Over the past year, the wellbeing of thousands of employees has been affected by the pandemic, especially that of humanitarian staff. Although the health crisis has changed everyone’s daily lives, the NGO workforce, who are dedicated to looking after others, face a particularly complex and unstable situation in both their personal and professional lives. These are employees who, due to the nature of their work, are continually exposed to health risk scenarios, which can give rise to higher levels of work stress and mental health problems.
This year, Bond UK and Cigna Europe are partnering together for a series of webinars, destined to help NGOs manage their staff’s wellbeing. On 29th April, the organisations hosted the second webinar in the series, subject matter was “Making the case for staff wellbeing and mental health”. The purpose of the event was to describe, by way of example, how organisations can work with their senior management to ensure that the staff’s Whole Health is prioritized, regardless of the size of the organisation or its budget.
Three team management experts were invited to speak: Orla Fee, Director of Communications and Public Engagement for ActionAid UK; Johara Boukaa, director of World Vision’s Global Staff Care Unit; and Michelle Leung, Human Resources Officer for Cigna International Markets. Mary Ann Clements, founder of Healing Solidarity, chaired the event.
The panellists agreed that they have an important duty as leaders to support the mental and physical wellbeing of their teams who are responsible, on a daily basis, for making their organisations function in order to help other people.
Orla Fee, director of Communications and Public Engagement for ActionAid UK, began the event by explaining that humanitarian aid organisations should put the wellbeing of their staff at the forefront of their organisational culture, to protect the health of their workers on an ongoing basis: “Staff wellbeing and mental health is something that needs to be front of mind all the time. The stories and case studies that our staff works with every day can be very upsetting and challenging. So, it is very important that we have a program of mental health and wellbeing initiatives that is comprehensive, that is available always and that is easy to access, and that we normalize using accessible resources for everyone. So, in ActionAid we try to talk about wellbeing continuously and we make sure it is a central part of our culture.”
The results of a study performed by ActionAid UK to evaluate how successfully it looked after its employees showed that 89% of its staff felt more supported by their managers during Covid-19 and 90% said that they had felt more supported by their organisation. But how do you place staff wellbeing at the forefront of this kind of organisation? Above all, Fee pointed out that the leaders of these organisations should be realistic and decide what corporate action can be postponed in the interests of staff health. In short, it’s about being honest about what really works in an organisation and which challenges need to be dealt with. It is also essential to be proactive in dealing with wellbeing, constantly analysing each new initiative and, above all, listening all the time to members of the organisation. This will achieve a culture focused on creating an environment that supports the needs of its staff.
Johara Boukaa, director of World Vision’s Global Staff Care Unit, presented a more analytical view of programmes designed to support staff wellbeing at humanitarian organisations. One of the turning points which led her organisation to care for and protect aid staff was the Indonesian tsunami in 2004: “One of the triggers for creating the Staff Care Unit was the tsunami. What happened was that the media started to say that we were doing so much work for people affected by the tsunami, but what were we doing for our staff? The leadership did not have a proper answer. So, the media helped a little bit with that and, finally, in 2007 was when our Staff Care Unit was established”. This is when World Vision realised that the employees within the sector tend to work long hours in stressful and dangerous conditions, and it is important to look after their health and wellbeing. Since then, the physical and mental wellbeing of national and international staff has been promoted, based on data obtained from continuous business cases. As Boukaa explained, the key to the success of World Vision’s health plans is to measure the results of all initiatives in order to know where to invest and the best way of doing so.
In relation to these practices, Michelle Leung, Human Resources officer for Cigna International Markets, highlighted the efficacy and ease with which the success of a health plan can be measured, insisting that a large budget is not needed in order to look after staff. The important thing is to have a holistic view which permits the identification of all factors influencing people’s wellbeing, taking into account their cultural characteristics and personal needs. Although we live in an increasingly global world, ideas such as wellbeing and health vary a great deal among different cultures.
In this regard, Leung stresses the importance of language when raising concerns with leadership: “If you need to get leadership buy-in you need to use their language. It is not about talking about stress or tired or non-engaged people. This doesn’t connect. You need to use other language and the best one to use with leaders is using concepts such as the benefits of adopting wellness programs or the costs of not doing anything. But when thinking about costs I would make it more dramatic. I wouldn't even call them costs; I would call them loss-drivers. Here is where you get the real attention because these loss-drivers can be measured and can be translated into costs”. In addition, these “business loss-drivers” will, in fact, be the first step in starting to develop an effective wellbeing plan. After pointing out the other parameters to be considered to evaluate a health plan (cost savings, commitment levels, impact on health and staff feedback), Leung recommended taking into account cultural aspects during the whole process so that organisations can respond more specifically to staff needs. In order to illustrate the importance of not ignoring the cultural component when dealing with people’s wellbeing and being able to deal with it from a holistic point of view, she mentioned Asia, where life revolves around the professional world and where the concept of stress at work or mental wellbeing is taboo.
Leung ended by discussing the main causes of stress in organisations right now and the importance of managers dealing with them by following the recommendations discussed in the session: “What is causing stress? Workload, long hours, deadlines… were probably the main reasons for stress last year. But there are two others causes of stress that we sometimes forget. The first one is constant changes in the organization. So, if change management is not being handled correctly, people who are not change-resistant can end up experiencing burnout and depression. Another reason we don’t often talk about is unclarity and uncertainty in the future. There is a lot around job insecurity in many industries because of Covid. Sometimes people are not clear about the expectations of the managers, so this can cause high levels of stress”.
To conclude, the webinar supported the premise that looking after people is essential for any institution, organisation, or community to prosper. It is therefore important for leadership to encourage an organisational culture that focuses on staff wellbeing and which has a structure that allows each step taken for the care of staff to be evaluated. As all four participants conclude, what is important is not so much the size of the organisation or its available budget but the ability of management to develop active listening and show itself to be authentic and vulnerable and able to imagine itself in the position of its staff to identify what they really need.
Access the full recording of the webinar on Bond UK website: https://www.bond.org.uk/resources/making-the-case-for-staff-wellbeing-and-mental-health
More resources to support your staff’s wellbeing:
- Bond and Cigna’s webinar on “Staff wellbeing in remote and humanitarian contexts”
- Cigna’s Webinar on “Building a Whole Health Culture and Supporting Workplace Resilience”
- Cigna’s Stress care hub
- Surviving 14 Months in Captivity - webinar with Camilla Carr & Jon James