From Conception to the UK’s largest event dedicated to improving the health, wellbeing, safety, behaviour and culture of today’s workforce.
OH Today is delighted to be interviewing Health and Wellbeing at Work’s Event Director, Lauren Sterling. Lauren has been championing health and wellbeing since the event’s inception in 2007 and has developed the event to become the UK’s leading platform for sharing best practice and innovation for improving the health, wellbeing and culture of today’s workforce.
iOH: Where did the idea for the event first come from?
LS: We’ve been organising healthcare events for over 30 years now and back in 2007 we were starting to sense a real move towards organisations becoming more responsible for employee health and wellbeing together with a greater realisation of the impact this could have on performance and productivity. We launched the event just before the Government announced the creation of their own dedicated work stream and so were able to really pioneer a forum that celebrated best practice and dealt with key issues that would enable the health and wellbeing movement to take flight. It was so gratifying to see over 2000 occupational health, HR, healthcare and health and safety professionals attend our initial event. For some, it was the first time they had been to any live event addressing their area of work and this is really what propelled us forward
iOH: How has the event’s focus developed over the years?
LS: Firstly, content is absolutely key to us and we have sought to develop a programme that is founded on good research, evidence and best practice. The fundamentals have always been the same, dealing with issues such as mental health, disability, musculoskeletal disorders, but as our working environments have evolved, so have our priorities. Sleep, women’s health, neurodiversity, suicide, psychological safety, resilience and an ageing workforce have all climbed up the agenda. We have seen a seismic shift towards areas that were not initially aligned with occupational health but are rapidly being recognised as intrinsically linked, including culture, diversity, climate change, sustainability, employee engagement and experience. Gone are the days of OH working independently. The new world of work demands that we work hand in hand with HR and other professionals and we have ensured that the event really reflects this.
iOH: Which speakers have you found the most inspiring?
LS: That’s a difficult one because we have worked with over 2500 presenters since the event’s inception, but I’m a big advocate of storytelling so anyone who has had the courage to share their personal experiences with our delegates really stand out. Whilst I appreciate that evidence, theory and practice all have their role to play in educating our audience, there is nothing better than learning from the lived experience. Ian Puleston-Davies who played builder Owen Armstrong in five years of Coronation Street highlighted the challenges on and off screen of working with OCD. Olympic hockey gold medalist Helen Richardson-Walsh MBE had delegates queuing out the door when she spoke about her own mental health and how employers can create working environments that allow people with mental health conditions to thrive. And the first female RAF paramedic to serve on the front line in Afghanistan, Michelle Partington was totally inspiring discussing her journey from PTSD to representing Team GB in the Invictus Games. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is the need to put the human element back into the workplace. I think that those who have shared their personal stories over the years have reminded us of the importance of compassion, humility and resilience.
iOH: What workplace issues are you personally most passionate about?
LS: There are a few. I’m a great believer in positivity and resilience and I have certainly needed these in my years of organising events. But there are definitely some relatively new kids on the block. Diversity and inclusion is intrinsically linked with health and wellbeing and whilst EDI has been on corporate agendas for a while now, its impact on emotional wellbeing and also recruitment and retention has not. People that I have interviewed such as Network Rail’s Loraine Martins OBE (now at Nichols) who have totally transformed workplace cultures to become more open, inclusive and diverse are so completely inspiring and innovative. Women’s health has risen steadily up the agenda and whilst much of this has been around menopause, it is gratifying to see more employers taking other issues such as endometriosis and IVF more seriously. Our Women’s Health programme at this year’s event was by far the most popular. And finally, whilst I wouldn’t advocate this appears on everyone’s agenda, close to my heart is dogs and wellbeing. Some may say I’ve become slightly insane, especially if you’ve been on a zoom with me to the sound of barking dogs in the background as the amazon delivery arrives, but there is certainly something to be said for championing the impact that dogs can have in the workplace and their calming and therapeutic effects…well most of the time! In fact, I confess that it was after listening to Nestle’s head of wellbeing speak at our conference about dogs in the workplace that I decided this was exactly what our office needed amid the stressful world of organising events.
iOH: What has challenged you the most over the years?
LS: Although I’m sure there have been many challenges we’ve had to contend with (it’s the events industry after all!), like everyone else, it had to be the pandemic. I’m a bit of a technophobe, so the prospect of creating an online as opposed to live event was extremely daunting. Our approach was to start with a totally blank canvas and design an event that was as interactive as possible, given all the constraints. Designing and delivering a week-long conference with 80 sessions, five daily parallel programmes, 25 exhibitors and sponsors, 160 speakers, 2000+ delegates, yoga classes and an interactive workplace choir sent stress levels into overdrive! As many who have attended our events will know, we are perfectionists, so we were adamant about ironing out everything that could possibly go wrong before we went live. The only problem was we had absolutely no idea of what it was that could go wrong in this new virtual world. Just too many unknown territories. Over the many months of planning, every Monday became a ‘Manic Monday’, every piece of new technology was faced with intrepidation, and every dilemma required creativity, new skills and a lot of thinking outside of the box. Judging from the fantastic feedback we received following the event, our efforts certainly paid off. My weekly mantra of ‘never let me do this again’ rapidly transformed into a belief that our virtual Health and Wellbeing at Work event was probably one of the most rewarding things I have done in my long career. That digging deep into the pockets of resilience, developing new skills and embracing technology have become integral in transforming how we work moving forward.
iOH: On that note, where is the event heading to in the future and what’s new this year?
LS: There is certainly a need for change. What visitors wanted from a live event pre-Covid seems very different from what they expect now. Whether we have become used to immersing ourselves in a world behind closed doors where virtual has become the norm or our roles have become so pressurised that we are having to justify every spare minute we spend, times are changing. So we’ve taken time over the summer to really listen to what delegates want and to reflect over the past 16 years of running the event. Alongside our usual CPD conference programmes, we are adding in a dedicated Men’s Health stream, working with the Men and Boys Coalition and International Men’s Day UK. We will be addressing some really hard-hitting issues, including male suicide prevention, fatherhood, supporting male victims of domestic abuse, working with cancer and most importantly, getting men to actually open up and discuss their health and wellbeing. We are also really excited about some new feature areas that will add greater value and enable a more hands-on experience. Our new Spotlight on Health Conditions workshop will offer a clinical perspective on several health conditions that employees contend with whilst remaining in work and how these can be best supported by employers and OH professionals. Round table sessions will enable delegates to work in small groups with leading experts to address the myriad of issues faced, including mental health, fit notes, report writing and ensuring OH moves up the corporate agenda. There will also be the opportunity to improve skills such as spirometry, managing sleep, mindfulness and health screening. We have really valued the role that occupational health nurses and other OH professionals have played in shaping the conference, and we are delighted once again to be working with iOH to deliver this year’s event.
Health and Wellbeing at Work takes place at Birmingham’s NEC 14-15 March 2023. Registration opens on the 1st November. The Organisers are delighted to offer OH Today readers up to 15% off the delegate rate by using the discount code IOH1. Visit www.healthwellbeingwork.co.uk for further details.