It has become increasingly popular to recruit current employees as Workplace Wellbeing/Mental Health Champions/Advocates/Ambassadors. However, before we all dive in to implement this latest trend, we must be aware that as with all initiatives of this nature, it comes with multiple potential risks, often in the form of unintended consequences that we need to be aware of and cater for. Failing to account for these, means a failure to safeguard employees and even the organization itself.
Often a Wellbeing Champion’s project is a case of a great intention, delivered through a blind leading the blind set up. I.E., the personnel calling for and coordinating the project do not have the skills, knowledge, or insights necessary to role it out in a safe, risk-free, and effective way, who also recruit enthusiastic Champions too blind themselves to challenge how it is being orchestrated.
For brevity, for the remainder of this article I shall refer to this group simply as ‘Champions’.
What is a Workplace Wellbeing/Mental Health Champion?
Workplace Wellbeing/Mental Health Champions are typically not mental health professionals but are often employees who volunteer or are selected for this role. They are an individual within an organization who takes on a proactive role in promoting mental health and wellbeing among employees.
What type of roles and responsibilities do Champions have?
Advocacy: They advocate for mental health awareness and destigmatization within the workplace.
Education: They may provide information and resources related to mental health, including seminars, workshops, or distributing materials.
Support: They offer support to colleagues who may be struggling with mental health issues and encourage them to seek help when needed.
Promotion: They help promote and encourage participation in wellbeing initiatives.
Listening and Referral: They listen to their colleagues and, when necessary, refer them to appropriate resources or professionals for help.
Creating Safe Spaces: They work to create an open and non-judgmental environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health and wellbeing.
Collaboration: They often collaborate with HR, management, and other stakeholders to implement mental health policies and practices.
Insights: They collect feedback from employees about their experiences and suggestions for improving mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Whilst the above description sounds very positive, when implemented, and managed ineffectively, an initiative of this nature can do more harm than good. Unfortunately, as this ‘trend’ gains traction, so we are seeing an increase in hasty, haphazard, and negligent approaches, which leave employees, Champions, and even organizations exposed to a series of unintended consequences and risks.
- Champions create a false sense of security by establishing the belief that if we have Champions, we have our workplace mental health and wellbeing responsibilities covered and thus all other employees can absolve themselves of any obligation in this area.
- Champions are employees, and therefore the employees they are there to serve may feel uncomfortable raising their personal concerns or concerns about others to them for fear of negative repercussions. This is especially true in cultures lacking psychological safety, where stigma is present, and where tolerance and empathy are low. As such, even with Champions in place, employees may not feel they can raise their concerns and thus they can go unresolved and escalate.
- Champions, whilst enthusiastic, often receive little or no training for this role and thus present a risk when approached by a member of staff who believes the Champion can be a source of reliable advice. In such situations, either the advice is not forthcoming, and the employee loses faith in the Champion initiative, or worse the Champion gives well-intended but poor and sometimes dangerous advice, which can worsen rather than improve the situation for the individual and the organization. This could, in turn, present legal implications for the organisation.
- The role of Champions is often blurry which leads to two risks; A) they have a title but no clearly defined role and thus they are ineffective, or B) they are asked to support with things they are not qualified to support but feel that they should. They may struggle to define boundaries and can soon find themselves out of their depth, presenting a wellbeing risk to themselves and others.
- Champions already have a job with several responsibilities, and very often their role is not adjusted to give the necessary space to fulfil their duties as a Champion. This can lead to frustration, demoralisation, conflict, overwhelm and even burnout. This could present legal implications for the organisation.Moreover, if Champions are introduced to the business, but are not given the necessary time to fulfil their role, employees are likely to perceive this as a well-washing or tick-box exercise, which will potentially create distrust and disengagement at considerable cost.
- In their role as advocates, educators, insight collectors, and collaborators, Champions may identify and share uncomfortable truths about cultures, behaviours, and practises occurring inside the organisation that are counter-productive to creating a healthy and thriving workforce able to contribute its full value. However, these concerns can often be dismissed or ignored, which creates disappointment for both the Champions and the employees who have provided the insights. In turn, this drives disengagement and distrust, and may also have legal implications if issues that later resulted in negative outcomes could be proven to have been raised to but left unaddressed by the organization.
- Champions should be part of a well-rounded, and multi-channelled approach to improving and managing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
- As well as internal Champions, there should also be clearly signposted sources of external support such as an EAP or designated counselling service that employees can reach out to.
- Champions should receive initial and ongoing training to support them in their role
- The role of Champions needs to be clearly defined and regularly communicated across the organisation. It should be made very clear, what they are there to do and what they can support with.
- A suitable amount of time should be agreed with line-managers and allocated for the Champions to fulfil their responsibilities to ensure they can deliver this additional role effectively.
- Ensure the issues and concerns raised by Champions are taken seriously, and then adequately investigated, monitored, and addressed. The aim should always be to either eliminate or significantly reduce the risk such issues place on individuals, groups, or the organization.
- Ensure that the people establishing and managing the Champions initiative are adequately qualified and can safeguard employees and the organization from the inherent risks that such an initiative creates as presented above.
Whilst a Champion’s initiative may seem like a great idea, there are inherent legal, ethical, and health risks that must not be overlooked or ignored. However, when delivered and managed effectively, it can be a very effective, and relatively low-cost tactic within an organization’s wellbeing strategy.