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Workplace wellbeing strategy in practice: the Ministry of Defence

How does a large, complex organisation create a coherent mental wellbeing strategy that works? In the first of three episodes showcasing employers taking action on wellbeing, we’re joined by Martin Short, Head of Wellbeing, Inclusion and Diversity at the Defence Intelligence unit, which is part of the Ministry of Defence. 


This episode is for leaders, managers and advocates for mental health in the workplace. You’ll hear how Martin created a wellbeing strategy with distinct stages, what actions made a difference, and how you can influence others in your organisation to make wellbeing a priority. 


Episode resources: 


The Acas Framework for Positive Mental Health 


Five ways to wellbeing 


Headspace


Mental health first aid


Speak to an Acas adviser for tailored support



Transcript


Sarah  

Hello and welcome to the Acas podcast, I'm Sarah Guthrie, we are Acas, the workplace experts. And today I'm here with Martin Short, who is head of well being diversity and inclusion at the Defense Intelligence Unit, which is part of the Ministry of Defense. We are talking about mental health today. And what we really wanted to do at Acas is give real life examples of organizations who have headed this question of wellbeing face on and have created strategies and actions which have improved wellbeing in their organizations. So I'm delighted to be joined by Martin who we've worked with over the past year or two on mental health. Martin, to start off, I wondered if you could just explain what Defense Intelligence is? Because I certainly did not know before meeting you.


Martin  

Sure, Sarah, Well, I mean, intelligence itself is really just the sort of art or the science of helping people make better decisions. And so Defense Intelligence is a large business unit within the Ministry of Defense, and it provides an intelligence function for MoD, so it helps MoD and other government departments make better decisions. And we do that, in order to enable military operations or activities. Sometimes it's disaster relief, sometimes it's provision of aid to other countries, but we provide planning information that actually helps the government run operations.


Sarah  

That sounds like very significant work, and I'm guessing it can be stressful for your employees. How did you get involved in wellbeing Martin initially?


Martin  

I think my journey, really, I've done a number of different jobs in the MoD, I've worked abroad for best part of a decade as well, and I sort of came to a point really, it was probably around sort of 2015 or 2016, where, you know, I've been used to sort of seeing, you know, the normal stresses that you get in any workplace, really, you know. We've got staff that have to work to tight tight deadlines, particularly when they're working on crises. Quite often, you know, our specialists are only one deep and so, you know, we can put quite a lot of pressure on particular individuals, and, and also, you know, we've got the impact of constant change, you know, we're trying to date deal with emerging threats, you know, that the world doesn't stay static for any length of time nowadays. And so, that constant change that happens within organizations having to adapt to, you know, the macro environment as well, that can cause stressors for staff as well. But I mean, I think there are also particular sort of issues within organizations such as Defense Intelligence, because there are security concerns, you know, some of the material that we work with, we can't talk about. And so if B, if staff have had a particularly stressful day, it's not always possible to offload to friends or families in the way that might be in other organizations. In terms of effort to sort of de-stigmatize mental health, you know, such staff sometimes worry that if they, you know, fess up to a mental health condition, it might in some way affect their security clearances, and therefore, their job security. So we have sort of issues like that. But also, you know, we have to deal with some pretty unpleasant material from across the world, you know, we have to monitor the aftermath of terrorist attacks. So sometimes our staff have to go through visual material, which is potentially very injurious to mental health. And that's, you know, where they certainly need a little bit of extra support. And you know, where we really need to sort of focus on helping staff develop the skills they need to manage their mental health more effectively.


Sarah  

And so, back in 2015, you were noticing these issues and wondering what you could do about them?


Martin  

I think I became concerned about the just the lack of resources that we had in that particular area. So back then we didn't have a wellbeing set up within the organization, there was no real sort of depth and sort of mental health support at all. And so we really started looking at different ways in which we could provide that support. And I actually became sufficiently interested enough to take an 18 months secondment out of the organization. And I spent that time working with what works center for wellbeing. So I did that, I came back to the organization, I persuaded the head of the organization that because of some of the challenges that we had, it was well worth investing in this area. And you know, to his eternal credit, he listened. And we kicked that off in 2018. And we've been going ever since then, really. 


Sarah  

And so from that, the obvious question is, so what did you do?


Martin  

Well, we realized that we had to sort of learn how to walk before we could run with this. When we started, we didn't really have a corporate understanding of what we meant by wellbeing within the organization. And in particular, you know, I think a lot of people thought it was something rather soft and fluffy. And so there was a lot of work to actually expose the, you know, the current wealth of wellbeing evidence that's out there to staff, and help them understand that well being is something that mattered not just to individuals. It wasn't just a question of feeling happy in the workplace, but that there were hard business benefits to it as well. So that educate bit was really important, because it just enabled us to get to a sort of common understanding of what by what we meant by wellbeing. So we could then start to have better informed higher quality conversations. Now the other thing, because we're dispersed across dozens of different sites, I didn't know who was doing what at which site in wellbeing. And so we had another activity that we called connect, which was really just about identifying all the stakeholders who had an interest in wellbeing. And anyone who had an interest in wellbeing we pulled together and we formed them into a single stakeholder group. And that was the community that I created to work with over the course of the full program. And then the final one was measurement. We recognized the data that we had on well being was actually very low quality. And we knew that if we wanted to make improvements, we needed to get some sort of benchmark from which we could measure. And so we actually used a tool that was developed by the what work center for well being, and that actually created the benchmark we are now currently using to measure the effect of the interventions that we make as we go through the next few years. So that first stage of getting the basics right with its sub every element of educate, connect, and measure that was absolutely critical to it.


Sarah  

So there were these first phases of educate, connect and measure, just on the definition of wellbeing, what definition did you end up using? 


Martin  

I pulled it through from the what works work center for wellbeing because I, it's nice and simple. Well being for us, really, is simply how we feel we're doing, you know, as a nation, as communities, and as an individuals. How sustainable it is for the future. So it's very subjective in nature. And if you think about it, you know, the same situation can produce completely different well being outcomes in two different individuals, you know, one person might, you know, really like a particular environment, someone else might not like it at all. And so that's subjective nature of well, being the experiential angle of it, I think it's a really important one to recognize, you know, we're all different. And I think, you know, perhaps looking at the COVID experience, you know, you can see that some people have breezed through it without, you know, any ill effect whatsoever, other people have had an absolutely awful time through it. So again, that same sort of macro experience can have very, very different impact on individuals. And I think recognizing that well being is a subjective experience, and people can react differently to different situations, I think it's a really important one to try and acknowledge if you want to do something about it.


Sarah  

It's interesting, Martin, that definition of well being. When I think of the MoD, I think of a macho culture. I'm wondering, when you started that initial phase, did you get pushback on wellbeing as a word, either from employees or from managers who didn't think it should be a priority?


Martin  

I think it's so it's always had a right, you know, until probably about 10 years back, I think it's, you know, wellbeing's had a reputation of being something a little bit soft, fluffy and intangible. But I think what has changed over the past 10 years, is just the sort of volume of research that's now starting to indicate the, you know, there are real connections between workforces that have higher levels of well being and much, much better business outcomes. So, you know, there's already lots of evidence to, you know, show that, you know, higher levels of well being have an impact on performance, on productivity, on creativity, on resilience. And I think, particularly for our organization, you know, we're constantly having to respond to evolving threats. There's a lot of uncertainty in our business as well. And so we want people to, you know, to be innovative, to be creative, to come up with new ways of doing things. Because if we don't actually have a workforce that will experiment, wil try something new, then, you know, we stand very little chance of being able to evolve and, you know, meet the threats that are actually sort of that are actually out there. Yes, I think, you know, I think the military does has a reputation of being a macho culture, but I do think an awful lot has changed over the past, you know, couple of decades or so. So I do think the times are changing with that. But you know, MoD is a huge organization and, you know, change in any big organization is it's like turning an oil tanker. So it does take time. But I think we are heading in a good direction now.


Sarah  

And you began trying to shift that oil tanker with these phases of educate, connect measure. Moving on from that, what were the strategies, or what were the actions that you took to improve well being across the organization?


Martin  

We did take a structured approach. And I'll put in a plug for the ACAS mental health model, because we found that incredibly useful. So for those who don't actually know what it is, it basically breaks down what can potentially be a very complex workplace well being model, you know, when you look at well, being a well being challenge in its entirety, it can be quite daunting. But what what I did find that the ACAS model enabled us to do was break it down into manageable chunks. So that was to really look at, you know, what we could do to with at the individual level, what we could do at the manager level, and what we could do at the organization level. So the individual level was really about helping individuals develop the skills and resources they needed to better look after themselves. The manager level, it was about developing managers skills and awareness, so they could better promote well being a team level. And at the organizational level, it was about ensuring that well being considerations are applied to policies, processes and structures within the organization. So we actually have a culture the cultural series of cultural habits that enhance well being rather rather than sap it so breaking it, you know, that complex wellbeing puzzle into those three chunks, we found very helpful indeed, because it just made it a lot easier to manage.


Sarah  

So thinking about someone who's listening to this, who gets that this is a priority, what kind of maybe quick wins, might they be able to put in place, say in the next two months to six months that would really support their people's well being in what is undeniably a very stressful time?


Martin  

Sure. Well, I mean, I think, you know, let's go back to the a caste model with it. Because I do think it's helpful to look at, you know, what you can do individual manager and organizational levels. So, I think the one thing that I think underpins everything else is destigmatization, you know, I think all organizations need a culture where people have no embarrassment about talking about mental health, that, you know, people are happy and comfortable talking to managers or Mental Health First Aiders, when they get into struggling territory, and know that they're going to get the support that they need to get them, you know, up and running again as quickly as possible. So at the individual level, the basic framework that we use, and I think this is a really quick win for any organization is just adopting the five ways to wellbeing. This is a framework that's used, really as the sort of, you know, core healthy habits, sort of advice from the NHS. And it's really just a series of five habits, or you know, whether it's a really good evidence base to show that the more you can build into your daily routine, the greater the sort of beneficial effect on your well being, we did a mindfulness offer. So we partnered up with headspace on that they produce some metrics every month, I find that quite useful, because I'm able to see what packs people within the organization are accessing. And throughout COVID, the two big ones have been stress and sleep. So again, that gives me a sort of a bit of an indication of the sort of support that staff are looking for from within the organization. It's not exactly a quick win, but Mental Health First Aid. We've got a network of instructors now we feel that's really changed the dynamic on discussions of mental health within the organization. So it really helps with that destigmatization at the manager level. Probably a little bit more difficult, but I think anything that you can do to increase awareness and confidence of managers to talk about mental health issues, so whether that's mental health awareness, training, mental health, first aid training, all that stuff's going to help. And I think the other thing in terms of recognition and reward, we do have managers who do that little extra bit to actually make the workplace environment, you know, happier, healthier, more fulfilling place for staff then recognized and that's a very easy thing for organizations to do. So if you've got a manager who achieves results by cracking the whip harder, they're probably not the people you want to be rewarding. And I think at the organizational level, you know, what we did was we made sure that well being diversity and inclusion were permanently established as routine agenda items in all our senior management boards. We put in a mandatory objective each year to encourage people to get involved in well being and diversity in Inclusion activity. And that also provided a map mechanism, again, to say thank you to those people who did that a little bit extra went above and beyond, you know, for the sake of their communities and their teams. And then I think the final thing that we tried to do really not exactly a quick win was actually incorporating wellbeing training in through career training.


Sarah  

What strikes me listening to you is that you're not really thinking about mental health as this thing over here, that happens in a box that you've got your mental First Aiders on to kind of, you know, sort the symptoms. You're thinking, "Well, what else in the organization is increasing or decreasing the likelihood that someone feels good about their work? And how could what action can we take to increase the likelihood that they feel good and recognized and valued in their work?" Because you know that that will impact on their well being?


Martin  

I think so. So yeah, I think also, is, there's a little bit there on where you put well being. So you know, I think a lot of organizations have thought, "Now wellbeing, yes, it's about people, isn't it, so, you know, probably naturally fits into HR." But when you actually look at, you know, what drives well being the cultural aspects, I think it's far more sensible for organizations to look at treating well being as a foundation stone of their culture, you know, it's not a little hang on that you put into sort of HR, it, it is the very essence of your organizational culture. So, there is that need in any organization to feel that the workplace is fair, that, you know, you will be recognized for, you know, for effort that you put in, it's not, it's not going to be claimed by someone else, you'd like to feel part of something bigger, knowing that your contribution is actually sort of helping and, you know, helping a much, much bit, sort of a bigger aspect of work. And so I think, you know, that, that that positioning does become very important. I think, also, you know, well being, it's a sort of relatively late comer to organizations. And I think initially, a lot of the stuff we do is reactive, so we wait for people to develop a mental health problem, and then we try and fix it. I think as well being programs mature in organizations, they would be far better advised to actually start switching activity to the preventative, you're always going to need the reactive because, you know, we all have mental health. Sometimes we're great, you know, sometimes we're okay, sometimes we're struggling, and sometimes we're ill. But I do think that, you know, as you know, well being sort of effort matures within organizations, they're gonna need to look a lot more at the preventative side of it.


Sarah  

Thanks so much, Martin, that's been great to hear how you've approached well being in such a huge and complex organization like the mid breaking it down into these chunks and phases, thinking about what could support well being at these different levels of the organization, the manager and individuals. There's such a lot of food for thought in there about what drives good well being and how culture affects that and how we need to shift from preventing poor mental health rather than just treating symptoms. So thank you so much, Martin. This has been the best podcast, I've put links to some of the resources Martin mentioned, like the five ways to wellbeing and the Episode Notes and of course, the A CAS model. We hope you find them useful. And please don't hesitate to get in touch with a cast if you're looking for help with improving mental health in your organization. Thanks for listening.




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