Healthy Workplace Catchup with Wellcome Sanger Institute

We caught up with Lauretta Lamont who is the Living Sport Award Winning Employee Engagement partner and Mental Health First Aider at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire to find out more about how Wellcome Sanger had been dealing with the Covid 19 pandemic, and hearing about some of the great things they do for employees health.

Hi Lauretta – can you tell us a bit about the Wellcome Sanger Institute please:

Wellcome Sanger Institute is a global leader in genomic science, focusing on improving human health. There are 1200 staff at Sanger, and 2500 staff in total across campus in other scientific organisations.  I am responsible for the Sanger 1200 staff in terms of employee wellbeing. I also work closely with the health and safety directorate on employee wellbeing offers which encompass everyone on our campus such as our Mental Health first aiders (MHFA’s) programme

What kind of health issues might colleagues have through their work at Sanger?

Before lockdown people might have come to our MHFA’s with workload stress or relationship issues.  Since lockdown we have had a lot of people come to our MHFA’s with what we are calling ‘Covid anxiety’. On March 20th last year we were quick to lockdown our offices and give our staff the equipment they needed to work from home, but once we started telling people they could return to campus and we had made it a Covid secure work environment some people felt they didn’t really want to return or were becoming anxious at the thought of it. We have also had people telling us that their eating habits had changed during lockdown, potentially affecting their immune system, and also their sleep had been affected, some due to increased alcohol consumption – we know that nationally people were drinking more during this time. We also had employees asking for coping strategies for panic and anxiety attacks, when they felt things were overwhelming.

That sounds like your MHFA’s are definitely kept busy then! How do they go about supporting these colleagues?

We were advised by MHFA England (Mental Health First Aid England) to keep an anonymous log. Each Mental Health First Aider would have a number and they would update the log after each appointment with the colleague with some brief information about their appointment which of course was anonymous. All appointments are booked in half hour slots. The Mental Health First Aider would listen to the problems and suggest guidance for the colleague or signpost them onto professional services such as counselling.  

How do you support your Mental Health First Aiders, and what kind of training do they get?

Through the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Healthy Workplace service we have managed to get a lot of our colleagues trained as Mental Health First Aiders which has been fantastic.  Then every 2nd month I have a facilitator from Mental Health England give them a talk or presentation which means they are constantly kept up to date and are supported and refreshed on certain areas. At those sessions the first aiders also talk anonymously about some of the clients they have seen and discuss some of the support that has been offered and ask for any advice which is really useful to the group.

We have talked quite a bit about Mental Health. How does Sanger support colleagues regarding their physical health?

We have a gym and outdoor trim-track on campus that was updated just over a year ago. It is only £5 per month for employees to use, it has brand new equipment in and it is well used with approximately 550 of the campus employees signed up as members. The gym is open 24/7 so as long as employees have their card with them they can access the gym. On top of that everyday there are different classes going on such as Yoga, Boxfit and Pilates. We encouraged managers to allow staff to attend these classes because we want the staff to be physically fit, and we appreciate how physical activity has a positive impact on mental health.

That sounds fantastic! Do you think the gym and all of those classes helped active people become more active, or do you think they have had a big impact with people who would previously be inactive or moderately inactive?

When I first joined I would say there were a cohort of about 300 people who were very active people that would use these facilities and classes on  a regular basis. By introducing the ‘Wellness@Work’  programme we encouraged employees, those who admitted they enjoyed our DiNA cake, to come and try a few different fun types of physical activity in taster sessions and to ask them what kind of activities they might like to have a go at. We were constantly running different ‘have-a-go’ type events to attract new people to physical activity. As well as this I was working with our catering team to look at offering more healthier options such as sugar-free cakes and they were brilliant at coming up with different recipes such as using beetroot instead of sugar which went down really well. Classes and the gym membership have continued to grow.

How has lockdown affected this fantastic programme of physical activity that you have been offering?

Since lockdown we haven’t been able to open the gym, but the trim-track is now open.  Instead we transfered as many of those classes into Zoom classes. Some have had to be tweaked, and some have worked better than others. A lot of our colleagues have been doing the Joe Wicks classes with family and partners at home, so we then set up our own version for Sanger families, so the employees can feel connected with the Sanger community again. We have been running 10 classes a week and are looking at doing more as we can. For staff that don’t have time, or feel confident taking part at home with their cameras on we record all of the classes and put them on our intranet, so everyone can take part at a time that suits them and not have to worry about how they might look.

Before lockdown happened were there any initiatives you have been doing to try and get people exercising outside?

We have a lovely 3 mile campus at Sanger and we regularly do a walk or a run around campus on a Friday morning and we follow it up with a lunch in the canteen. The first time we did it we put on bbq food and wine and beer, and we were shocked that the wine and beer remained untouched! We were pleasantly surprised but quickly realised that all they wanted after exercise was juice or water.  Now we offer healthy breakfast options such as muesli and porridge for people that have done exercise.

Was there anything else that you tried that maybe didn’t work first time, or you tweaked it to find success?

When we first went into lockdown we massively promoted ‘Supporting you during this time’ which was an intranet page with everything on it such as exercise information, mental health support etc and one thing we did was online MHFA drop-ins which we had recently ran in our DiNA and people would come over and have a coffee and grab some information and have a chat. We thought we would offer that on Zoom with 4 or 5  MHFA’s, but at first no-one came! But instead of completely shutting that down we asked one of our councillors to do a themed talk at the beginning of the drop in which meant we could advertise it differently and then suddenly we got a lot of people coming to the talk and then staying afterwards to talk to a Mental Health First Aider, or emailing us afterwards to arrange a session and this is now working a lot better.

Another thing we do is called ‘Round the Zoom’ which is a bit similar to Round the Room where people would ask each other how they were feeling today by way of ‘assess your stress’.  We now do that online on Zoom and ask people to give a number between 1 and 10 as to how they are feeling. For anyone that scored feeling low that day we would follow up with them afterwards to see if they needed support. This has helped us be preventative with mental health problems.

There are so many great initiatives that you have described, and things like new gym equipment and group exercise classes, and caterers cost a lot of money to run. How do you show the outcomes of all this and demonstrate the return on investment?

We work with the Great Place to Work survey and have worked with them for the last 4 years I’ve been here. There is a whole section on it for physical and mental health and we analyse it every 12-18 months. That survey helps us to analyse gaps in our offer. The survey helps us to demonstrate all of the positive feedback and growth of the programme which helps to justify the budget needed to run these services. During lockdown this has been key as I have managed to get senior buy in to keep running and growing the employee wellness programme. We have recently bought a number of Headspace apps for 400 colleagues which has been really well received. By having great senior buy-in for this it has meant that communications from board members in staff newsletters has regularly included information on all the staff wellbeing links.

What would be your top tips for engaging colleagues in a new employee wellbeing project?

Ask them what they want first – consultation with your colleagues is key. We use the staff survey and feedback at our events to help design the activities we are doing. What you might see on LinkedIn working for other companies won’t necessarily work for us as every audience is unique, so consultation is key.

Thank you for your time Lauretta. It is great to see such a successful employee wellbeing service that is clearly achieving some great outcomes for all of your staff. Well done!

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