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Does leading by example always work? How to create a culture of wellbeing

20 min read

05 December 2018

Editorial Director

It can be lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how five SME owners make wellbeing a priority.

Resilience, authenticity and open communication are the secret ingredients that promote a culture of wellbeing, according to five SME owners and a wellbeing expert, who shared their experiences at a roundtable hosted by Real Business and AXA PPP healthcare.

Creating a positive culture of wellbeing isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ any more. It’s a valuable asset for any business because it leads to a more engaged, productive and loyal workforce who are less likely to leave the business.

Recently, LiveSmart’s Alex Heaton, The Bakery’s Andrew Humphries, Nosh Detox’s Geeta Sidhu-Robb, Perkbox’s Chieu Cao, CharlieHR’s Rob O’Donovan and AXA PPP healthcare’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Arup Paul were brought together to dissect how SMEs can build a lasting wellbeing culture.

Watch the highlights video below to hear what these founders have to say.

A key theme to emerge is how business owners can bridge the gap between the boardroom and the frontline of the company when it comes to wellbeing. Wellbeing and a culture of resilience are still widely – and easily – overlooked in workplaces across the UK, especially at smaller companies where so many people wear multiple hats.

Build an open relationship with your team

Employee health, happiness and wellbeing trump pay cheques and perks. According to Perkbox co-founder and CMO, Chieu Cao, businesses must focus on their people just as they would other elements of the company. Investing time to regularly engage with employees can make a world of a difference, helping business owners understand employee concerns and put in place initiatives and benefits which meet their changing personal needs.

“We help businesses engage with their staff to help the overall wellbeing of their employees. We believe that every employee deserves a great workplace and that starts with open and clear communication,” he says.

Perkbox CMO Chieu Cao

“I’m very fortunate that I started a business I really care about. Our business is mission-led. We talk about things openly so we’re all aligned to that mission. We have highs and lows, but we’re a family. We help people who are struggling, and we celebrate people who are doing well.”

“From a very commercial perspective, having an open and honest relationship with your team helps create a great culture that is resistant to future changes and unknowns — which translates to success.” – Chieu Cao

Checking in with your team can help you actually improve their lives at work, says Alex Heaton. “At LiveSmart we live and breathe our values. We provide employee health assessments and coaching, so we approach wellbeing with data-driven insights based on each employee’s individual health profile” he adds. This data-led approach is a natural starting point for a wider discussion on wellbeing.

“Yes, it’s important to ask your employees what they want for sure. But it’s also good to find out what their needs are as well. Sometimes those two things are different. We tend to start with a health assessment, and combine that with finding out what the needs are for the whole organisation,” he says.

“Start with data. We run businesses based on numbers. Those numbers can be different for each business, but using data to identify where your team needs support in terms of wellbeing is a game-changer. Use data to build a strategy and you can measure improvements and understand how your initiatives affect the bottom-line now and in the future.” – Alex Heaton

At the helm of The Bakery, Andrew Humphries works with very large organisations that engage with the entrepreneurial ecosystem. “We start and scale amazing new businesses and we’re involved with thousands of small businesses around the world,” he says. As a small business in its own right, The Bakery employs 42 people around the world, and Humphries sees keeping them happy, healthy and progressing as one of his biggest opportunities and challenges.

“We spend a lot of time making sure people know why they’re doing what they’re doing,” he says. “We employ some amazing people who could definitely go and earn lots more money at large corporations, but they choose to work with us because it’s a great place to be. They get what they need and it’s part of their journey. That’s really valuable to us. In terms of the cost-benefit of being the sort of place that attracts the right kind of people, it’s a no-brainer.”

Humphries believes open communication is an underrated business tool. “We spend quite a lot of time talking to one another and trying to understand where people want to be and what their lives mean. Even with the entrepreneurs we’re helping scale, we want to understand why they want to scale, what this would look like and how it would work for them in the mid to longer term.”

“Just having those conversations can change the way you approach wellbeing. The kind of people we all have within our businesses could basically achieve anything and do whatever they want. They just don’t know it. As leaders, we have the opportunity to help them on that journey and hopefully benefit our own businesses and our own journeys as a result.” – Andrew Humphries

For Dr Arup Paul, his background as a small business owner keeps him grounded in understanding the pressures and limitations for SMEs. “I have owned GP practices and have worked with NHS England as an employee. I was the director, chief medical officer and chief operating officer of another SME, so I’ve got a bit of bilateral insight,” he explains. “The fact is that entrepreneurs are under an immense amount of stress. During times of fiscal stress, wellbeing goes out the window first,” he says. “The trick is how to harness and amplify your influence to make a positive difference. The best ideas originate from the coalface.”

Dr Arup Paul

Rob O’Donovan’s biggest go-to management method comes from his experience running businesses, as well as the pressure UK workers face today. “The most effective thing we’ve found is being honest with the challenges we’ve faced as founders. By being open and vulnerable about the challenges, you create an environment where other people can too,” he says. “There’s no easy trick but what you can do is work to demonstrate from the top how to create an open environment.”

O’Donovan lives by these principles while running CharlieHR, which he set up with his long-time friend and co-founder of his first business. “It comes down to the example you set. The most fundamentally important thing is that people are able to bring themselves to work. This isn’t a case of two different faces and two different places. The moment you start to demonstrate that you’re not robots, you’re as imperfect as everyone else, you create a culture of openness.”

From a mental health perspective, which is something he is particularly passionate about, O’Donovan realised that the ‘a-ha’ moment was when his colleagues started sharing their own personal stories. “Suddenly people started opening up. One employee said ‘I’ve been struggling with depression for years, and I’m willing to stand up in front of the company and share that experience’. You can’t buy a piece of software that does this for you. What you can do is create an environment where people can be who they are outside of work inside of work.”

Geeta Sidhu-Robb and Rob O’Donovan

Develop a culture of resilience

Workplace culture has a clear impact not just on business success, but on the wider economy. Toxic culture equates to a staggering £23.6 billion per year, and according to the Chartered Management Institute, effective leadership could improve Britain’s productivity by 23%.

The tone is set from the top, so management and leadership play a crucial role in creating the right conditions for employees to thrive.

From the discussion, three top strategies emerged for business owners to uphold wellbeing from the top: share your thinking with your employees, admit to mistakes and live by your company values.

Humphries values company culture highly and sees it as instrumental to The Bakery’s success. It was a long process, he says, but ultimately a defining factor for his business.

“We were two and half years in before we made a conscious decision to sit down and define our values. Unless you do it, you end up with values that have grown organically in your company, but you’ve got no control over them. It’s the same with culture. You have to ask yourself the tough questions. What kind of business do you want to create? What kind of people do you want on your team? It influences the kind of clients and customers you attract as well.”

“If you don’t define your culture, your business will have a culture but it may not be the one that you want. It’s really important to sit down and decide.” – Andrew Humphries

Starting a company is probably one of the most perilous careers you can go into from a mental health perspective,” says O’Donovan. “It’s tough. It’s up and down. Many of the attributes of a good, steady, solid environment makes it much easier. In many ways, you’re building muscles and building resilience.”

“I’ve found over the years of running companies that the really tough moments I’ve struggled with emotionally have set me up to handle challenges better in my professional and personal life.”

For Chieu Cao, building resilience on an individual and company-wide level means being cushioned from external changes and volatility, which is crucial for businesses. “Our culture starts from me, the co-founder. It’s about being yourself, and that creates a culture of resilience. If you have a business face, you don’t have that resilience. If something goes wrong, what do you do? Having an honest relationship with your team creates that resilience and sets you up for success,” he says.

Dr Paul believes it comes down to managing personal and organisational-wide stress. “The problem with stress is that you make worse decisions, because you’re pumped on adrenaline,” he says. “We’re in a really odd economic climate, and I don’t mean just fiscally. It’s also cultural and social. We’re struggling as a nation to identify what we want to be as we race ahead. Entrepreneurs have a real opportunity here to make a difference.”

Authenticity: The business case for leading with purpose

Purpose, according to Dr Paul, is a significant part of who we are as individuals and the characteristics we bring to a business that nobody else can. It influences how we interact with the challenges of the moment and, for entrepreneurs, it’s a game changer. Purpose empowers leaders to handle challenges and spot opportunities during trying times that others couldn’t, and it empowers employees to follow that lead.

“It’s about being consistent with your messaging and your actions,” he says. “If you ask people to open up to you, you’ve got to reciprocate. You’ve got to fulfill your end of the bargain. As an entrepreneur, that’s fundamental.”

For Andrew Humphries, purpose and authenticity are vital for business and can set companies up for long-term sustained success. “It’s impossible to sustain an image of yourself if it’s manufactured or inauthentic. The only thing that really works is being authentic and people in your business can feel it,” he says. “We’ve recruited people from larger organisations who come in and find it really difficult to accept that we are this authentic. It’s a ‘what’s the catch?’ moment for them because it takes them a little time to adjust.”

The Bakery co-founder Andrew Humphries

Heaton believes this is because culture and authenticity are easy to uphold when you’re running a small business. Sustaining those values becomes harder as you grow.

“It’s easy to be authentic when you’re smaller, but as you grow you have to make conscious choices to foster that culture.” – Alex Heaton

If you just have a business face on all the time, your focus is only about success, not resilience, adds Chieu Cao. “How do you handle a rough patch or failure? What do you do if that person who usually has all the answers suddenly doesn’t? That’s tough! It can affect team morale.”

According to O’Donovan, finding a balance can be a real challenge for founders. “I often prefer the idea of harmony: thinking of work and life and two mutually exclusive things is just impractical, unrealistic and old-fashioned,” he says. “As a business owner, you need to enable both ‘identities’ to coexist in a way that can keep you healthy and happy and rewarded… that’s the goal.”

Know your limitations

Taking time away from your business is a matter of course for successful businesses, and it doesn’t mean you’ll sacrifice your bottom line.

“Fundamentally, for founders, it’s about understanding your own restrictions – what you can and can’t do,” says Dr Paul. “Businesses run on 12-month profit and loss cycles. It’s hard to be strategic when you’ve got to be tactical.”

“Across my career, there have been different motivations driving how I work and lead. For example, in hospital medicine, you learn how to work in a team. Every person is absolutely critical. You develop a mindset that is more than vocational. It’s mission-led. I think (this point of view) can be quite destructive because fundamentally small business owners need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t do everything alone,” he adds. A gap analysis can help you identify where you need to fill in experience or knowledge.

“Have the right people around you to give you the balance and equilibrium your business needs. We know that fiscally speaking, presenteeism and absenteeism is a big deal.”

“The cost to the UK economy is around £74bn – and that’s just due to mental health issues, according to the 2017 Thriving at Work report. That’s the cost to employers, statutory bodies, the NHS, collection of tax and so on. That makes 11.5% of all health issues.” – Dr Arup Paul

“The conversation isn’t just about intervention, it’s more about understanding what preventative measures are necessary. It’s no longer about intervening when somebody is about to drop – it’s getting in there well beforehand at the start of the germination of your ideas as SME owners.”

Real Business has teamed up with AXA PPP healthcare to support their SME Work and Wellbeing programme a collaboration with cross-industry business leaders. Over the course of this series, we will be exploring initiatives businesses can take to improve wellbeing in the workplace, as well as hearing top tips from AXA’s health experts and seasoned entrepreneurs. Visit AXA PPP healthcare Work & Wellbeing programme for inspiration for your business.