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WCC supports managers to 'tune in' to teams' wellbeing

Making uncomfortable conversations as comfortable as possible is at the heart of many of Wellington City Council’s mental wellbeing actions across its teams.

The WCC's dedication to ensuring the wellbeing of its 1700 diverse workforce is embedded in its top risk assessments. Of the 29 risks the council includes in its Risk Manager software system, ‘health and impairment’ (which includes work-related stress, fatigue, alcohol and other drugs) is second only to ‘personal confrontation’.

Mental wellbeing is also highlighted in its Health and Wellbeing Strategy, launched in 2017. Four action areas are identified within the strategy: Heart health, mental wellbeing, musculoskeletal, smokefree and drugs and alcohol.

The strategy, which is aimed at putting health and wellbeing front and centre at WCC, won the wellbeing category at the 2018 Safeguard Awards. “That was fabulous recognition”, says the council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Advisor, Bella Wilton. “But by no means did it mean we could rest on our laurels.”

Since then the council’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Group, of which Bella is the facilitator, has been constantly looking for ways to integrate more health and wellbeing into how the council operates. Particularly, says Bella, within the area of mental wellbeing, with a focus on upskilling managers and team leaders.

“It’s also about cementing that we have a legal responsibility to look more holistically at wellbeing, and the effect of work on health and health on work. It’s not okay to ignore a struggling person – you can’t put your blinkers on and think everyone’s just clocking in and clocking out.

“We are focusing on giving our managers and team leaders practical channels to play this out, ensuring they have the skills and knowledge to support their people, rather than just referring them off to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).”

‘Supporting your People’

The council’s latest initiative to help their leaders develop the know-how to support their team is a new module in its 'Te Pourewa/Skills for Managers' e-learning programme. (See screenshot image above.)

The module, called ‘Supporting your People’, was developed in-house with external support, working with human resources consultants, its wellbeing group, the learning and development team, and other council team members.

“The module helps managers and team members understand the signals that indicate their people aren’t themselves, that something is wrong,” says Bella.

The module teaches managers to:

  • be aware of the whole person health needs, both physical and mental
  • identify symptoms of staff experiencing mental distress and/or physical impairment that impacts work tasks
  • confidently approach staff to initiate a conversation
  • proactively offer early, appropriate support from the available tools and resources, knowing it’s their professional responsibility to care
  • explain the importance of putting time and energy into team and individual wellbeing initiatives early, before staff start to show signs of mental distress.

“For our leaders to be able to do this they need to know their people. They need to know what they’re usually like so they can tune in and detect when they seem out of step. The ‘Supporting your People’ module helps with this, too,” says Bella.

Conversation prompts

As part of the ‘Supporting your People’ module, managers and team leaders learn ways to prompt discussions about mental wellbeing and how someone might like to be supported.

“We use things like the Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing, discussing how they could be adapted to suit that person. We also remind them of the various supports we have in place already, such as our human resources team, EAP, health and safety reps, and our Safety, Security and Wellbeing team.

“We also remind managers and team leaders they don’t have to carry the burden, that it’s okay to reach out if they need support themselves.”

All team members are welcome to work through the ‘Supporting your People’ module. “It’s good for staff to know how their leaders are upskilling,” says Bella.

‘Sensitive Events’ reporting

While team members can report anything amiss through the Council’s Risk Manager System, a notification immediately goes to their manager and is visible to the Safety, Security and Wellbeing Team so it’s far from private.

To offer a more confidential way of reporting, the council has added [March 2019] a ‘Sensitive Events’ module to Risk Manager.

“This is a private channel through to three members of the Safety, Security and Wellbeing team where people can enter a health and impairment incident. So if they’re feeling stressed or bullied at work, and they want it recorded but don’t want to share that with their manager, they can use this,” says Bella.

“As part of triaging the reports, we then ask how soon they’d like a response, and how they’d like us to respond, say by email or phone.

“This gives our people a confidential way to notify us if they’re in a place of stress or crisis, particularly if their issue is with their team or team leader.”

The portal launched in March 2019 and Bella says it’s been great to see team members reporting through it. “Clearly they feel safe using it, and it gives us a record of what’s going on so we can support them.”

Whare Tapu Toru

Another avenue for team members to share any wellbeing concerns is during annual Whare Tapu Toru performance discussions with managers. The council’s wellbeing strategy includes a manager’s guide for how to incorporate wellbeing as part of these discussions.

While they do include wellbeing in performance assessment discussions, Bella says anything related to this is not assessed as part of workplace performance. “But it’s a valuable face-to-face opportunity for team members to open up about anything that’s concerning them, and for managers to tune in to their team.”

Wellbeing Moments as standing agenda item

To create an environment where wellbeing is a normal, everyday topic to discuss, a Wellbeing Moment is now a standing agenda item at normal business unit meetings.

“We previously had just a health and safety standing item, but now we have an item about wellbeing too. The wellbeing group put together a tip sheet – largely borrowed from the Five Ways to Wellbeing – to help people share something wellbeing related. Maybe that’s sharing something they are grateful for, a new Te Reo word, or maybe they stretch together.”

Bella says feedback has been positive. “People have embraced it and they enjoy sharing. It’s becoming very normal.”

She says the council is also looking at offering mental health first aid training. “We have physical health first aiders, so it feels logical to have mental health first aiders, too. But first we need a process in place to support them.”

Taking care of people is good business

As an illustration of where the council’s embedded policy of understanding and support has been put into practice, Bella points to a valued staff member who was given a few days off work to sort out a personal issue.

“They were experiencing stress from a position of responsibility they held in the community. They tried to cope at work, but it was becoming overwhelming and was affecting their ability to do their job.

“Once the person told their manager, they were immediately given time off to sort out their situation. There was no interrogation, as the manager understood how the non-work stress was impacting on their work.

“Because they were given time off, they were back at work within a few days and once again a high-performing team member.”

Bella says this was a situation where an EAP wasn’t appropriate, however the person was still supported because they felt confident confiding in their manager, and the manager knew what to do.

“Our business absolutely benefited from being able to support this person,” she says. “We want our people to bring their whole selves to work and we understand the effect of health on work, and work on health.

“There are times when these things have a greater impact on our workload. This is about how we can support our people to cope during those times.”

For more information about how the Wellington City Council is supporting its managers to look after their teams' wellbeing, email Bella

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