The Watercooler

On 8-9 April, HR and well-being industry professionals gathered at the Excel Centre, London, for the leading employee health, well-being and workplace culture event – the Watercooler. More than 6000 workplace experts gathered to discuss workplace well-being and its ramifications in training, workspace design, office culture and more.

Magenta senior account manager Sabrina Stubbs attended the event on day one, followed by executive Eve Dickie on day two.

Sabrina – Day 1

Line managers: from command and control to coaching

The ‘Arming your line managers with the right language around employee well-being’ session, featuring podcast host of ‘The Unlock Moment’, asked us to consider thinking about our ‘unlock’ moment – a point in time when we had a moment of clarity that things needed to be done differently for the good of humanity.

Focusing on the world of hybrid working, where we are losing our sense of connection and relationship-building conversations are decreasing, the panel discussed various strategies for improving management efficacy in corporate environments. Not all individuals are suited to managerial roles and a third of managers lack any kind of formal training in how to manage their teams.

Panellist Caroline Spiers, from the International Stress Management Association, stated that managers should “have IQ prowess, their technical skill set and reason for promoting, but they also need EQ – emotional intelligence”.  She went on to highlight that it’s unreasonable for managers to learn people management skills on the job without it being at the expense of someone else. EQ requires empathy, caring, support, sharing, and being there for someone. The panel agreed that giving all levels of management a ‘sense of purpose’ is essential to increasing employee engagement and resilience.

The panel emphasised the importance of active listening, understanding the impact of language, and fostering supportive relationships within teams. They recommended subtle differences in language, such as changing “you” for “we” and “you should/must” to “it could be a good idea/helpful if” because these alternatives are far more collaborative.

Overall, the session highlighted the need for managers to prioritise human connections, emotional support, and effective communication to create healthy workplace cultures, and drive productivity.

Changes become behaviours

TV presenter Steph McGovern and Dr. Julia Jones, author of Neuron, F-Bomb and The Music Diet discussed the secret to lasting habit changes.

The panel emphasised health hacks that are small, easy to integrate and align with evolutionary developments. For example, Jones explained the US Navy uses music to reduce anxiety and stress to improve wellness and sleep. She described how sound music affects the brain and recommended preventative health approaches that don’t require ongoing effort or cost.

In terms of light, McGovern and Jones discussed how the circadian system can be out of balance and emphasised the importance of natural light in influencing sleep. They highlighted how blue light from digital devices disrupts sleep. The natural sun has blue light particles in the morning to help wake us up, and it turns red in the afternoon as we move closer to a natural bedtime. Digital devices don’t follow suit.

Jones discussed the importance of the parasympathetic nervous system being dominant for calmness and suggested breathing techniques to positively influence this state. She recommended six breaths per minute, with a specific inhale-exhale pattern to maximise the parasympathetic nervous system.

In addition, McGovern and Jones recommended reducing the eating window to allow the body to rest and perform cellular housekeeping. They emphasised the importance of gut health, suggesting a diverse diet of 30 different fruits and vegetables per week to support diverse gut bacteria.

Overall, they emphasised making tiny adjustments to habits, noting that it takes about six weeks for changes to become behaviours. They encouraged living in a way that aligns with human design and evolutionary principles.

Driving change requires continuous effort

Ben Sandham, head of health, corporate and performance at Technogym UK, emphasised the importance of perseverance and continuous effort in driving change. Sandham outlined five key drivers for corporate well-being success. These included identifying key benefits; engaging the workforce; providing choice and variety; promoting wellness practices like mindfulness and meditation; and considering the well-being of the entire workforce, whether that’s indoor or outdoor, office or in remote settings.

Eve – Day 2

Women’s health and well-being – from endometriosis to menopause

On day two, experts gathered to discuss a historically taboo topic in the workplace – periods. Panellists opened the panel by addressing the difficulties head-on.

They discussed how in workplaces, 38% of people feel as though they can’t discuss periods at work out of fear of judgement. Colleagues were encouraged to open up and share their own stories of their menstruation, struggles with conditions such as endometriosis, and the effects of menopause to normalise the topic and make it easier to reach out for help.

Trudi Roscouet, menopause and well-being coach at Vitality40+, reflected on how the physical and mental health aspects of menstruation can impact women throughout their lives, from their education to their social and family life. Meanwhile, many women are made to feel as though communicating their pain is ‘kicking up a fuss’, a trend worsened when many people reportedly feel dismissed by their primary health providers.

Helen Tomlinson, a menopause employment champion for the UK government, reflected that women over 50 are the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce, so a lack of menopause support can derail their careers and livelihoods. The cognitive symptoms of menopause are also overlooked ­– brain fog, anxiety, and erratic periods – and a “culture of lived experience” needs to develop in workplaces so better support can be implemented.

Cathy Earnshaw-Balding, head of diversity, inclusion and belonging for GXO, noted that GXO had implemented this through a top-down strategy, where business leaders spoke about women’s health in a menopause café and encouraged similar group exercises. Men were the major allies in these conversations, and their inclusion, managerial support and ability to implement new policies is vital, especially in male-dominated fields.

Tomlinson recommended that an internal menopause clinic should be used as a starting topic to discuss health throughout the workplace, acting as a ‘golden thread’. This can, in turn, build up awareness of severe conditions like endometriosis, which 1 in 10 women suffer from, but on average are only diagnosed after seven years and invasive surgery.

Together, the panellists recommended developing open dialogues internally so that staff can speak up about their struggles, and catered support can be developed from there.

Beating burnout

Emily Warren, employee experience & well-being lead at Avanade spoke with Clare Kenny, well-being lead at PVL, about her experience of severe burnout, and how it transformed her approach towards work. She had ignored severe signs of burnout at her job as a consultant and found that despite opting for a “game-face” she’d with clients, internally she just wanted “everything to stop”.

When she was finally asked if she was ok, Kenny found that she couldn’t hide her struggle anymore. She was given leave and diagnosed with anxiety but still felt like she could “break”. She dealt with paranoia, feeling like an imposter, exhaustion and cynicism, but found that her environment didn’t allow her to ask for help.

After her leave, it took her a couple of years to be herself again – but the experience had a lasting effect. She chose to move into a well-being role so that she could help others in a similar position.

Emily reflected on the importance of time – that it drives many industries, but doesn’t always allow for flexibility. For those that bill by time, like consulting or law, work weeks can’t be adjusted readily to allow for mental health support. In those scenarios, the risk of burnout needs to be mitigated by educating business leaders and integrating burnout awareness training into workplace strategies. Empathy, understanding and listening need to be emphasised – Emily felt “utterly alone” when she first opened up about her struggles but found that once she spoke up – others could too.

Part of that training needs to be in analytics – using tools like Microsoft’s Viva Glint, which produces real-time data to reflect employee engagement. When people communicate their struggles, these tools can allow employers to see what behaviours correlate with burnout, like working into the evening past work hours, for example.

Along with open dialogue, Emily advised that a new etiquette to the modern world of working is needed – people need to disconnect more. She reflected that social taboos often stop us from, for example, flirting with a friend’s partner, but social contracts have softened when it comes to workplace availability. Previously, people were not contactable outside of their work hours unless in an emergency, but modern forms of communication have made it harder to switch off. A cultural shift is needed, she said, so that people can better balance, and separate, their work and home lives.

Driving connection, collaboration and culture

A panel focused on workplace experience discussed how workspaces can be optimised to become human-centric environments and navigate change management. Earning colleagues’ commutes is a top priority – which means offering accessible fit-outs and comprehensive facilities management services help make workplaces attractive to employees. For example, is your kitchen space usable to someone in a wheelchair, or are its surfaces too high and inaccessible?

Spaces need to be optimised for employees – not just front-facing. Change management needs to be prioritised and employee experiences should be reviewed ­– because people aren’t tired of surveys, they’re tired of inaction, the panel agreed.

Do people have everything they need? Sarah Tait, workplace experience lead at Lloyds Banking Group, said that any office can be pretty, but they need to feel “alive” for people to engage. If a space cannot be renovated due to, for example, an upcoming relocation, experiences must be prioritised. Coworkers need time to come together, like with complimentary meals or fun group activities.

Ultimately, the group reflected on the importance of making workspaces both practical and joyful. Accessibility needs and workplace fun are mutually beneficial elements, not separate as some might consider.

In summary

The Watercooler produced meaningful conversations and advice for all businesses to follow so that the mental and physical health and well-being of our colleagues are best supported. From helping those dealing with burnout and menopause to advising on daily changes and practices, these conversations help guide us all on how to best help anyone struggling at work.

Do you want to optimise your business’s employee communications strategy? Get in touch.

Sabrina Stubbs