Q&A with Dr Paul Litchfield Chief Medical Officer, for Compass Group Plc

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While health and safety has always been our number one priority, the coronavirus outbreak, has shone a greater spotlight on it, not only in relation to operations but employee wellbeing too. In recognition of this, Compass Group, has partnered with Dr Paul Litchfield, in the capacity of Chief Medical Officer.

An introduction Dr Paul Litchfield

Dr Paul Litchfield is a leading British physician, who has advised organisations like the World Economic Forum, the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation, the European Commission and the UK Government on the relationship between work and health. He has held senior positions in the Royal Navy, the UK Civil Service and, for almost 20 years, was Chief Medical Officer at BT.  Paul currently Chairs the “What Works Centre for Wellbeing”, which is dedicated to understanding what can be done to improve wellbeing across society, as well as holding appointments with the Health & Safety Executive, NHS England and ITV where he is independent medical adviser. Paul’s main professional interest for the past 30 years has been occupational mental health and wellbeing. Over the years he has published and lectured widely not only on mental health and wellbeing issues but also on sickness absence, hazard control and ethics in occupational health. A number of governing bodies have recognised his work – most notably the UK Government who awarded him the OBE in 2007 for his work in occupational health and in 2018 the CBE for his contribution to wellbeing.

We asked Dr Litchfield about his thoughts on employee wellbeing and what steps employers should be taking to make a difference.

What areas does a Chief Medical Officer cover?

It’s a broad remit that focusses on the health, safety, and wellbeing of the people in an organisation.  In part it’s about supporting people who become unwell but, as importantly, it’s about creating an environment in which employees can thrive. The precise content of the role varies by company and by geography but essentially it’s about people. To be effective you need to have a sound grasp of medicine, a clear understanding of workplace safety and experience of operating in a corporate environment – if you can pull those things together you can make a difference to peoples’ lives and contribute to the success of the business.

The importance of wellbeing

What is classed as “wellbeing”?

“Wellbeing” is essentially how we are doing as individuals, communities, and society.  Some people think it means the same as “health” but it’s much wider than that.  Health is an important driver of wellbeing but so are other factors like security, relationships, the environment, and having purpose in life.  All of those things are impacted by employment, so work and the workplace play a key role in determining whether peoples’ wellbeing is good or bad.  The evidence base for this arm of science has grown considerably in recent years and at the What Works for Centre for Wellbeing we try to pull together research from medicine, psychology, social science, economics, and philosophy to work out what really matters and make it meaningful for policy makers.

What measures can companies take to support with employee wellbeing?

First and foremost, treat your people with the dignity and respect they deserve as fellow human beings.  All too often we hear the mantra “our people are our greatest asset” but then see the workforce being given less care and attention than the IT systems or the vehicle fleet.  When companies really see their people as a key asset they plan for their “routine maintenance”.  In the past that has focused too greatly on financial reward and we now know that money is only one driver, and not the strongest, of peoples’ behaviour at work.  Looking at people management through a wellbeing lens alters what we do as companies and there is growing evidence that it creates more successful businesses.

Many companies want to do something about wellbeing but don’t know where to start.  Using a framework of those key drivers - health, security, relationships, environment, and purpose – allows them to produce a coherent and comprehensive plan.  Each of those drivers encompasses several elements – for example, security refers to safety, financial and contractual issues while environment means culture and systems as well as physical conditions.  Mapping what you already do onto this type of framework allows businesses to identify duplication as well as gaps and to rebalance your resources accordingly.       

Any activity a company undertakes should be supported by a business plan and wellbeing is no different.  Much of the activity can be seen as “the right thing to do” but it also needs to work commercially if it is to be sustainable - measurement is therefore key. In the past we have looked at the avoidable costs of poor wellbeing (and usually just poor health) to justify investment.  That focus on the costs of failure is fine as far as it goes but it misses the bigger prize of growing the top line.  There is now good evidence that improving the wellbeing of the workforce leads to greater productivity, improved customer satisfaction, and higher sales.

The evidence for this approach to wellbeing doesn’t just come from academic researchers but also from real life experience.  When I was at BT the financial crisis of 2008/09 hit us really hard.  The Board made the conscious decision not to cut what we did on wellbeing but to enhance it because they could see that we would need a high performing workforce even more than ever as we emerged from the crisis.  Their confidence paid off and a loyal productive workforce helped increase the share price five-fold over the next five years.  We need to keep that experience in mind as we face the current crisis. 

The impact of coronavirus

What do you think the impact of the coronavirus is going to be on business and employee wellbeing?

The pandemic has had a significant impact on peoples’ wellbeing.  Fear of the disease and the effects of lockdown produced unprecedented reductions in measures of wellbeing early in the crisis – the UK had what amounted to a national mental breakdown!  However, people adapt and we have seen some improvement over the course of the past few months.  What we face now is the threat of mass unemployment and that would be devastating for peoples’ wellbeing.

Companies will have to adapt to “the new normal”.  We have seen that many activities can be undertaken away from an office environment using modern technology.  Learning lessons from that can help businesses to reduce costs and deliver better work life balance for people but we need to be careful that we don’t overreact and think that we can abolish shared workplaces.  Many people, especially the young and less affluent, have struggled with home working because they don’t have suitable space.  There is also the more insidious effect of physical isolation – we miss out on the informal conversations and the ability to strengthen relationships.  In the medium term that damages teamwork and creativity suffers.  We experienced that at BT when we probably over dialed on home working – we found we had to establish a wide range of support structures to help people stay effective and that bringing people together on a regular basis was essential. 

I believe we need to rethink what the purpose is of workspaces.  In a knowledge economy the requirement to bring people to a place where we have high cost capital equipment is much less common than it was when factories and office blocks were first created.  What we generally need now is somewhere where people can mix to generate ideas and enthusiasm – that dictates a different spatial design to the conventional office building.  If we plan our workplaces around what works in improving employee wellbeing we can achieve the accommodation savings we need but we will also create a dynamic economy that will prosper in a highly competitive world market.

For further information about health and wellbeing go to: https://whatworkswellbeing.org

Questions companies should be asking when formulating a wellbeing policy

  • Have you got an evidence-based framework for what you’re trying to achieve?
  • Are you focusing on the organisation as well as the individual?
  • Have you covered off the key drivers of wellbeing (health, security, relationships, environment, and purpose)?
  • Are you talking and listening to your people?
  • Are you measuring both the inputs and the key outputs that matter to your people and the business?
Dr Paul Litchfield Chief Medical Officer