How to write a health, mental health and wellbeing strategy for SMEs

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Amy McKeown, an award-winning health consultant.

Over recent years there’s been an explosion in talk about health, mental health and wellbeing. But we know that ‘talking’ is not enough. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a robust ‘employee wellbeing’ strategy, meaning that many employees in charge of People have adopted new roles with little warning or training. The plus side of all this is that at an individual, organisational or societal level, we have never been more aware of our own, and others’, health and mental health. This won’t change any time soon. In fact, with health providers backed up and waiting lists at an all time high, who pays for healthcare and how we access it is going to be a major issue and conversation over the next decade, if not more.

Many organisations are now either doing, or want to do something, around health, mental health or wellbeing: how to support and engage employees. Having a good organisational programme is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It has to be a core part of any People proposition. Employees are demanding it, rates of ill health are high after the pandemic and employee wellbeing is becoming a board agenda item. The wellbeing and health provider markets are booming and employees are increasingly expecting apps, support and training in these areas from their employer.

The big challenge for many organisations is who should write their health, mental health and wellbeing strategy and what should it contain? The ‘who’ varies dependent on the organisation, but it is not unusual for an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff to be handed the task and the responsibility for employee health and wellbeing. This can be overwhelming as it can be hard to know where to start.

At the risk of sounding negative, many of the strategies being put in place won’t actually work. Whilst this might sound controversial, there is a really simple reason for this negativity, which is that most wellbeing strategies are not actually strategies. They are collections of well-intentioned activity cobbled together in a Powerpoint (usually) to demonstrate how seriously an organisation is taking health and mental health. They are tactics, not strategy. Often thrown together to get good PR or to tick a box.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘strategy’ as: ‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.’

 Yet the overall aim of most health or mental health strategies seems to be something vague such as ‘to reduce the stigma of mental health’ or ‘to get people talking about mental health more.’

If you don’t have a clear, measurable and long-term aim, then how do you know that the money and time you are investing into mental health is working – or that your well-being strategy is successful?

 What organisations then tend to do is to provide a plethora of things or activities around health and wellbeing – the list is endless! Mindfulness, fresh fruit, resilience training, Mental Health First Aid, webinars, stand up desks, Employee Assistance Programmes, screening… These are the sorts of thing needed to start to tackle health and mental health in the workplace, however, these activities alone are not a strategy. They are the pieces of the jigsaw. The strategy is the structure around them. It is this part that is usually missed – and very much needed.

To build a structure or a plan, you first need to know what you are aiming at. Ask yourself; what does success look like to your organisation? Once you know this – and only once you know this – you can look at what you already have, and what else you will need to get there. So, for instance, if the long-term aim for your mental health strategy is to reduce absence, then you start with looking at what your current absence rate is, what is causing it and how this can be reduced. Then, you decide what jigsaw pieces you need to put in place to carry this out, how they will link together and how you will measure the impact of what you are doing.

All organisations have a place to build a strategy from: All have some form of data, metrics, different types of health and wellbeing provision, and all have HR policies, processes and procedures. Thought should be put into what currently exists in terms of data? and how this will build into a coherent, structured, measurable strategy. This then needs to link to HR policies, processes or systems, the performance management system, Learning & Development or Reward, and any other health providers. These lists are called the ‘Wellbeing or Mental Health strategy.’

How to write a mental health strategy – a step by step guide

  1. SMART: Start by being honest about what you are trying to achieve in your health, mental health and wellbeing strategy. Is it SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant or time-bound)? If not, then it needs to be. Starting with a fluffy or woolly intention leads to a fluffy or woolly strategy… or a list of activities.
  1. AUDIT: Next, audit what you actually have in terms of data? within the organisation. Look at what, if any, health and wellbeing activities you are doing already, what health providers you have, how they work, who is using them and for what? Gather together as much data as you can: absence figures, retention, engagement scores, exit interviews… Assemble any of your HR policies that you think are relevant e.g. absence management, disability, maternity, induction, performance management…
  1. STRUCTURE: Once you have a handle on where you are as an organisation and what you need to achieve?, you can then piece together your strategy. There are a number of evidence-based structures you can use – the 5 pillars of wellbeing, Business in the Community Wellbeing model and so on. The point is to have some structure to begin from. You use this structure to create a plan which will enable you to achieve your SMART aim.
  1. CONTENT: Start to map what you have already in place onto the structure you have chosen. Where do the health, mental health and wellbeing activities fit? Where are the gaps? Do you have the right health providers? Are you using them correctly? Are you doing the right activities? Are you measuring the right things? You can make a great start by doing the things you are already doing in a better or more structured way.
  1. LISTEN: Speak to your people to understand what they actually want and need from your approach to health and wellbeing. Too many strategies (policies and processes) written by people who don’t have the same day to day challenges and needs as the people ‘on the shop floor’ or doing the actual work of the business. If you don’t know what people need then how are you going to support them?
  1. BUDGET: Look at what current spend on health, mental health and wellbeing is already on. Be realistic about what you can achieve with the budget and resources you have:
  1. Is there any duplication in spend?
  2. How can you your existing providers more effectively
  3. How much more do you need to spend over time to fulfill your strategy aims?
  1. TIMELINE: Write a plan of what you are going to do now, in the months to come and over the next few years.
  1. KPIS: Create a dashboard or way of measuring your strategy. This will include some of the data you have already pulled together and some KPIs. Part of your strategy could be to measure new things or use data differently.
  1. SUPPORT: Ensure you have the right sponsorship and support for your strategy. A comprehensive stakeholder map is needed alongside your dashboard and plan.

A potential model for strategies is an end-to-end approach to health and mental health. You can map all activities and measurement around these, putting different interventions into ‘buckets’ which can be clearly communicated to employees, Line Managers and HR.

  • Education/literacy/prevention – how do you get people engaged and keep them healthy?
  • Early stage – what support, policies and training need to be in place to help people who are in the early stage of an illness or problem
  • Ill – how we look after people who are ill, ensuring they have the clinical and organizational support they need to manage their illness

It is also important to bring in the right help and expertise to support you. Writing a strategy can be overwhelming at the best of times, however there are so many health and wellbeing providers out there, each promising the earth, that it can be hard to know where to begin. It does not need to be complicated, the best strategies are simple, structured, thought through and have a focus on what is going to have an impact on the health, mental health or wellbeing of employees. The aim is to provide support where needed and to encourage positive small steps of healthy behaviour change.

Amy is an award-winning Mental Health, Health & Wellbeing and Women’s Health consultant with more than 20 years of unparalleled experience. She coaches organisations of all sizes, putting into place evidence based, measurable and sustainable strategies which are as innovative as they are effective. She has created and implemented strategies in organisations of all sizes from international parliaments, big four accountancy firms and global strategies for FTSE 100s, to SMEs and start-ups. She was also a Non-Executive Director of Mental Health First Aid England.








SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024