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12 October 2020

Safeguarding line manager wellbeing: the role of internal communicators


‘Coming unstuck’ was an appropriate and timely title for Sequel’s most recent Sequel Presents webinar which looked at the increasing pressure line managers are facing when it comes to managing remote teams.

Sequel director Nick Andrews and Mairi Doyle, Director of Internal Communication and Wellbeing at global healthcare specialist Bupa, discussed how line managers – often the ‘glue’ of an organisation – are becoming increasingly responsible not only for productivity but also for their team’s mental and physical health. But is that really their role and how can internal comms teams support them if they themselves are struggling?

“HR looked after wellbeing in the past, but the penny has dropped in a lot of organisations at the top level.” Mairi Doyle, Director of Internal Communications and Wellbeing, Bupa

As the pandemic shows no sign of abating, Mairi highlights how making employee wellbeing a part of the corporate narrative can boost productivity, the importance of constantly measuring the employee experience, using data to create genuine insight, and the role of internal communications in promoting the resources and tools available to help people.

Watch a recording of webinar or read the transcript below to learn some insightful wellbeing and internal communication advice.

YouTube video

Want to know more?

Visit Bupa’s Wellbeing Hub for some free resources or click here to find out how you can measure employee experience.

Nick

Welcome everyone to the second Sequel Presents webinar. Today’s conversation is around the line manager. I’ve called it ‘coming unstuck’ because obviously line managers have been known for a long time to be the glue of the corporate organisation. But obviously this year has been like no other year. It’s very different, and there is a feeling perhaps that some of our line managers are coming a little bit unstuck at the seams. So what are we going to do to make them feel better? And how can we safeguard their wellbeing?

I’m delighted to be joined today by Mairi Doyle. Hello Mairi

Mairi

Hello

Nick

Mairi is the Director of Internal Communication and Wellbeing at Bupa, which is quite a unique role and she’ll talk a bit more about that in the minutes to come.

Just to say if you have any questions or observations within the next 30 minutes, then please feel free to use the chat facility and we’ll do our best to answer any questions either at the end of the session or we’ll forward them on to Mairi afterwards. But if you want to join the conversation, you’re more than welcome to. And in the meantime, I’m just going to play a little video clip to put today’s topic into a little bit of context.

[Clip about wellbeing tools being introduced by Microsoft]

Nick

So obviously Microsoft have realised that line manager wellbeing and possible burnout is an issue and they’re obviously incorporating that into their new tools (other platforms are available, we should say that at the moment). Mairi, obviously it’s a concern that Microsoft have, and they realise this is a problem. But perhaps there’s a positive spin on the fact that they are at least recognising this? Before we go into the detail of what we’re talking about this morning, can you give us a little bit of context into your role at Bupa, because as I said it’s quite a unique role. How are you approaching that?

Mairi

So yeah, I guess it is a bit unusual. I mean, I joined Bupa as the Director of Internal Comms and I quickly got really interested in the whole wellbeing side of things and it really was just an opportunity that came up. The director of wellbeing moved on and then Bupa just asked me if I’d be interested in taking that on as well.

And I kind of jumped at the opportunity and I’ve absolutely loved it. And the connection between – because often you can have some really great tools and practices and services and benefits and stuff, but really, you know, people don’t know how to access them and they’re not aware of them, so actually linking the communications element to make sure that they’re properly promoted and communicated kind of made sense, so I’ve really enjoyed it, but I know it is a quite an unusual role. So I would say to people, if there’s internal comms people listening to this, one bit of advice I’d give is get to know your wellbeing people really well and just offer to partner up with them. I think that’s a really easy thing to do.

Nick

There was a Harvard Business Review study recently that said 40% of managers or supervisors have got low self confidence in their ability to handle remote workers and obviously the pandemic this year has put that into context.

How do you think this has impacted the role of line managers, particularly at Bupa possibly?

Mairi

Yeah, I mean, well, everywhere really. And I guess if you weren’t used to remote working, you have to recalibrate it for yourself if you were a manager, then you are having to think about what adjustments that you might have to make for team members who had lots of things to juggle.

I mean, you know, there were some people that were juggling childcare and not having space to work and anxiety and all sorts of things. So it was very intense for people and even the way that working went online, I think intense is the word that I used probably most often to begin with, you know, everything was online and you were glued to your  screen if you were working remotely for a long time, so I’m not surprised about that research at all.

Nick

So some people have said being at home has been kind of less stressful, but for a lot of people it’s made their job even harder. How hard is it for line managers to communicate to their teams when they’re struggling themselves? They are kind of stuck in the middle there aren’t they?

Mairi

The thing is you don’t either struggle or not struggle in my experience. I think people have times or days when they struggle, and they have times or days when they might not struggle. It’s not a set thing, so I guess it’s line managers that are sort of squeezed in the middle. You’re taking direction from the leaders, but you’re also trying to work with your team, get the work done, but also care for them. And it is hard to be honest and upfront when you’re struggling yourself, but we really try and encourage people to be authentic and be human and to just share how they’re genuinely feeling. And one thing that can help with that is if you get senior leaders to do that and to role model that ‘hey, it’s okay’ – I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase a hundred times – ‘it’s okay to say you’re not okay’. But I think sometimes you need, and again, this is where communicators can help, is if you start to share stories from leaders – and not the usual suspects either. If I’m the person sharing the story, that’s one thing, but you know, I have wellbeing in my title. I think it’s much more powerful if you have somebody who’s running a business or, as I say not the usual suspects, and they share their stories. That’s quite a good way to help managers realise, ‘you know what, this is a culture here where it’s okay to say how I’m really feeling’.

Nick

Okay. So obviously comms people can be a bridge between those line managers and leaders, but there was another survey, a YouGov survey where only 37% of employees said the CEO showed any empathy towards their plight. So 37% implies there’s quite a large gap there. How can communicators help bridge that gap?

Mairi

Yeah, again, it’s working with the CEOs and the top team trying to build that into a corporate narrative. Actually, just on that little thing that you started off with about Microsoft; great that they are doing that, really pleased that they are doing that. One of the things that I possibly have a little bit of a different view on, I think, is one of the phrases around prioritising wellbeing over productivity. Actually, my view on that would be when you concentrate and focus on people’s wellbeing, actually efficiency and productivity increases. It’s not a tradeoff. It’s not productivity or wellbeing. If you want sustainable performance in your business, then the health and wellbeing of your people is really important, and there’s lots of research that supports that.

So I think a conversation with your CEO to help them realise that if you’re wanting your business to have really sustainable high performance, getting through this really difficult period and beyond, then actually the health and wellbeing of your people is really important, and for them to talk about it, to build it into the corporate narrative, I think is really important. And to be saying to managers, actually, what’s really important to us, for you to be able to lead your teams well, is for you to look after yourself first. I often get asked ‘what is the most important thing a manager can do to help support their team’s wellbeing?’ and actually the first thing they can do is think about, ‘okay, how am I going to look after my own wellbeing?’ Because when you do that, then you’re signaling it’s not what I say, it’s what I do. And then you give everybody the permission to prioritise that and when people do that, productivity is really high. You get things done – quicker and to a higher quality – when you’re feeling well.

Nick

And do you think CEOs and executives realise that or do you think that’s a battle we’ve still got to win?

Mairi

One of the things I think Covid has changed is that mental health is starting to be talked about at the top table in a way that it never was before.

I think wellbeing was often the HR team that looked after it, whereas now my experience is that in the senior teams the penny has dropped in a lot of organisations and they’re starting to have conversations at the top level. And in my other role, on the internal comms side of things, I sometimes support senior leaders when they’re doing things like this webinar, sometimes outside our organisation, where people are interested in how Bupa has coped because of the pandemic and every single one of these webinars, podcasts, interviews, panel discussions, every single one of them, people have raised the thing around wellbeing and mental health in particular. So we’re seeing more and more organisations starting to get this. So I think if there’s some good things to take from this awful situation, I think that’s one of them – it’s put a focus on it.

Nick

So, okay, I get the CEO’s are obviously more aware and are beginning to act on it. Do you think they are still however, putting too much pressure on line managers and just expecting them to cope?

Mairi

Yes. I think one of the things that I hear often is that line managers are responsible for wellbeing. And I don’t like that phrase at all because what they are responsible for is creating the environment to support people’s wellbeing. My manager is not responsible for my health and wellbeing. I am responsible for that. And it might just be that I feel that I need permission to look after my health and wellbeing, and that’s what the manager can give me. But I do worry when I hear and see that because I think that puts too much pressure on the manager and actually we’ve just done some research, it’s not concluded yet, but we’ve been doing some research with our own managers and one of the things that they feel is they say they worry. They don’t feel they have the confidence to speak to people properly about wellbeing. And they worry that if they open up a conversation that they wouldn’t be qualified to conduct that properly. And we don’t managers to feel that they’re becoming counsellors or clinicians. That’s definitely not what you want. What you want is for managers to feel that they can look out for the signs in their teams for when people are going off course, and then they know what support’s available and how to signpost and help people get that. And you can help them by giving them conversation guides and training and stuff like that.

But I do worry that a lot of managers feel that everything’s on their shoulders and they’ve got to take on the responsibility for their team’s individual wellbeing as well. And I don’t think that’s right.

Nick

And I think they’ve said obviously that pressure is a big thing for them. Part of that pressure is about being expected to be good communicators as well. And as we know, not all line managers are great at that. It’s not necessarily in the job description when they joined the organisation. Tying that in with the wellbeing, how can internal comms teams like yourself support line managers with the ability to get comms across as well? Is it about behaviour and leading by example, or is it, as I’ve read recently, about giving line managers tactical, practical support toolkits? I think it’s probably more than that, isn’t it?

Mairi

Yeah, it’s, it’s all of that, isn’t it? I mean, again, I think one of the things with the intensity of a lot of people working from home is really advise communicators, and I’m trying to do this myself, is we look at the way that you are helping managers communicate. Less is definitely more, and we’ve had this conversation in the past. We’ve looked at some of the communications to managers and we’ve changed it, so it’s much more about, you know, ‘these are the three things that will help you’, ‘here’s a visual thing’, as opposed to lots and lots of words and PowerPoint slides and stuff.

Keep it really, really, really simple and I guess while we say that not everybody’s a natural communicator and stuff, it’s trying to help people to just be more human and not feel that everything has to be more formal. That’s something else that I think remote working has helped. It’s a bit more informal now in a lot of situations.

And I think that’s helpful. Not everything needs to be really polished and formal communication. So just try and say to managers ‘just be yourself and speak, be curious about your team and what circumstances they’re in, share with them the circumstances you’re in, you know, figure out what can be done to help’. So I think you have to make adjustments for people given the circumstances that they’re in.

Nick

And I’m sure they’re all different in terms of what they can take on board and what they can communicate and the level of support you give them is different.

Just a quick question on perhaps measurement. How are you measuring the wellbeing of your line managers and how are you measuring their effectiveness as communicators, if indeed you are?

Mairi

We don’t particularly measure their effectiveness as communicators. One of the things that we’ve been measuring through Covid is do people feel that they’re getting the right support from their managers?

And actually, the last one that we did was 91% or 92% of people. So what we were finding at Bupa is that managers were really stepping up. We’re seeing that they’re doing the regular check-ins, they’re having the one to ones, they’re having the conversations with people about how are they doing before they even start talking about the work. And in fact that’s the thing I guess that we’ve been measuring most of all. In terms of wellbeing, that’s always been a tricky thing to measure back, in fact we’re looking at that too, but it’s all the stuff around absenteeism, the people that take up the employee assistance programme, that sort of thing, which is a good thing when people actually seek some support if they need it.

One of the things that we’re looking at is what sort of dashboard we’re going to be looking at to look at all the different measures and making sure that you turn that data into insight. Because I think there’s a difference between data and insight. The data might tell you one thing, but you have to then interrogate it to make sure that you understand exactly what it’s telling you.

Nick

How would you do that? That’s an interesting point.

Mairi

One example is perhaps the numbers of people calling the employee assistance programme shoot right up. The data might say that’s a bad thing, you might have a problem, but if you interrogated that more, it might show you that actually you’ve just done a campaign – internal comms has just done a campaign – saying if you’re struggling, here’s a number to call and actually more people have sought help more quickly. That’s a good thing. So that’s the difference between insight and data, and sometimes you just need to follow up. It could be with focus groups and stuff or interviews and stuff. That’s what we’re doing at the moment. We’re doing interviews with managers and employees, just to make sure that we’re not making the wrong assumptions about some of the data that we’ve got.

Nick

There are obviously a number of measurement tools out there. Sequel ourselves have one – MetrIC (there’s a plug!) – that we’ve just launched which measures the workplace experience and wellbeing of people on a kind of pulse survey basis. How important is it to measure regularly, Mairi, and to keep on top of this and to remind the execs that actually these guys have got a problem – or not, as the case may be.

Mairi

Yes. I think it is important. And we talk about an ongoing conversation. So I think that on two sides of things. One, in the corporate narrative, keep the conversation going about wellbeing through your channels all the time, keep it at the leadership level and then be encouraging managers to have the conversations on a daily basis, and then be measuring that regularly, so in your pulse surveys, or whatever surveys you have, be asking people about their health and wellbeing and do they feel supported, and then make sure that you are analysing the verbatims as well as just the numbers. That’s where you get the richness.

Nick

We talked just before we came on air about what the future might hold, and we’re not sure obviously, like any of us. You haven’t got a crystal ball, I know, unless you have one up your sleeve – how would you see the role of the line manager developing in say the next six months or a year? Do you think they are going to be under more pressure? Are they going to adapt, or are they going to get pandemic fatigue? What do you think? What are you seeing from your colleagues at Bupa?

Mairi

One of the things why we’re doing this research with managers and employees right now is to make sure that we are anticipating… Look, I know that I work for Bupa, so I’m in a very privileged position. We do a lot of this stuff and have done for years and I get that. It’s not the same everywhere but even for us, we’re saying actually, as this goes on – and we’re looking at this globally as well – we’re anticipating that things like anxiety and other issues like that are going to increase, so what more do we need to be doing? What else can we support with? What more training and what more resources? Our sense is that we’ve probably got a lot of resources at the moment. It’s just how do we make sure that people can access them really easily and make sure that people are getting the training ongoing?

So I think if I was looking ahead to the next six months, the role of managers is going to become increasingly important. I also do have quite a lot of hope as well. You talked about some of the research you had found and, in fact, I see more and more research where more and more organisations are understanding  this whole thing around people being more human, about people having empathy, about that whole care and encouragement and all of that which used to be called (and I hate the phrase) ‘softer skills’. It’s not softer stuff. It’s what makes you human and I see more and more research confirming that more and more organisations are understanding that when skills like that are given more prominence, that in fact the organisation works faster and better and provides their customers with a better service.

Nick

All right. Well, I won’t use the word ‘soft’, but my next question was going to be around the fact that the pandemic is obviously hitting businesses hard in terms of revenue and investment in issues such as employee wellbeing. Whether we call it soft or not, is that going to be an issue, because it’s very tempting for a CEO or FD to think it’s kind of a soft skill? Do we need it? Is it going to make us more efficient? We’ve already answered that, but do you fear that some organisations may take a step back or are you still full of hope?

Mairi

Well, I mean, it’s possible, but certainly what we are seeing at Bupa is that more and more organisations are now coming to us to ask for support.

In fact, on Bupa.co.uk there’s a workplace wellbeing hub, and there’s lots of resources on there that are free for people. And actually, I do have hope that rather than less investment in it, it could be more investment, because like I said at the beginning, I do see that it’s going up the board’s agenda.

But I also get there are challenges and boards and exec teams are having to make tough choices. Not everything has to come with a budget attached to it though. Conversations cost nothing.  And you know, one of the best things when we say for managers to have self-care, we talk to them about looking after their bodies, but also their minds. We talk to them about sleep and diet and exercise and relaxation and social connection. And then we talk to them about keeping a positive mindset and how they reframe, how they focus. None of that costs a fortune. That’s something that, again, communicators can help with by working with the wellbeing teams to say: What are the tools and resources? How can we get that to managers?

Nick

What about internal comms people as a group? They are managers too. They’re having to communicate and look after themselves. I mean, they’re in a very difficult position, aren’t they?

Mairi

Yeah. Look, you know, I’ve struggled through this as well. I’ve had – like I’m sure all of us have – had bad days and good days as well.

So again, you can feel the weight of the organisation on your shoulders; you can feel that you’re responsible for every single thing that’s communicated or everybody’s wellbeing. And I know it sounds simple, but it is the most useful tip and piece of advice I can give to people:  learn what it is that you need to keep yourself well, and what you need will be different from what I need Nick, and plan that into your day.

That was good about the Microsoft stuff, helping people have a bit of structure to the day and a routine. For you to be the best possible communicator, for you to be the best possible manager or leader, for you to be the best possible mum or dad or whatever, you actually have to look after yourself first – It’s like putting the oxygen mask on first – and build that into your working day. I promise you, I promise you it will make a difference if you do that.

Nick

And you’ve got evidence obviously?

Mairi

Yeah, it works. I’m not a clinician and I’m not a scientist, but our bodies are not designed to, you know, run full throttle all the time.

And this is one of the things that working from home brings; we’ve stopped taking the breaks, we’ve stopped doing some of these things, and our bodies are not designed to do that. And when we carry on doing it, then you get sick. It’s just science. You don’t even need research, it’s just science. So by making sure you build that into how you look after yourself will make a difference to your performance, I promise you.

Nick

Okay, well, we’ll hold you to it! I’m sure it’s right. A couple of people have mentioned on the chat that their organisations are still flooding line managers with information and it’s very difficult for line managers to sort the wheat from the chaff. Can we go back to the earlier point? One of your top tips, I guess, would be to try and keep things simple for line managers?

Mairi

Yes. The temptation is to flood, right? And because most people are working remotely, then everything’s online, everything’s coming to you on email and it’s just overwhelming.

So one of the things that we (it took us a little while to figure it out) but one of the things was we were just chatting to managers early on in the pandemic and they were saying, I just can’t cope, far too much. So now, what we do is on a Monday morning, we send managers an email that says: ‘These are the three things we think you need to know this week’ and it’s just bullet points and we’ve got rid of the big managers briefing, which we loved, but actually people just right now cannot cope with that. So we’ve stripped it right back, and that’s one of the things that we’ve done. So start thinking about keep it simple and avoid over-communicating.

Nick

A final question from a Tara. Thanks Tara for your question. How can those in less senior roles help to support line managers’ wellbeing, mental health? So not directors or executives, but people who are less senior role.

Mairi

The best thing you can do is ask people how they are. You know, ask people: ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ And help them to be asking their teams that. So giving line managers guides and conversation guides to have with their team is really helpful, and just asking people if they’re okay. We can all do that, whatever role you’re in. Just start the conversation there.

Nick

About to finish – have you got one more takeout? I mean, one of our audience has said the oxygen mask first analogy is their top takeaway. Have you got any other pearls of wisdom before we disappear? It’s a huge issue.

Mairi

Obviously, it’s such a massive issue and for me I think about it every day, actually. You know we were saying it’s not that you’re in a good place or a bad place? As humans we’re up and down every day, so don’t make assumptions that if somebody was good yesterday, or that you were good yesterday, that you’ll be good today. It’s recalibrate every day. So check in with yourself every day, check in ‘how am I feeling today? What can I do that would take me from feeling a bit stressed to actually getting back into a good place? What are the things that will help me, whether it’s something I do physically or something with my mindset?’ Some people use quotes or pictures or a playlist, or they go out for exercise or whatever.

And the other thing is having a routine. Have a routine at the start of your day and the end of the day to build in some separation between your work and your home life is also very good.

Nick

Fantastic. Well, Mairi, I can say on behalf of everyone else, you’ve had a great day today, so thank you for joining us, it’s been a real pleasure!

Thank you, everyone for tuning in, and we’ll see you next month for the next Sequel Presents.

Mairi

Thanks Nick.

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