How can you develop an effective wellbeing strategy and put it into action? Andrew Spells, Head of Wellbeing at the British Council discusses the methods he has taken to ensure wellbeing at work.

I’ve disappointed a lot of people in the past 18 months. “Could you fund yoga classes?” “Singing is great for well-being – do you have some money for a choirmaster?” “Would the organisation pay for on-site massage?” All great ideas, and all no doubt beneficial in their way for some, but only a small part of what well-being means to me. One of the main drivers for me to produce a well-being strategy for the British Council was to explain what we mean by well-being and what our priorities are.

Developing the strategy

Well-being is a slippery concept and has many different dimensions in a complex organisation, so I started with a few facts and observations:

  • We are an international organisation, employing about 10,500 staff in 114 countries around the world
  • We work in some difficult places in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where stability, safety and security cannot be taken for granted
  • We face multiple pressures, and need to change and adapt rapidly
  • Our highly consultative culture can slow us down and lead to uncertainty and ambiguity
  •  Despite the fact that we think of ourselves as a people organisation, we are not as skilled across the organisation as we might be in people management
  • Staff surveys in recent years have shown an increasing perception that workloads are growing and felt to be unmanageable in some places
  •  Sickness absence data suggests that issues related to mental health and stress account for the highest proportion of days off work
  • Resources for well-being are limited


To try to get to grips with the various aspects of well-being in the British Council I then mapped out (literally, using a mind-mapping tool) all the issues and implications that I could think of, eventually grouping them under some broad headings which then formed the backbone of our strategy:

  • Improving the support that we give to staff working in ‘fragile states’
  • Providing effective responses for staff affected by crises
  • Improving policies and systems for the management of ill-health and related absence
  • Promoting good physical and mental health
  • Improving line manager and HR support and understanding.


Once I had finished it all seemed quite obvious – perhaps a good sign? – and the mind map has been a very useful one page visual aid in discussions with stakeholders to gain understanding and agreement. From there it was relatively easy, through discussions with stakeholders, to produce the strategy, which turned out to be a short PowerPoint presentation.
Moving from strategy into action

The main areas of work flowing from our strategy have been planned for implementation across two years; we’re at the halfway point now. The priorities for the first year have been to develop and launch a well-being campaign across the organisation, and to review the support we provide to staff working for us in fragile states.

The well-being campaign is intended to raise awareness of the issues that have an impact on well-being, to highlight existing resources and policies, and to discuss the responsibilities of staff, managers and the organisation with regard to well-being. The campaign, which we’ve called ‘Keep well’, has five themes: physical health, mental health, work-life balance, the physical work environment, and relationships. We’re launching a new theme every other month with a wide range of resources in the hope that there will be something that makes a connection with everyone, wherever they are. Feedback so far suggests that it has been well received, and it is encouraging to hear reports of activities in many of our offices around the world.

One of the key features of our organisation is that we work in a number of countries where daily life can be very difficult, whether as a result of conflict and violence, breakdown of basic services, or economic crises. To date we have focused primarily on putting in place support for UK and other expatriates who we post to leadership roles in these locations, but we believe that there is more that we can do, especially in terms of preparation and then on-going psychological health support. In addition we are looking at what we could do to help national staff cope better with the challenges that they face on a daily basis, for example we are piloting resilience training in some locations.

Future challenges

Drawing up our well-being strategy has been an essential first step, which has helped to clarify, explain and where necessary justify the work. However, having one doesn’t guarantee successful implementation. No one in our organisation doubts the importance of the issues, but with the volume and velocity of change we are managing it is still difficult to catch, let alone hold, people’s attention, and even more difficult to get them to commit limited resources. We’re making progress, step by step, and can already point to some significant achievements. But there is still much that we need to do – and that’s unlikely to include funding for yoga, choirs, or massage anytime soon.

If you’re interested in improving worker health and wellbeing, don’t miss the opportunity to hear Andrew Spells speak at HRreview’s Health at Work Summit on the 4th May at the Holiday Inn Kensington Hotel.