot solely be brought about by an ‘HR led’ campaign.

In creating a company wide conversation on mental wellbeing we took a dynamic approach to how we engaged our senior leaders. We created a development programme ‘Fit to lead the Future ’ specifically designed to disrupt and challenge our most senior leaders in the business, taking them outside their comfort zone to understand how they would address key challenges in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world.

We purposefully chose mental wellbeing as a challenge on the programme and 20 senior leaders, sponsored by our CEO, spent 8 weeks with external charities and organisations understanding the agenda and challenging their own perceptions – for some this was quite uncomfortable at the beginning.

“the team engaged the entire leadership group (circa 165 leaders) on mental wellbeing and it has become a significant catalyst for a step change in M&S”

So inspired by their learnings on the programme and its application to transforming M&S, the team engaged the entire leadership group (circa 165 leaders) on mental wellbeing and it has become a significant catalyst for a step change in M&S. For example, in sparking the launch of a pioneering programme of ‘Dare to Care’ principles led by senior leaders to increase mental wellbeing and resilience at work.

In October 2015 we launched our biggest ever campaign on mental wellbeing across M&S. Our ‘Mental Wellbeing Week’ was led by the strap line ‘we all have mental health, you don’t have to be an expert to talk about it’ with a bold poster and social media campaign. We heard from courageous employees across the organisation and held peer and expert speaker events sponsored by our CEO, promoted with life size inflatable elephants (mental health — the elephant in the room).

M&S image

We used the week as a platform to launch new tools to support practical change, including an online resource hub for employees on resilience and mental wellbeing, and an essential guide on mental wellbeing at work for all line mangers. We also took the opportunity to up skill our HR teams and partnered with ‘Mental Health First Aid England’ to deliver training for all our HR Policy Specialists who support line managers day to day.

Looking back on the journey we have begun, our decision to engage our senior leaders in this way has led to critical sponsorship that in its authenticity has inspired our people to engage and be advocates in this important campaign. We know of many businesses are doing fantastic work to move this agenda on, and sharing experiences across businesses is critical to ensure the journey is genuine and doesn’t stop.


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