Workplace wellbeing strategy in practice: the Ministry of Defence

This episode of the Acas Podcast is the first of 3 episodes showcasing employers taking action on wellbeing.

We're joined by Martin Short, head of wellbeing, inclusion and diversity at the Defence Intelligence Unit, part of the Ministry of Defence.

We discuss:

  • how Martin created a wellbeing strategy with distinct stages
  • what actions made a difference
  • how you can influence others in your organisation to make wellbeing a priority

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Sarah Guthrie: 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 wellbeing, diversity and inclusion at the Defence Intelligence Unit, which is part of the Ministry of Defence. We are talking about mental health today. And what we really wanted to do at Acas is give real life examples of organisations who have headed this question of wellbeing face on and have created strategies and actions which have improved wellbeing in their organisations. 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 defence intelligence is? Because I certainly did not know before meeting you.

Martin Short: 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 Defence Intelligence is a large business unit within the Ministry of Defence, 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 the normal stresses that you get in any workplace, really, you know. We've got staff that have to work to tight deadlines, particularly when they're working on crises. Quite often, you know, our specialists are only 1 deep and so we can put quite a lot of pressure on particular individuals, and, and also, we've got the impact of constant change. We're trying to 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 organisations 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 organisations such as Defence Intelligence, because there are security concerns, you know, some of the material that we work with, we can't talk about. And so 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 organisations.

In terms of effort to sort of de-stigmatise 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, 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 organisation, 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 in it to take an 18 months secondment out of the organisation. And I spent that time working with What Works Centre for Wellbeing. So I did that, I came back to the organisation, I persuaded the head of the organisation 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 realised 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 organisation. 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 wellbeing 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 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 recognised the data that we had on wellbeing 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 Works Centre for Wellbeing, 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 elements 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 Centre for Wellbeing because it's nice and simple. Wellbeing for us, really, is simply how we feel we're doing, you know, as a nation, as communities, and as 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 wellbeing outcomes in 2 different individuals. You know, one person might really like a particular environment, someone else might not like it at all. And so that subjective nature of wellbeing, the experiential angle of it, I think it's a really important one to recognise, 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, perhaps that same sort of macro experience can have very, very different impact on individuals. And I think recognising that wellbeing 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 wellbeing. 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, 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 that, you know, there are real connections between workforces that have higher levels of wellbeing and much, much better business outcomes. So, you know, there's already lots of evidence to, you know, show that higher levels of wellbeing have an impact on performance, on productivity, on creativity, on resilience.

And I think, particularly for our organisation, 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, will 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 out there.

Yes, I think, you know, I think the military does have a reputation of being a macho culture, but I do think an awful lot has changed over the past couple of decades or so. So I do think the times are changing with that. But you know, MoD is a huge organisation and, you know, change in any big organisation is 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 wellbeing across the organisation?

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 wellbeing model, you know, when you look at a wellbeing challenge in its entirety, it can be quite daunting. But 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 at the individual level, what we could do at the manager level, and what we could do at the organisation 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 wellbeing at team level. And at the organisational level, it was about ensuring that wellbeing considerations are applied to policies, processes and structures within the organisation.

So we actually have a series of cultural habits that enhance wellbeing rather than sap it. So breaking it, you know, that complex wellbeing puzzle into those 3 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 2 months to 6 months that would really support their people's wellbeing in what is undeniably a very stressful time?

Martin: Sure. Well, I mean, I think, you know, let's go back to the Acas model with it. Because I do think it's helpful to look at, you know, what you can do at individual, manager and organisational levels. So, I think the one thing that I think underpins everything else is destigmatisation, you know, I think all organisations 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 organisation is just adopting the 5 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 5 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 wellbeing.

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 organisation are accessing. And throughout COVID, the 2 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 organisation. 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 organisation. So it really helps with that destigmatisation.

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 a happier, healthier, more fulfilling place for staff, then recognise them and that's a very easy thing for organisations 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 organisational level, you know, what we did was we made sure that wellbeing 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 wellbeing and diversity and inclusion activity. And that also provided a 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 organisation 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 recognised and valued in their work?" Because you know that that will impact on their wellbeing?

Martin: I think so, Sarah. I think also, there's a little bit there on where you put wellbeing. So you know, I think a lot of organisations 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 wellbeing, the cultural aspects, I think it's far more sensible for organisations to look at treating wellbeing as a foundation stone of their culture.

You know, it's not a little hang on that you put into sort of HR, it is the very essence of your organisational culture. So, there is that need in any organisation to feel that the workplace is fair, that, you know, you will be recognised 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 a much, much bigger aspect of work. And so I think, you know, that positioning does become very important.

I think, also, you know, wellbeing, it's a sort of relatively latecomer to organisations. 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 wellbeing programs mature in organisations, 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 OK, sometimes we're struggling, and sometimes we're ill. But I do think that, you know, as wellbeing effort matures within organisations, they're going to 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 wellbeing in such a huge and complex organisation like the MoD, breaking it down into those chunks and phases, thinking about what could support wellbeing at these different levels of the organisation, the manager and individuals. There's such a lot of food for thought in there about what drives good wellbeing 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 5 ways to wellbeing and the episode notes and of course, the Acas model. We hope you find them useful. And please don't hesitate to get in touch with Acas if you're looking for help with improving mental health in your organisation. Thanks for listening.