RSS Feed

  1. Blog Post - Keep Calm

    How many of your people face challenges in their working lives which stretch them beyond what’s familiar?  Challenges which you need them to embrace and rise to.  Perhaps delivering a high-stakes presentation, taking a test or assessment, or tackling that important conversation to address performance issues….  A good outcome’s important to your business, but there’s a pervasive myth which might be getting in the way.  Busting that myth has made a huge difference to lots of the people I’ve supported, and their organisations.  So let’s dive in.

    Imagine you’re about to step beyond your comfort zone with one of those challenges.  Even if you’re well prepared, you’d probably be feeling stressed.  The vast majority of people believe that the best approach in that kind of stressful situation, is to try to calm down.  Not easy! And as it turns out, not very helpful either.

    Harvard researchers measured people’s performance in 3 stressful tasks:  Singing in front of a stranger, giving a short talk (the dreaded public speaking!), and a maths test.    For each, the participants were split into 3 groups – one asked to say “I’m calm”, a control group asked to say nothing, and a group asked to say “I’m excited”.  Nothing more – just to say it.

    In all three tests, the ‘calm’ group performed worse than the control group, and the excited group performed the best – even though all three groups reporting feeling the same levels of anxiety.

    So how does it work?  Our conscious brain power, the thinking which we do on purpose, hasn’t got  much capacity - we can hold only seven pieces of information (give or take a couple) active at a time.  So if you’re delivering a presentation, the more you’re thinking about trying to stay calm, the more of that capacity you’re using up.  Leaving less for the task in hand – for paying attention to what you’re saying, to your pace and voice tone, to what’s coming next, and to building rapport with your audience.  So performance suffers.

    Physically, there’s not much difference between the way we experience excitement and anxiety – increased heart rate, sweaty palms and focused attention.  But there’s one big difference…  In fight-flight, the blood flow’s diverted into the muscles ready to get you out of danger.  In a positive heightened state, the circulation stays more balanced, so the increased heart rate takes more oxygen to your brain, improving your ability to think clearly.  Just what you need when you’ve got to deliver.

    Nobody expects their favourite team to walk out on to the field feeling calm on final day – if anything, they’ll have been pumping up the adrenaline as they got ready.  They know how to channel the pressure into peak performance.

    Now I’m not suggesting that you shout out a war cry, or thump the air before your next presentation, but ditching the ‘Keep Calm’ belief will help you to deliver an even better performance.   

    What stresses are blocking your people’s best?  Do comment…


  2. Blog Post - Wellbeing Why

    Change leaders often struggle with the temptation to jump straight to solutions, to get it ‘fixed’ and move on to the next big thing.  It’s often what their organisation expects - quick wins and ticked boxes are celebrated.  But the risks are high, of treating only the surface symptoms, of delivering a solution which the organisation’s unable to maintain, or of worsening the issue by actioning the wrong thing and damaging trust.  During my recent research, I’ve noticed a startlingly familiar trend in the number of organisations launching activities like Mental Health First Aid training or high-profile awareness weeks, without aligning them to an over all strategy or agreed wellbeing outcomes.  It’s better than doing nothing, but with a little extra rigour, the gains can be some much greater. 

    Done well, wellbeing is cultural – integral to the organisation’s values and ways of working, inextricably linked with both employee engagement and continuous improvement.  I’ve seen so many change programmes encounter false starts, generate patchy engagement, fall foul of shifting priorities to never quite deliver, or become much harder work than anyone anticipated.  And one of the reasons is that they skip past exploring ‘Why’, assuming that everyone’s reasons are the same.  They rarely are…

    Wellbeing matters, but ‘because it’s the right thing to do’ unfortunately isn’t enough to keep it on a par with all the organisation’s other priorities.  Exploring your collective ‘Why’ helps you to

    • Make sure that wellbeing gets appropriately resourced (including securing budget), so you’re not trying to deliver on a shoestring
    • Select activities to deliver against those desired outcomes, rather than just ticking boxes, maximising the return on your time and financial investments
    • Identify the appropriate metrics and feedback to ensure your chosen activities are effective, and enabling adjustments if they’re not

    Specifically, what do your stakeholders want to avoid and gain from improving wellbeing?  Exploring helps to build desire and momentum towards those outcomes, and referring back to them regularly during the programme helps to keep your activities aligned with what you want to achieve.  And if your programme starts to wobble part way through, re-energising your Why can really help to get it back on track.

    What’s in it for each of your stakeholder groups?  For example, your Recruitment Manager might want to improve the organisation’s ability to attract the very best candidates, by demonstrating how you care for, support and develop your staff.  Line managers might be fed up of having to correct the mistakes people make when they’re distracted by worries they’ve got going on at home, so they want to improve their team's ability to park the worrying and stay focused on the day's demands.  Your HR team might want people from across the organisation to feel more valued, increasing employee engagement, and to stop the disputes which get escalated to them because people let conflict build up when they’re feeling overloaded. 

    This collective enquiry needn’t be a lengthy process, and it’s such an important step towards building engagement, involvement and ownership.  Understanding your ‘Why’ is one of our range of ‘How To’ guides, designed for applying Continuous Improvement best practices to your wellbeing programme.  For more information on this and our other free resources, Get in Touch

  3. Measure

    No change programme gets it absolutely right, first time.  Wellbeing is complex and subjective, with even more potential for programmes to drift off track or fail to deliver, without effective tracking and adjustment.  So why are so many organisations missing this important activity?

    Only 22% of organisations are taking a Continuous Improvement approach to their wellbeing provision (2018 CIPD Health and Wellbeing Survey).  Effective application of CI requires

    • Consulting stakeholders and agreeing the desired outcomes, and only then selecting the activities which best support those outcomes
    • Tracking how effectively the activities are delivering those outcomes
    • Adjusting accordingly, based on the feedback

    It takes a little longer than a scattergun or tick-box deployment, but it’s the only way to robustly demonstrate return on the time and money you’re investing in wellbeing.  And without good return, getting further investment gets increasingly difficult.  Being ‘the right thing to do’ just isn’t enough on its own to keep Wellbeing prioritised amongst all the organisation’s other activities.

    In my recent research into different organisations’ wellbeing offering, Mental Health First Aid training came out as the number one first step.  The Department of Health has encouraged all employers to provide MHFA training as one of three steps in its 2012 ‘No Health Without Mental Health’ framework; and yet very few employers are tracking the frequency, quality or outcomes of Mental Health First Aid conversations.  A recent report published by the HSE concluded that MHFA was found to be effective in increasing awareness of mental ill-health within organisation, but also that

    • There is limited evidence that MHFA training leads to sustained improvement in the ability of those trained to help colleagues experiencing mental ill‐health
    • There is no evidence that the introduction of MHFA training has improved the organisational management of mental health in workplaces

    And yet for many organisations, it’s the only activity which they’re so far undertaking.  To really work, it needs to be part of a wider range of activities, and the absence of feedback leaves us vulnerable to hanging our hat on something which, on its own, may ultimately fail to deliver. 

    In the Oct-18 Mental Health at Work Report, published by Business in the Community

    • 61% of employees were found to have experienced mental health problems due to work or where work was a related factor, and one in three have been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue
    • And yet only 38% of men and 23% of women sought help for their most recent MH issue. If this is typical, simply increasing the help available is likely to have only limited impact
    • only 13% of employees said they would use an EAP to help them with a mental health issue.  And yet this is many employers’ only provision

    With figures like these, surely we should be focusing just as much on prevention as on better supporting those experiencing mental ill-health; yet prevention so far seems to be receiving little attention or investment.

    Effective measurement needn’t be complex or time consuming, and it’s so powerful in making sure that the we provide enough of the right kind of activities to really deliver better wellbeing.

    To further explore applying Continuous Improvement best practices to your wellbeing delivery, click here

  4. Blog Post - Why Sleep Matters

    When it comes to making decisions, Captain Logic does like to think he’s in charge.  His role’s important, but he’s not as all-powerful as he might like to think…. I'm not much of a gambler, but I did find this fascinating....

    Participants in a game called the Iowa gambling task were each given 4 decks of cards, and $2,000.  Each card turn tells a player whether they’ve won or lost money.  What they didn't know was that two of the decks were stacked with both high risk and high reward cards, and the other two with smaller rewards, and very occasional losses.  Drawing only from these two decks would eventually bring the gambler out ahead with stable profits.

    At first, players drew randomly from all 4 decks, sampling from each pile as they searched for the most lucrative cards.  Within about 50 cards, they began to draw only from the more profitable decks, but it took until around the 80th card for them to become aware of it.  Showing beautifully how our outside-awareness thinking can shape our behaviour without us noticing.

    However, as the experimenters’ aim was to track the emotion of decisions, they also wired up participants for readings of the skin’s electrical conductance, which increases with heightened anxiety.  By around the tenth card, players were showing increased anxiety as they reached towards the riskier piles, even though consciously, they had no awareness at all of the difference between decks.

    Fascinating in itself, but they then repeated the study with a group of participants who’d been subjected to mild sleep deprivation.  The result?  No unconscious learning.  They continued to draw randomly from the 4 card decks throughout. 

    OK, so they lost a little more money.  What’s that got to do with business?  How many roles in your organisation rely a degree of intuition or unconscious learning to do them really well?  And yet all it takes is a few hours lost sleep to hammer that innate capacity.

    If you want to explore the full importance of sleep, one of the best books I’ve read in a long time is Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”.  Or you can check out his TED talk here (thought if you’re watching in work, beware the opening being overheard!)

    To get my weekly thinking hints and tips straight to your inbox, go to    

  5. Blog Post - Investing in Wellbeing

    How much do you think the working days lost to stress, anxiety and depression have increased across the UK in the last year?  It’s 23% *.  Shocking, isn’t it?  It seems that despite record levels of investment in mental wellbeing, the figures are still going in the wrong direction.  So are we investing wisely?

    Mental Wellbeing activities fall broadly into four categories: 

    Support and Recovery – How we respond to presenting mental ill-health.  For example

    • Training line managers in recognising and dealing effectively with mental ill-health issues
    • Training Mental Health First Aiders to provide effective signposting towards appropriate professional support
    • Provision of professional support such as access to counselling
    • Making appropriate changes to facilitate recovery e.g. temporary changes to the individual’s work responsibilities, location or hours

    Prevention - This is targeted, proactive activity such as resilience skills training to reduce the risks of mental ill-health, or gym access to encourage regular exercise (to support both physical and mental wellbeing). 

    Building awareness.  Generally more passive activities, which may lead individuals to take later action, if they choose.  For example, provision of leaflets or a lunch and learn session about effectively managing your finances, signposting individuals to advice if they need it.  These activities are best provided little and often to maintain the wellbeing programme’s momentum and engagement, and to help embed wellbeing within the heart of the organisation’s culture.

    Engagement and fun.  These build awareness through activity, generally focusing on topics like healthy eating or regular exercise.  They’re popular for building buzz and engagement, encouraging people to get involved, and helping the key messages to stick.  They may also include elements of competition, such as quizzes, team step challenges or timed gym exercises.

    If you’re involved in delivering wellbeing, are you selecting activities to cover all four categories?

    In my recent research into different organisations’ wellbeing provision, I’ve been really surprised to discover how few are investing in prevention, focusing more on awareness and signposting.  It’s much better than doing nothing, but it doesn’t address the huge underlying issue.  It’s the equivalent of sending in our people to do heavy lifting with no manual handling training, but making sure we provide excellent physio support for the resulting injuries. 

    Our ability to withstand stress is a set of skills.  It’s something which all possess to varying degrees, and it’s something which we can all learn to improve – just as we can learn how to lift heavy items more safely.   Because for all of us, unfortunately our emotional lives within work and beyond sometime involve heavy lifting.  So the more we’ve developed those skills, the more we’re able to take whatever life demands of us more smoothly in our stride.

    For support and advice on making your wellbeing programme work get in touch

    (*) Data published by the HSE:  2016-17 absence due to SAD = 12.5 million days2017-18 thus increased to  15.4 million days