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Leading a new wave of workplace wellbeing around the world

Stephen Grassby was appointed Serco’s first ever Group Head of Workplace Health and Wellbeing in September 2019. Less than six months later, Covid-19 flipped the paradigm for workplace wellbeing, almost overnight.

“After the initial shock,” says Stephen, “I was struck by this overwhelming need to do something; to help people. We all were. We saw that our best first move was to be clear and decisive about protecting people and keeping Covid-19 out of the workplace wherever possible. Our focus quickly evolved to cover broader wellbeing concerns, such as the impact on homeworkers and those in hospital environments, and equipping managers to support their teams.”

Formerly Partnership Manager for Serco Leisure in Birmingham, UK, Stephen’s career has always focused on health and fitness. Helping colleagues to stay well, physically and mentally, has always been a priority, and his new role takes this to a whole different level.

“We want our people to be healthier, happier and equipped to look after themselves and, in so far as we can, those they care about or love. We have tremendous opportunities to make a big difference by encouraging them to live well and making it easier for them to do so.”

For Stephen, the science is clear: all dimensions of health are linked, and physical activity is fundamental, but often overlooked:

“We know there’s a link between lifestyle and noncommunicable diseases. Someone who exercises is less susceptible. Even 30-minutes every day can have a profound impact – on mental health as well as physical. People don’t always make those connections, though.”

That’s where employers can make a difference:

“We have a responsibility to protect our people. That includes offering them the right support to achieve and maintain a better state of wellbeing, as well as working to reduce physical and psychological risks in the workplace.”

Stephen identifies mental ill health, musculoskeletal risks (“Many of our colleagues do hard physical work every day”) and inactivity (“Which is not exclusive to desk workers”) among Serco’s main wellbeing risks.

“We look after a diverse workforce undertaking complex tasks across a complex business landscape,” says Stephen. “The diversity is staggering. Every role, in every sector, in every geography – they all have different risk profiles. Our job is to identify, understand and assess all of the risks – psychological as well as physical – and put appropriate controls in place.”

Managers have an important part to play:

“Getting it right means regular engagement with our teams, and not just about the work. We want it to become natural to look after our colleagues the same way we look after family and friends. It’s about knowing our colleagues better and helping them to meet their needs, whether that’s through flexible working arrangements or connecting them with the right support and advice.”

The results of the Company’s employee survey in 2020 – in which the question, ‘my manager cares about my wellbeing,’ scored an average 76 out of 100, up 12 from 2019 – clearly demonstrate progress.

For Stephen, top down engagement with wellbeing as a strategic priority is the game changer:

“For a company to invest in a role like mine and create opportunities for positive change is amazing. Few employers are doing it. Our leaders get it and they take it seriously. They’re positive and supportive, and we have some brilliant role models who are comfortable sharing their own experiences.”

That strength of support depends on a deep and mature understanding of the benefits:

“It’s not just about reducing absence, it’s about delivering consistent, quality service for our customers and enhancing the colleague experience to attract, retain and grow great people. Colleague wellbeing is a huge factor in sustainable prosperity – for the business and for our people – and we can all see that.”

While Covid-19 took everyone by surprise, the progress already made meant that plans at Serco didn’t have to change, only accelerate:

“We were able to respond really, really quickly. Wellbeing was already climbing rapidly up the agenda, and we had good services and resources in place to help us look after and educate our people. What we did was build rapidly on those foundations to expand and enhance our provision, bringing forward some of our plans for 2021.”

Igniting a strong and perpetual heartbeat of communication around wellbeing has been critical to success:

“For all of us, one of the greatest challenges at this time is our separation from those we want to help. Ordinarily, I’d be out there on the frontline, seeing and experiencing what our people are going through and letting them know we’re here for them. Fortunately, new technologies are helping us take virtual engagement to a whole new level. We threw open the doors and brought everyone in. Before it was an open conversation, now it’s like a worldwide concert – with a lively schedule of leaders, role models and wellbeing experts up on the stage for all to see and hear.”

With plenty more planned for the future, inactivity is certainly not a risk for Stephen and Serco’s growing network of wellbeing champions around the world:

“2020 taught us a lot, but there’s always more to learn. We’re going to keep learning, keep communicating and keep working to ensure everyone has access to the right support. We’ve just completed a study into the impacts of homeworking with Serco ExperienceLab, and we’re working with frontline colleagues and UK Active to explore the benefits of being active throughout the working day. I’m confident the results will be compelling and beneficial for all our colleagues, and I’m looking forward to working with the business to inject even more healthy energy into every Serco workplace.”