How the British Heart Foundation taught its staff to live well

The charity learned to replicate its wellbeing advice within its own workforce

How the British Heart Foundation taught its staff to live well

For Kerry Smith and Sarah Danes, working at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) is rooted in personal experience. “I have to feel a strong connection to the organisations I work for – I’m not a peripheral person,” says Smith, the charity’s director of people and organisational development. Both she and Danes – head of wellbeing, safety and resilience – joined the charity after family members underwent open heart surgery. 

“One in four people will suffer from heart and circulatory disease at some point in their lives,” Smith says. “Working to combat that can be an all-engulfing mission – and from a professional wellbeing perspective means ensuring our people have the support they need to deliver our mission.”

Catering for an organisation that comprises more than 4,000 employees and 22,000 volunteers is a significant people remit; and three years ago it became clear BHF was failing on the wellbeing front. A 2015 staff survey revealed just under half (46 per cent) of the workforce felt BHF cared about their wellbeing, while a third (35 per cent) of workers in the charity’s retail arm were taking less than 30 minutes’ break during their working day. Employee turnover and absenteeism were high, and while the charity’s ‘Health at Work’ programme was popular with external organisations, it was failing to replicate its success closer to home. 

“We had a great outward-looking programme that advocated the importance of wellbeing for big, successful bodies, but couldn’t honestly say we were doing the same for our own people,” Danes says. “How could we say we were world class if we weren’t supporting the health and wellbeing of our own employees?” 

Determined to change the situation for the better, Danes and Smith approached the charity’s board to propose an internal wellbeing programme structured around four key pillars: healthy eating, mental health, physical activity and kicking habits. Once given the green light, they worked with BHF’s communications team to enlist a group of wellbeing champions to advocate for the programme throughout the organisation. An internal competition to decide the name led to it being christened ‘Live Well. Work Well’. 

“The fifth strand of this programme was leadership at all levels – not just senior leadership,” Smith says, “We had to get a body of enthusiasts around the initiative in order to drive it forward.” 

Unlike many L&D initiatives in private sector organisations, ‘Live Well. Work Well’ needed to be delivered on a tight budget – “in the hundreds of pounds” – but the team found inventive ways around the financial challenges. They refurbished the staff-only areas of BHF shops to make them more enjoyable to spend time in; launched a ‘take a break’ programme to encourage employees to get out of the shop or office, particularly outdoors, during their free time and ran walking and cycling events. 

“We were blown away by the response from retail in particular – while it can be easy to coordinate breaks in an office, they have customers in and out and different team compositions. It’s a bigger deal,” Danes says. “Despite this, employees and volunteers found the time to go out together, share pictures with the wider organisation promoting our ‘healthy heart day’, and show that they were taking breaks.” 

Using collaborative digital platforms was also influential in uniting retail stores, such as running an online photo competition on Yammer, where staff could share their experiences of getting out of the office. 

“If people are in a good place, their sales go up as well as feeling more healthy themselves – the benefits of this sense of wellbeing are easily converted into commercial terms, which is important for encouraging buy-in,” Smith says. 

Another core principle was the development of a corporate wellbeing charter, which the wellbeing team developed alongside fellow charity Rethink Mental Illness 18 months after the launch of ‘Live Well. Work Well’. “We ran mental health first-aid training, and appointed mental health ambassadors, who can look after you in the same way a physical first aider might in one of our offices,” Smith says. “They aren’t qualified mental health practitioners, but can offer support during a time of crisis.” 

A subsequent watershed moment came at the beginning of 2017, when Smith sent an email on the spur of the moment to the entire workforce asking how they were feeling. She was inundated with personal stories, from a colleague who was busy supporting a family member who had been hospitalised with depression, to people sharing their own personal experiences with anxiety. 

“My inbox was overflowing,” she recalls. “It started a conversation where people shared things they would never have said in their workplace before, not just about their physical and mental wellness but the reasons for their instabilities. We drove more support into our employee assistance programme, and more people now use that service for advice and counselling than ever before.” 

The last staff survey in September 2017 revealed the number of employees happy with their work-life balance increased from 59 per cent to 65 per cent in the two years since ‘Live Well. Work Well’ was introduced. The number of employees who had heard of and engaged with the initiative jumped from 9 per cent in retail and 20 per cent elsewhere, to 52 and 56 per cent respectively in 2017. A first-time poll run in 2017 found 72 per cent of employees felt their managers encouraged and supported them to take care of their health and wellbeing. 

But beyond the numbers, the anecdotal experiences of employees honestly and vulnerably talking about their experiences in the workplace have proved especially valuable to the ‘Live Well. Work Well’ team. 

“We’re a big organisation and there’s still a lot to do, but those moments of reflecting on those conversations are so rewarding,” Danes says. “‘Empowering’ is an overused word, but in this case it’s just about people being their best when they work for us.”